Amok in Malaya, Murder in Burma

One of the great things about teaching is they way it can raise new research questions. This recently happened on my undergraduate unit in which I teach the history of crime in colonial South and Southeast Asia.

We were discussing British representations of amok. This was where in an apparent fit of madness, often said to be brought on by a domestic crisis, a Malay man would go on a murderous rampage killing anyone in his path. British colonial doctors in the late nineteenth century categorized amok as a form mental disorder specific to the Malay population. Outside of medical journals these attacks were sensationalized in imperial travel writings and novels, popularizing the phrase ‘running amuck’. The diagnosis is still in use. Amok is recognized as a ‘culture bound syndrome’ in recent psychiatric texts (such as the DSM-IV, the internationally used diagnostic manual).

In our discussion we asked if in categorizing amok as distinctively Malay, British imperial writers were attempting to emphasize the difference between themselves and their colonized subjects in order to justify their rule. The students found this relatively convincing, but the question that then emerged out of this discussion was: if amok was a colonial construct, why was it not found in other British colonies?

In an article I wrote on psychiatry in colonial Burma, I noted how British officials differentiated Indian forms of mental disorder from Burmese maladies. Indians were said to suffer from ‘melancholia’ as a result of ganja addiction. Burmese men were said to suffer from ‘homicidal mania’ as a result of their frustrated masculinity. I was struck by how similar this portrayal of Burmese mania was to imperial depictions of amok, and I speculated that this might have been part of a broader tendency for British writers to contrast Southeast Asia with India. I have since found some evidence for this speculative claim in imperial medical writings that explicitly noted the similarity of Burmese mental disorders to amok. But this only makes the question more difficult to answer: why was it amok in Malaya, but murder in Burma?

Photograph of Burmese convicts from Alice Hart, Picturesque Burma, Past and Present [1897]
Photograph of Burmese convicts from Alice Hart, Picturesque Burma, Past and Present (1897)
There are a few possible answers. One might be that British indirect rule in Malaya allowed space for local terminologies and cultural understandings to find some presence in imperial medical language. In contrast, central Burma was incorporated into the administrative structure of British India and, perhaps as a result, the potential for a hybrid lexicon of mental illness was foreclosed. However, I’m not entirely convinced by this. It got me thinking about the Criminal Tribes Acts, developed initially for Northern India, but extended to Burma in 1924. Were there any so-called Criminal Tribes identified in Burma? I’m not sure. Either way, the Criminal Tribes legislation was not applied in Burma to the extent that it was in India. But why not? This suggests that differences in colonial administrative structures only offer a partial explanation for the differences in imperial understandings of criminality.

I don’t have answers to these questions, but teaching the history of colonial Burma as part of a broader topic has challenged me to think about the complex and inconsistent ways that crime constituted cultures in colonial contexts.

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