Many things have changed in Yangon since I first visited as a wide-eyed PhD student back in 2008, but the city’s street dogs remain a ubiquitous presence. Although, they have had their own share of difficulties since then. In 2013 the city’s authorities were accused of poisoning them in order to beautify the streets in advance of the South East Asian Games. However, they also have their defenders. Since 2012 Yangon Animal Sanctuary has been providing them with some refuge.
The treatment of stray dogs was also a divisive topic in colonial Burma. The British saw them as both a pest and a danger, in part because of a fear of rabies. They referred to them as ‘pariah dogs’ and looked down on them as miserable creatures without breeding, tapping into wider imperial ideas about racial difference — as Aaron Skabelund shows in his brilliant essay ‘Can the Subaltern Bark?’ At the same time, the British derided Burmese Buddhist sympathy for these animals and complained about the general unwillingness to destroy them.
During my current visit to the National Archives I found a file that detailed an unusual proposal to resolve the problem. The Inspector-General of Prisons in 1867 suggested that they employ convicts as dog-killers. This, he believed, offered an economical solution. The Chief Commissioner was unconvinced. He decided, sensibly enough, that it was preferable that prisoners be employed within the prison walls. Fortunately, it seems Yangon’s dogs avoided this particular scheme to eliminate them, but they would have to face many more.