The Criminal Tribes of Burma

Back in May last year I wrote a blog that speculated on why it was that Criminal Tribes legislation was introduced into colonial Burma so late. The Act was originally enacted in 1871 and was being used in most parts of British India by 1911. But it was not brought to Burma until 1924.

The law was draconian. It gave the state sweeping powers to monitor, arrest and resettle whole communities that were believed to be ‘addicted’ to criminality. Simply by belonging to one of these so-called ‘tribes’ meant you could be put under surveillance, have restrictions placed on your movement, and be forcibly taken to be ‘reformed’. Among the ideas that informed the Act were social Darwinist beliefs that criminal behaviour was hereditary. As a result, it was thought that criminals could be identified by their language, dress, beliefs and/or physical features.

In a file in the National Archives of Myanmar that I looked at this week, I found that it was partly because of these ideas that officials in Burma did not think that Act was suitable. As the Lieutenant-Governor of Burma explained in 1910:

Criminal tribes in India are clearly distinguishable castes and there is nothing of the kind in Burma.

This view conformed to wider beliefs held by colonial officials in Burma that the country stood in stark contrast to India in its social organisation. In the comparisons that they regularly made, Burma was portrayed as having a mostly undifferentiated, egalitarian society, whereas Indian society was viewed as compartmentalized and hierarchical.

However, beneath this, there were similarities between how imperial officials viewed ‘criminal tribes’ and how they viewed crime in Burma; the colony being regularly touted as the most criminal province in the Indian Empire. Colonial writings often explained the illegal behaviour of ‘tribes’, not in terms of biological determinism, but as being the result of a breakdown of their social, political and economic relations. This was also how the high rate of crime in Burma was explained by government officials. The dissolution of the Burmese monarchy was thought to have weakened social mores and led to a rise in gambling, drug-taking and, most worryingly of all, dacoity: a term that was used to cover gang robberies, banditry and groups rebelling against the state.

Just a few years after the Lieutenant-Governor’s dismissal of the applicability of the Criminal Tribes Act for use in Burma, the Act was reconsidered resulting in a more favourable interpretation. The Inspector-General of the Police and a government advocate both pointed out in 1916 that the Act also covered ‘gangs’. Using other parts of the Indian Penal Code, they felt that the term gang was sufficiently open to be used to apply to the dacoit bands they feared in Burma. Using this legislation, it was noted, would enable the police to be able to arrest the leaders of these ‘gangs’ even when they had not committed any crimes. It was not long after this legal clarification that the Act began to be used. According to Lalita Hingkanonta, in her dissertation on the history of police in colonial Burma, sections of the Act were used against people in the colony from 1918 onwards, preempting the extension of the law in full.

When I have taught the history of criminality in South Asia to students, most of the essays that I have received on the Criminal Tribes Act have usually focused on the biologically racist aspects of its ideological roots and its implementation. This is understandable. These aspects of the law are important to understand and critique. But this focus can overshadow the fact that many British imperial writings on ‘criminal tribes’ did not use overtly biological explanations to account for their supposed ‘addiction’ to crime. Instead, the racism of this law was manifested in cultural and social explanations for ‘habitual’ criminality. In this we can begin to see something of the structural racism of repressive laws, then and now. Although sometimes they are potentially applicable to anyone under their jurisdiction, their force tends to be felt most by maginalised groups in society. The recent convictions of three Rohingya community leaders for ‘dacoity’ is a case in point.

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