Myanmar has been recently in the news: Rohingyas are fleeing genocide in the Rakhine region. The flight of a minority from Burma, as Myanmar was once known, is not without precedent. In the 1930-1962 period many thousands of Indian-origin Burmese had to flee to India. The annexation of Burma in 1885 by Anglo-Indian forces was yet another case of colonial greed. The demographics of Burma and her martial strain of Buddhism sustained strong resentment against the British rule, and the massive Indian immigration which followed the invasion. Indians had trickled into the Burmese lands for centuries, but this time it was a flood.
Insular compared to other south-east Asians, the Burmese were also largely unfamiliar with finance and international trade. They also distrusted British educational and cultural institutions. A large number of Indians therefore flooded into Burma seeking opportunity in that resource-rich but underdeveloped land. Gujaratis, Sindhis, Marwaris, and Chettiars from Tamil Nadu, ventured in with trade, banking and moneylending. Burma’s population density was low and this led to settlement of more Indians in large tracts of cleared forest lands. Industries, bureaucracy and garrisons were dominated by Indians. By 1930 ethnic Indians formed over 10% of Burma’s population, and about a third of this populace was born in Burma. Indian financiers borrowed from British banks at high interest and in-turn lent money to Burmese farmers, essentially linking Burma to a world globalized by imperialism. Despite the risks in lending to hostile and backward agriculturalists against land collateral, Indian financing grew spectacularly. This was due to the global demand for rice and the lower interest rates offered by Indians. Soon Burma became a leading producer and exporter of rice. Indian financing of other trades also helped ushering in modernity. However, debt foreclosures were common and Indian financiers ended up with much agricultural land – despite not wanting to do so in a hostile land.
Burmese anger grew due to such creeping foreign dominance, and loss of farms and forests to foreigners. Emerging nationalistic feelings tied to land and kin were strengthened by these developments – and also due to the combative and superstitious version of Burmese religion. Public anger was detonated by the global economic collapse of the late 20s. The price of rice collapsed: incomes shrank and foreclosures increased sharply. Two parallel streams of Burmese ultranationalism now erupted – both hostile to Indians. The first stream was a religious-chauvinistic rebellion led by a mystic named Saya San. He declared himself king in 1930 and the destructive war was subdued by the British only two years later. Thousands of Indians fled Burma in this period. The second stream was a students’ movement named “Thakin”, based on a mix of ultranationalist, socialist and communist principles. Memories of annexation and the perceived inhuman capitalism put Indians in the cross-hairs. The British used Indians as lightning rods of public anger, as they were not directly involved in financing. Communal riots flared up regularly and a new generation of leaders such as Ba Maw, U Nu and Aung San rose to prominence on a wave of anti-British and anti-Indian feeling. Though aware of Indians’ freedom struggle, they perceived Indian financiers and traders as “fiery dragons burning Burma into ash”.
The net emigration continued slowly till the Japanese invasion of 1942. The British were routed and Burmese leaders welcomed the Japanese juggernaut, which offered freedom in exchange for “cooperation”. Now the Indian exodus intensified. Aung San soon turned against Japan when it’s racist imperialistic nature was revealed. The remaining Indians got some reprieve due to the Indian National Army, allies of Imperial Japan. However, in 1944-1945 the Japanese and the INA fled from the British and Aung San’s forces. Burma soon became independent but the constitution denied citizenship to ethnic Indians; this discouraged the return of the exiles. The professed modern and liberal credentials of the new leadership did not extend to returning exiles or to Indians left in Burma. These events brought further ruin on the ethnic Indians. These remnant, primarily Chettiars, were rendered penniless and expelled by the military dictatorship following the 1962 coup. Those who attempted to return later met with failure: many descendants of these unfortunate people still reside in regions bordering Burma.
PS: This is the original version of my article in Daily News & Analysis (DNA), published on September 17, 2017. Here is the link to the published article.