The Empire and the century/Burma

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By Sir F. W. R. Fryer, K.C.S.I.

Burma is the easternmost province of British India. It is also the most recently acquired province of that empire. It is bounded on the east and north-east by China. The eastern boundary touches, besides China, the French province of Indo-China, the Siamese Shan States, and Siam proper, and finally runs down to the Bay of Bengal On the north-west it is bounded by Bengal, Assam, and the feudatory State of Manipur, and on the west and south by the sea.

The total area of the province has been estimated at 288,788 square miles. The extreme length of the province is 1,200 miles, and its extreme width is 575 miles.

Burma is watered by five great rivers: the Irawadi, the Chindwin, the Panlang or Sittang, the Salween, and the Myitnge. There are also numerous minor rivers or streams.

There are walls of mountains on three sides of the province: the Arakan Hills, the Chin Hills, the Kachiu, Shan, and Karen Hills. The lower province, which consists of rich alluvial plains, is far more fertile than the upper province, and has a much more plentiful rainfall. The extension of canal irrigation will much increase the fertility of the upper province.

The races who inhabit Burma consist of Mongoloid tribes, and are by no means homogeneous. Besides Burmans proper, there are Takings, Karens, Chins, Shans, Kachins, Taungthus, Was, Palaungs, and others. They speak different languages, and differ more or less widely in their habits and customs. Out of a total population of 10,489,024, according to the last census, Burmese is spoken by 7,006,495 persons, and other languages by the remainder.

The predominant religion is Buddhism, but even amongst Buddhists animism still survives.

The advance of British power in Burma has been very gradual, and the conquest of Burma was never in any sense premeditated. From the time when the first mission from India visited Burma in 1695, up to the final dethronement of the last King of Burma, the Burmese monarchs always treated any approaches from India with arrogance and contempt, and never could understand that they were dealing with a superior Power. The first Burmese War of 1824 was due to the encroachment of the then King upon our borders, and to his invasion of Kachar. The second Burmese War of 1852 was due to a succession of outrages committed on British subjects by the Governor of Rangoon, and to the non-observance of the Treaty of Yandabo, which terminated the first war. The third Burmese War of 1885 was due to the oppressive action of the King towards a British company and to his advances towards a foreign Power. The expansion of the boundaries of a European Power ruling over an Eastern country appears to be inevitable, as its Eastern neighbours are sooner or later unable to appreciate the fact that it is for their own interest to maintain peace and to abstain from provoking their European neighbours. So long as Runjit Singh ruled the Punjab and made it one of his chief objects to maintain peace with England, so long were we able to avoid a war with the Sikhs. As long as King Mindon, a peaceful and wise Sovereign, ruled in Burma, so long were we at peace with Burma. And so with Afghanistan: we have had peace when the ruler of that country was wise enough to see that it was to his best interests to preserve the peace with us. As soon as the pacific ruler passes away and is succeeded by a ruler who is not so fully alive to his own best interests, acts of aggression or bad faith are committed against us, and war is forced upon us.

The history of England in India, of Russia in Turkestan, and of France in Indo-China, all point to the truth of this proposition.

After the annexation of Burma was finally completed, we had, of course, to subdue the unruly tribes on our frontier: Chins, Kachins, and suchlike tribes, had to be taught that they could no longer be suffered to raid and plunder. This task is now nearly completed. Only the Was and a few Kachins remain to be dealt with.

The Was occupy a country which, according to the views of the British Commissioner with the Burma-China Boundary Commission, should belong to Great Britain, whilst the Chinese Commissioner proposed a boundary which would intersect the Wa country. The Was themselves, in fear of absorption by China, were anxious to be declared British subjects. If the Mandalay-Kunlon railway is to be continued into China, it will be necessary to administer the Wa country through which the line will pass, and also a small tract inhabited by a turbulent people called the Somus, who live just across the Salween river and command the proposed line.

Similarly, if we connect Burma with the Assam line of railway through the Hukong Valley, we shall have to assume the government of the Kachins of the Hukong Valley. The Hukong Valley is situated within the line of our administrative boundary, and the Kachins, who inhabit the valley, have several times sent deputations to ask us to take over the government of their country, and so put an end to their dissensions.

In Burma we have demarcated all but a small section of our frontier with China, our frontiers with France and with Siam are fixed, and there appears to be no immediate danger of any disturbance of the peace. It must, however, be recognised that the relations of Burma with her foreign neighbours, and more particularly with China, require most careful watching. There has of late been an agitation in Burma for separation from India, but it seems in any case most inadvisable that the charge of the frontier policy of Burma should be removed from the Indian Foreign Office. Imperial policy makes it, I think, imperative that Burma should remain a province of India for political if for no other reasons.

The administration of Burma is now conducted by a Lieutenant-Governor under the orders of the Government of India. A Legislative Council for the purpose of making laws and regulations was constituted in 1897, when the province was raised to a Lieutenant-Governorship. The province had previously been administered by a Chief Commissioner, and all laws and regulations had to be made by the Indian Legislative Council. The number of members of the Burma Legislative Council is nine: five are Government servants, and four are selected from the non-official community.

The primary administrative division of Burma is into Upper Burma, including the Shan States and the Chin Hills, and Lower Burma.

The Shan States are administered by their own chiefs, subject to the supervision of the Superintendents of the Northern and Southern Shan States. The Chin Hills are administered by a Superintendent. In both the Shan States and the Chin Hills there are special laws suited to the circumstances of the people.

The rest of Burma is divided into eight divisions, each under a Commissioner, four in Lower Burma and four in Upper Burma. Under the Commissioners are thirty-seven Deputy Commissioners, each in charge of a district. Subordinate to the Deputy Commissioner are Assistant Commissioners and Extra Assistant Commissioners. In each district there are two or more subdivisions, which are ordinarily in charge of an Assistant or Extra Assistant Commissioner, and the subdivisions are again divided into townships, or Myos, each in charge of a township officer, or Myook. Finally, each village is in charge of a headman. This headman collects the revenue and receives a commission on his collections. He generally has some small civil and criminal powers, and is responsible for the peace and good government of his village.

Excellent village laws have been passed in Burma which enforce the joint responsibility of the villagers for the suppression of crime and for their own good conduct. It was to these laws that the speedy pacification of the upper province may in a great measure be attributed.

The Japanese sent a delegate to study the system of administration in Burma with a view to applying it to Formosa, and the Americans also sent a representative to acquaint himself with the system in force, in order to ascertain whether it would be suitable for the Philippine Islands.

Up to the present year the divisional and district officers in Burma have carried on the whole work of the administration, both revenue and judicial; but now the amount of work has increased so greatly that in the more populous parts of the province it has been found necessary to divide revenue from judicial work, and separate officers have been appointed to deal exclusively with judicial work.

The resources of Burma are very great. The food-supply of the province is always in excess of the requirements of the people. There never has been any general scarcity of food in Burma, and whenever there has been a famine in any other province of India, the food-supplies of Burma have been available to supply the deficiencies of India. Burma may, therefore, be styled the granary of India.

The principal food product of Burma is rice. In Lower Burma six-sevenths of the total area under cultivation is devoted to rice. In Upper Burma the rainfall is much smaller than in the lower province, so less rice is grown, and the rice produced in the upper province generally requires irrigation.

Cotton grows freely, but is of too short staple for European markets. It, however, finds a ready sale in China. I am persuaded that cotton of longer staple could be easily introduced, especially on the canal-irrigated lands of the upper province.

The forests of Burma are very valuable, and it is from Burma that most of the teak timber of the world comes. In 1902-1908, 229,570 tons of teak were exported from Burma.

Rubber, too, grows readily in Burma, and rubber plantations are being rapidly extended.

All sorts of minerals are found in Burma. The petroleum industry is already a very large and flourishing one. The Burma ruby-mines, too, are well known.

Coal is known to exist, and will be worked when communications are improved. At present the cost of transport from the coal-fields is found to be a great drawback to their successful working.

There are many other minerals, such as gold, silver, lead, jade, amber, and tin, in Burma, and as the communications of the province are improved, and the population increases, its mineral resources are sure to be developed.

At present labour is very scarce in Burma, and there have been many schemes for inducing the surplus population of India to migrate to Burma. I doubt whether there will be any very extensive movement of population from India to Burma until there is direct railway communication between the two countries. Hindus have a prejudice against settling permanently on the other side of the sea. This does not prevent large numbers of Indians from crossing the sea to work in the rice-fields and rice-mills of Burma, and no difficulty is experienced in enlisting men of the warlike Indian races and Gurkhas for service in the Burma regiments and in the military police. A small proportion of these men marry Burmese wives and settle in the country, but the majority return to India with their savings. Gurkhas especially find the country congenial to them. Many Chinamen, too, have made their homes in Burma, and the Chinese have formed a very flourishing colony in that country. The Chinese, however, are principally engaged in commerce and in market-gardening.

Sixty-seven per cent of the total population of the province are dependent upon pasture and agriculture, and cultivable land is so plentiful, and the rules under which waste land can be taken up for cultivation are so easy, that the floating population, willing to work as daily labourers, is very limited. Consequently, when labour is required in large numbers, it has mostly to be imported, and imported labour is expensive. It is also difficult to keep imported labourers, whose tendency is to acquire land of their own and to abandon daily labour for the more independent and, to their ideas, sufficiently remunerative employment of agriculture.

Now that communications with China are being opened out, trade with China promises to develop considerably, and it is probable that more and more Chinamen will find their way to Burma. Chinamen are akin to the Burmans, and readily assimilate with them.

Burmans do not make good soldiers; they are too much averse to discipline. Karens and Kachins have been tried in the military police. The Karens have not done so well as was expected, but the Kachins promise to be excellent soldiers, and a company of Kachins in the Military Police did excellent service when forming part of the escort of the Burma-China Boundary Commission. They distinguished themselves in an encounter with the Was, who made an attack upon the Commission. Many Shans, who formerly were inhabitants of Burma, and occupied lands in the Katha and Bhamo districts, were driven out by the depredations of the Kachins; and now that the Kachins have been reduced to order, they show a tendency to return to their former habitations.

In Burma revenue is levied from all cultivated land. A rate is fixed according to the description of land, and this rate remains unaltered for a term of years. The cultivated land is measured up every year, and so all extensions of cultivation come under assessment annually. To protect those who bring waste land under cultivation, they are given leases of the land which carry exemption from land revenue for terms of years based upon the nature of the land to be cleared and the amount of labour required to clear it. This is the system in Lower Burma. In Upper Burma we found a system in force, at annexation, by which each household was required to pay one-tenth of its annual estimated income to the State. The whole village was held jointly responsible for this payment. There were two descriptions of land. Private land was not assessed, except, or course, in so far as the income from land was included in the household income. State land was made to pay as much as could conveniently be squeezed out of the State land tenants.

Since annexation it has been decided to assimilate the revenue system throughout the province as much as possible, and private lands are now assessable at three-fourths of the rates levied on State lands. The old assessment on households, which was called Thathameda, from a Sanskrit word signifying one-tenth, is being gradually reduced so far as concerns agricultural income, and only persons who derive their income from sources other than land will continue to be assessed at full rates. The total land revenue of Burma in 1908-1904 was 2,18,15,715 rupees. In Lower Burma a capitation tax is levied at the rate of 5 rupees per married man and 2·8 rupees per bachelor. This tax came down to us from Burmese times. It brought in 49,18,658 rupees in 1908-1904. The capitation tax has not much to recommend it, I think, except its antiquity and the fact that it brings in a large revenue.

Then there is fishery revenue. The fisheries of Lower Burma are very large and productive, and Ngapi, a preparation of fish prepared with salt, and of exceeding malodour, is used by all the Burmans as a daily article of diet The fishery revenue of Burma amounted in 1908-1904 to 29,07,886 rupees.

A revenue is also derived from water-rate, which is levied on lands irrigated from Government canals. This will naturally increase as more canals are opened. The Government has completed the Mandalay Canal since annexation; the Shwebo Canal is nearly finished, and three more canals have been begun. The Mandalay Canal is 40 miles long, and has fourteen distributaries. The Shwebo Canal is 27½ miles long, and has two branches, 29 and 20 miles long respectively. This will show that these canals are works of importance.

Besides this there is the Customs revenue. This brought in 1,52,66,121 rupees in 1908-1904. Then there is the very much debated opium revenue, which brought in 45,50,182 rupees in the year 1908-1904, for which my figures are taken.

The salt revenue, Excise revenue, stamps, and assessed taxes, go to swell the total revenue, and forest revenue is a very important item. In the year I have taken forests brought in a net income of 50,19,098 rupees.

There are various local and municipal revenues levied in Burma, but, as these are not Imperial, I need not mention them.

The gross Imperial and provincial revenue of Burma for 1902-1908, the last year for which I have correct figures, was 808 lakhs. Out of this sum the amount allotted to the province for provincial expenditure was 886 lakhs, or 41·6 per cent. Thus, Burma contributed to the Imperial exchequer 472 lakhs of rupees.

Out of this contribution from Burma to the Imperial exchequer there has to be deducted the cost of the troops in the province; Burma's share of the cost of the Central Government; the provincial share of the home expenditure, including charges for stores, pensions, and furlough allowances; Burma's share on the interest on the public debts, of railway charges, of interest on railway debt, of interest on the capital expenditure on canals; of Indian marine expenditure; and of India's contribution to the navy. I have taken these figures from a recent speech by Sir Hugh Barnes, the late Lieutenant-Governor. He added that it was calculated that, deducting these payments and the cost of the wars waged for Burma, Burma had never yet fully paid its way, and that the present year was the first in which an equilibrium would be arrived at. Henceforth, no doubt, Burma will more than pay her way, and it seems to me that Burma has not done badly, in view of the fact that she has paid all her own charges to the Imperial exchequer, including the cost of three expensive wars, and that in future she will provide a surplus to the Imperial treasury.

It must not, however, be forgotten that Burma is still in great need of development. She needs more railways, better communications, and a more liberal expenditure on public work in general. Capital expended on the development of the province will, judging by past experience, return a liberal profit. The revenue of Burma is constantly increasing. Last year there was an increase of 78,42,610 rupees in the total revenues of the province, and, owing to the system of assessment, the land revenue increases automatically with the increase of cultivation.

Financially, then, Burma is a source of strength to the British Empire. The conquest of Burma was, as I have said, not undertaken voluntarily, but of necessity. Lower Burma was conquered because we could not brook the presence of an aggressive and hostile Power on the borders of India, and Upper Burma was conquered primarily because we could not allow that province to be acquired by a foreign Power.

Great Britain has a large trade with Burma. The value of foreign imports by sea was 847 lakhs of rupees in 1908-1904. Foreign countries trade with Burma on equal terms with ourselves; 58·67 per cent. of the imports, however, came from the United Kingdom. This large trade would be seriously diminished if Burma were to cease to be a province of the Empire. The ports of Burma, if held by an enemy, would be a constant menace to India, the Straits Settlements, and Ceylon; and, indeed, it is difficult to contemplate the loss of strength which the Empire would incur if Burma passed from its rule. It would mean eventually the loss of India, and the loss of India would mean the ruin of the British Empire.

The only direction in which Burma can be a source of weakness to the Empire is in the fact that it requires a garrison for its defence.

The total strength of troops in Burma is 10,629 men, of whom 8,852 are Europeans and the rest natives. During the South African War a British regiment and 800 British Mounted Infantry were spared from the garrison, and in times of stress even more troops might be spared. There are 2,750 British or European volunteers in Burma who could be made available in case of necessity; and it cannot be doubted that, if we ceased to hold Burma, we should require a very much stronger force for the defence of the Indian provinces on the borders of Burma and of the Indian sea-coast. The loss of Burma would thus mean the loss of power, and would also be a very grave blow to our prestige and to our commercial prosperity. Thousands of Englishmen find employment in Burma as officials, as merchants and traders, on the railways, in the forests, on sea-going and river steamers, and in many other ways. These men would be added to the great army of the unemployed, which presents a sufficiently difficult problem already.

Then, too, there would be the loss of capital, to say nothing of the public buildings, railways, canals, and roads. There are the European-owned factories, mills, oil-wells, river-steamers, and other valuable property, which would be irretrievably lost It needs no argument, I think, to show that Burma is too valuable a possession to be parted with so long as we have the means of retaining it.

Apart from the value to the Empire of a province possessing the resources and natural wealth of Burma, it may be confidently asserted that British rule in Burma has been of the greatest advantage to the province. We found anarchy, and we have established order. The country has been brought under settled administration, the happiness and contentment of the people have been secured, and the country has been opened out and developed with great rapidity. Under the Burmese regime might was right, and the nonofficial community were at the mercy of the ruling classes and Court favourites. When we took over Upper Burma, we found gangs of robbers fostered and protected by provincial Governors on the one understanding that their depredations were to be confined to country outside of that ruled over by their patrons. Nobody could call any property his own. The country was quickly becoming waste, and taxes could no longer be paid. The gain to civilization by our occupation of Burma is something that we may justly take credit for, and we may confidently assert that our conquest of Burma has not been wholly selfish. We were certainly actuated in some measure by a desire to introduce order and good government in a country adjacent to our own each time that we declared war against Burma, and we have certainly attained that result.

Burma is, as I have endeavoured to show, one of the most valuable possessions of the British Crown, and as time goes on it will become more and more valuable. As it is it pays its own way, and costs us nothing to retain, and is, for this reason alone, a source of strength to the Empire, and not of weakness.