Editorial from Church & State, Autumn 2007 (Number 90)
Burma And Ireland
The commentary on the Irish media in recent times consistency uses the word 'Burma' as the name of the country. The correct, post-Imperial name of the country is, of course, Myanmar. In the United Nations and Europe there is no problem with calling 'Burma' the name it calls itself. But in Britain, with Ireland following on, the imperial name prevails. It is, after all, familiar to all, despite these being allegedly post-Imperial times.
The prevailing Irish view of 'Burma' is, of course, an echo of the British view. Suddenly, in a very anti-monkish culture, there is an eruption of sympathy with the monks. And it is taken to be self-evident that the Government of 'Burma' is made up of corrupt soldiers whose purpose is to exercise dictatorial power because they are megalomaniacs, and to fill out their bank accounts with ill-gotten goods, and that the people of 'Burma' want to overthrow them and establish a democracy.
A BBC interviewer, seeking enlightenment from an expert, said: "We left Burma in 1948, and we left it as a democracy." And she asked, "why did it go wrong after that?" (Radio 4, 26 Sept.).
We have not yet heard an RTE presenter say: We conquered Burma in order to liberate its people from the welter of mediaevalism and clericalism which was oppressing the people, and now we must come to their assistance again. Why not? Lord Dufferin, the conqueror of Burma, is not listed amongst our famous Irishmen. Why not? He was less alien than some of those who are. His mother wrote a popular patriotic song.
Cathal O'Shannon, the RTE programme-maker, who exposes the Republic as a haven for Nazi war-criminals, says he was in 'Burma' in an RAF uniform just after the Second World War. He has not said what he was doing there.
Dufferin's conquest of Burma in what is called The Third Burmese War (i.e. the third British invasion of Burma), is celebrated in a book called The Pagoda War, by A.T.Q. Stewart, an Ulster Unionist historian. Why was it necessary for Dufferin to conquer Burma? Silly question. Because it lay next to India, which was British, and Britain (as governors of its Empire have frankly explained) had a low tolerance of land borders. Any of its borders which were not policed by the Royal Navy made it uneasy. It could only alleviate this unease by exerting hegemony over the neighbouring territory. And hegemony led naturally to annexation—by military conquest if the natives did not offer themselves up peacefully.
Burma was making no trouble for Britain—except by existing alongside the Empire and not being part of it—when Britain decided to conquer it. The conquest lasted for fifty years, during which nothing was done by the conquerors to make it a democracy.
The British regime in Burma was ended by the Japanese invasion of the British Empire in 1941-42. Britain had made no arrangements to defend Burma against Japan, and had fostered no development to enable Burma to defend herself.
The Burmese had no good reason to defend their region against Japanese conquest. At worst, from their point of view, one conqueror was displacing another.
The British wars against Burma—which we are now claiming as part of our heritage?—were wanton acts of aggression against a harmless neighbour. The Japanese invasion was not directed against Burma, but against the British Empire. And it was not a wanton act of aggression against a peaceful neighbour.
Japan had been living peacefully for centuries, minding its own business and nobody else's, when American warships turned up in the 1850s and insisted that it should enter the capitalist world market. The Japanese leaders, observing how Britain was plundering China after making war on it ten years earlier to compel it to make itself a market for the British opium trade from India and Burma, saw that the choice for them was to become predators or be treated as prey. They chose to be predators, modernised their lethargic state into a competent bureaucracy with a strong military arm, set up capitalist production within the structures of the clan, began to make war on their neighbours, and made an alliance with the British Empire. They followed Britain—and Ireland too, of course: we must overcome the amnesia which made us forget for so long—into the first World War, and extended their conquests in China.
In 1921 the United States, wanting the Pacific for itself, gave Britain an ultimatum. Either Britain must end its alliance with Japan, or the US would enter a naval race with Britain and set about making itself the dominant Naval Power in the world. If Britain had rejected the ultimatum the outcome would possibly have been a British/American War within the following generation. One does not engage in a naval race of the kind threatened by America with the object of being friends. And many acute observers in the mid-1920s saw the next big war as being between Britain and its lost colony.
Britain submitted. It was heavily in debt to the US, and the great territorial gains it had made by defeating Germany and Turkey were already, in the early 1920s, causing it to feel over-extended. It refused to renew its alliance with Japan, which had secured its Asian Empire during the War.
Breaking the alliance with Japan on the insistence of the United States marked Japan down as a future enemy.
During the long political demoralisation and slump of the twenties and thirties Britain could take no effective measures to secure its Asian Empire with its own resources. Neither could it bring itself to negotiate a transfer of power to independence movements in its Asian possessions. It continued to hold all those peoples in the Empire, but made no serious attempt to secure the Empire against Japan after breaking off friendly relations with Japan.
Then, in the Summer of 1940—after declaring war on Germany, and abandoning the Continent to Nazism after losing the battle in France—it backed an American ultimatum to Japan which the Japanese could not submit to without wrecking the strong capitalist economy they had constructed since the first American ultimatum 90 years earlier.
The ultimatum made sense from the American viewpoint. When the United States decided that its "manifest destiny" to expand did not stop at California, but would run across the Pacific, it knew it must make war on Japan. Military men wrote freely about this, and with little or no moral humbug. General Homer Lee wrote about it around 1900, admitting that it was the spirited Japanese response to the American ultimatum of the 1850s that made war inevitable.
The seconding of the American ultimatum by Britain in the Summer of 1940 was an act of complete recklessness. It made a Japanese attack on the Empire a virtual certainty at a time when Britain could do little to resist it.
Its only rational purpose was to enlist Britain as an American ally in a war with Japan in the hope that the US, once at war, would become Britain's ally in the war it had declared on Germany. And then, with victory, all losses would be recouped. The Burmese etc. were pawn sacrifices in a great game.
But Burma was never regained. And, as a matter of historical fact, Burmese independence began under Japanese occupation. Japan fostered a Burmese national development. When it became apparent that the Japanese would be defeated their Burmese collaborators changed the title of their movement, calling it Anti-Fascist.
Britain returned, along with Cathal O'Shannon, but their stay was brief. The Japanese assault had dispelled the mystique of the British Empire, and Burmese leaders, having had their moment of independence were not going to bow the head again—or the neck: Churchill demanded that Aung San should be tried for treason and war crimes. Instead of being tried as a war criminal, however, he was recognised as leader of independent Burma in 1948.
Ba Maw, in his memoirs published in the US after the War, acknowledges the inspiration of Sinn Fein on the Burmese freedom movement. But the social structure of Burma bore little resemblance to the social structure of Ireland out of which Sinn Fein sprang. The work of social destruction which England did on Ireland over many centuries had not been done in Burma. England had destroyed the Irish clans by a variety of methods, and the people had re-made themselves on new lines into an adequately individualised, or atomised, national body capable of operating a Government on the basis of party-political (as distinct from communal) divisions.
That had not happened in 'Burma'. There were in a sense no Burmese. There were Irish of two different kinds, but there was a welter of different kinds of Burmese. That would have been no problem if the Burmese had been let carry on being what they were before the British (and let us not forget the Irish) were overcome by an irresistible urge to make them into something else—something better of course—something more like Us, who cannot bear that people unlike Us should survive anywhere in the world.
Capitalist development, in national units, through party-political conflict, in a social medium of atomised individuals, on issues which transcend all traditional modes of life, in the political form that we call democracy, was not something that could have happened in Burma in 1948. The brief Japanese occupation gave the stratum of intelligentsia a strong national boost. The rest of it, if it was necessary that it should exist, required to be constructed. It could not be constructed through democratic conflict—and in the present conception of things democracy is a form of conflict—because the structures into which the state divided for the purpose of conflict were not the ideological parties that can exist in capitalist economies in cohesive national states.
That Britain left Burma a democracy in 1948 is perhaps the greatest lie that has been told on the media this year.
Contents of Number 90
'Burma And Ireland.
Justin Wintle On 'Burma'.
Casement Controversies And The 'Irish Catholic'.
Corporate Kansas, Part One (Book Review).
Religious Freedom In Iraq.
Dev, A Cavehill Rock-climber, And Religion
In The USSR.
Ethnic Cleansing In The Midlands.
A Journey Round Tom Dunne, Part Two.
Tom Barry And Sectarian Degradation.
Devolution Of Justice Powers In Northern
Edward Carson &… The Ascendancy.
Wee Joe Devlin.
Mid-Cork Election Ballad.
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