Anglo-Burmese people

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Anglo-Burmese
Total population
52,000 in Burma
Worldwide total unknown
Regions with significant populations
Australia, United Kingdom, United States, India, Burma
Languages
English, Burmese
Religion
Buddhism, Christianity
Related ethnic groups
English people
Scottish people
Bamar
Anglo-Indians
Dutch people
Portuguese people

The Anglo-Burmese, also known as the Anglo-Burmans, are a community of Eurasians of Burmese and European descent, who emerged as a distinct community through mixed relations (sometimes permanent, sometimes temporary) between the British and other European settlers and the indigenous peoples of Burma from 1826 until 1948 when Burma gained its independence from the United Kingdom. Most who remained after 1962 adopted Burmese names, and converted to Buddhism to protect their families, jobs and assets.[citation needed] Those who could not adjust to the new way of life after Independence and the coming of military rule are dispersed throughout the world, with very few accurate estimates as to how many remain behind in military-ruled Burma.

The term Anglo-Burmese is also used to refer to Eurasians of European and other Burmese ethnic minority groups (e.g. Shan, Karen, Mon, Chinese) descent. It also, after 1937, included Anglo-Indian residents in Burma. Collectively, in the Burmese language, Eurasians are specifically known as bo kabya; the term kabya refers to persons of mixed ancestry or dual ethnicity.

History[edit]

Earliest settlement[edit]

The first Anglo-Burmese community emerged in the early 17th century, as the Portuguese and Bamar intermixed. This multicultural community was collectively known as the Ba-yin-gyi. The community was established in Syriam (now known as Thanlyin) on the outskirts of modern-day Yangon. The settlement was founded by Felipe de Brito. De Brito is said to have gone mad, having declared himself king of Lower Burma, causing his outpost to be destroyed and himself executed by the Burmese king. Most of the small community of Eurasian and European settlers was banished inland to Shwebo then known as Moksobo. Additionally, a small band of French soldiers captured in the late 18th century by the Burmese King was provided with Burmese wives and established a similar, small Eurasian community. In one of the last census counts conducted by the British in the 1930s, a number of people in Upper Burma classified themselves as descendants of these bands of Portuguese and French soldiers.[1]

After the Portuguese and the French, the Dutch also established trade missions in Burma and with them came Armenian settlers, both communities intermarrying with the already established Eurasians or marrying local Burmese people. The VOC (Dutch East India Company) was active in Burma in the 18th century and many Anglo-Burmans of Dutch heritage are descended from the Dutch merchants who settled in the country. Today's Anglo-Burmese can count a very diverse lineage in their blood.

British administration[edit]

A prominent Anglo-Burmese family, circa 1900.

From 1825 onward, border wars with the British ended with the coastal provinces of (Arakan and Tenasserim) being annexed to British rule with a capital set up in Moulmein. The year 1852 saw a second war that added the delta province of Pegu to what became known as Lower Burma or British Burma. In 1885, after a plot was uncovered that the French intended to annex Upper Burma, the British moved first with the total annexation of Burma, King Thibaw and most of his relatives of importance were exiled to India. Burma was made a province of British India. British settlers now began to settle in large numbers in Burma, intermixing with the local Burmans (Bamar) and other local ethnic groups, and the Eurasian community grew larger, some say larger than the Anglo-Indian community in India.[2] Frequently, European men took Burmese women as "temporary" wives, often deserting them and their offspring after their tours of duty ended in Burma but legal, long lasting marriages did take place. Frequently, when a "temporary" relationship ended, the European father left behind a sum of money for the upkeep of their children. Sometimes the children were removed from their Burmese mothers and placed into convent schools run by Europeans, where their Burmese heritage was often undermined. The issue of mixed marriages, particularly between Bamar women and British males, was to become a major issue in the independence movement as it further developed.

Anglo-Burmans represent a very diverse heritage, their Asian side primarily representing Burman blood, but also Karen, Shan and Mon as well as other smaller Burmese ethnic groups (Chin, Kachin, Arakanese for example). The European element included, aside from the British, other European influence, chiefly Greek, Dutch, Scandinavian, Irish (who left their country when the Great Irish Famine), German, Austrian, French, Portuguese, Italian and Russian. In addition, Iraqi (Assyrian/Chaldean Christian), Armenian, Syrian, Phoenician, Egyptian and Anglo-Indian blood was also represented among Anglo-Burmans. By the 1920s, the Anglo-Burman community was a distinct ethnic group in Burma.

In 1935, colonial Burma was plagued with riots due to the country having been swallowed into British India. In response, in 1937, as Burma separated officially from British India and formed a separate crown colony, Anglo-Burmans were officially recognised as an ethnic group under the Government of Burma Act. Having European blood, Anglo-Burmans were a privileged class and became one of the dominant ethnic groups in Burmese life. They began assimilating to European customs, in particular British. Most Anglo-Burmans (unlike Anglo-Indians and the Burgher people in Sri Lanka) were able to trace at least a grandparent, if not a parent, originating from outside of Burma's borders. As such, the connection with the West was strong, and many Anglo-Burmans did not settle down as a truly indigenous ethnic group. Of course, some Anglo-Burmans did, and most of the community felt Burma was their own country, with no wish to "repatriate" to their European homeland. In fact, after Independence, the Anglo-Burman Union carried out research among the community to gauge the feeling of its people with regard to nationality. It was discovered that around 60% intended to remain in Burma and take Burmese citizenship[3] with the remaining 40% split between staying in Burma or leaving for Australia or the UK. Along with the British settlers, Anglo-Indians came into Burma during colonial times to work on the railways and customs departments; intermarriage between the groups (Anglo-Indian and Anglo-Burmese) was frequent, especially in Rangoon (Yangon) as both communities were innately drawn to one another. Community clubs were a mainstay of life during British rule, with most attending what was commonly called the 'Anglo-Indian/Domiciled European Club'.

Between 1935 and 1948, Burma quickly became the jewel of the East, with a flourishing economy based on agricultural produce (primarily rice, oil, timber, gems and other natural resources). At this time, Rangoon was said to be the most cosmopolitan city east of the Suez Canal; the city and its environs were estimated to hold at least 50% of the Anglo-Burmese community. During British rule, Rangoon and Maymyo became principal population centres for the Anglo-Burmese, although substantial communities existed in the Ayeyarwady River delta towns as well as in Mandalay, Moulmein, Amherst (now Kyaikkami), Taunggyi, Kalaw, Toungoo, Pyinmana, Meiktila, Yenangyaung and the mining towns of the Shan States.

Although prejudice existed among some of the colonial settlers of European origin and equally among some Burmans, the Anglo-Burmese were not held in such contempt by the British and Burmans as were the Anglo-Indians by both the British and Indians in India, despite their similar origins and heritage. This was reflected in the derogatory term bo kyet chee in Burmese to refer to Anglo-Indians in contrast to bo kabya which referred to Anglo-Burmans. Many Anglo-Indians in Burma never learnt to speak Burmese and managed to get by with Hindi or Urdu. This tended to alienate the local Burman people. As far as the host community was concerned, those willing to intermingle or blend in were as readily accepted as any kabya in the days of the Burmese kings, but those who looked down on the Burmese themselves were held in mutual contempt.

Japanese occupation and Allied liberation[edit]

In 1942, the Japanese invaded East and Southeast Asia, including Burma, in hopes of creating an Empire for itself throughout Asia. Because of their European connections and appearance and fearful of Japanese rule, most Anglo-Burmans began making frantic preparations to leave the country for safety in India alongside the British. A vast majority of Anglo-Burmans made their way out of Burma by their own means, some by sea and others by air. Many were employed by government departments or were married to government employees and were able to flee on official evacuation convoys. Others stayed at their posts and ran the telegraphs and phone operations, railways and other infrastructure systems until it was too late to escape. Sadly, of those who were left behind, many opted to walk through the jungles to safety in India. This exodus has become historically known as "The Trek", and many Anglo-Burmans alongside Europeans, Indians and Chinese died en route. Those who remained behind suffered horrendously.

Many Anglo-Burmese during colonial times were concentrated in and around the town of Maymyo. As the Japanese took control of the country, they found many there and simply incarcerated them in concentration camps for fear of their loyalty to the British. However, Anglo-Burmese who resembled Bamar were incognito and managed to pass, acting like the Burmans. Indeed, many Bamar sheltered their Eurasian friends and relatives from the Japanese and after the war. Many Anglo-Burmans were not to forget this, refusing to take back their European names and dress, appreciative of the security and protection offered to them, and disgraced with the manner in which the British handled the evacuation of the country and the abandonment of the community. Others less fortunate during the war were interned in prison camps whilst others, particularly the Anglo-Burman women, were taken as servants and mistresses by the Japanese army, most often unwillingly. In 1944, Burma's colonial government met in exile at Simla, India. Among those who attended were the governor of Burma, Sir Reginald Dorman Smith, along with Anglo-Burman leaders (including James Barrington who was to become the first ambassador for post-independence Burma to the U.S.A. and Canada), to discuss the future of Burma after the war and the status of the Anglo-Burmese community. After Japan was defeated, most Anglo-Burmans who had fled to India returned to Burma.

Simla Conference 1944[edit]

Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, governor of Burma in exile, met Anglo-Burmese leaders in Simla in 1944, where the government of Burma in exile was stationed during the war, to discuss the future of the Anglo-Burmese community after the war.

The Anglo-Burmese delegates were:

  • Mr. G. Kirkham
  • Mr. H.J. Mitchell B.Fr.S.
  • Mr. J.Barrington I.C.S.
  • Mr. K.W. Foster B.C.S.
  • Mr. E.A. Franklin I.C.S.
  • Mr. W.A. Gibson
  • Mrs. K. Russell
  • Mr. H. Elliott
  • Mr. C.H. Campagnac
  • Mr. J.A.Wiseham
  • Mr. J. F. Blake.

One of the results of the conference was the giving of an assurance to the Anglo-Burmese community that they would be allowed to preserve their freedom of worship and allowed to teach their own religion, freedom to continue their own customs and maintain their own language of English. In the Constituent Assembly of 1947, Anglo-Burmans were to receive four assigned seats in the new parliament of independent Burma.

Post-independence[edit]

On 4 January 1948, the Union of Burma declared its independence from Great Britain, immediately leaving the Commonwealth and severing all ties with the British Empire. The British left protection clauses in the Constitution and the legislative makeup of independent Burma to take account of the Anglo-Burman people including, most importantly, reserved seats in the parliament of the newly established Union of Burma and a disproportionate number of Anglo-Burmans running the bureaucracy of day-to-day government and military operations. Aung San addressed the Anglo-Burman Union to press the issue of acceptance and the fears the community had for their presence in independent Burma. His assurances went to help with the decision by most of the community to remain in Burma after British withdrawal.

However, Aung San and his entire cabinet were assassinated before Independence. This sent a ripple effect through the country and among all ethnic minority groups, who Aung San had personally addressed to reassure them of their place in the new country. In February 1948, ethnic rebellions immediately erupted throughout Burma, with the Kayin taking most of the central part of the country, including Mandalay. For a time, it was feared that Rangoon would fall to the rebels. Due to the insurrection and erupting civil war, there immediately followed, however, a stream of Anglo-Burmans leaving the country, who were fearful of what awaited them and the country since the end of British rule. At this time, about 30% of the population of Rangoon were reckoned as Anglo-Burmese. This proportion was to decline steadily through to the late 1960s.

Following the British withdrawal in 1948, some Anglo-Burmans left Burma, primarily for the United Kingdom. Many more remained behind in Burma and carried on with their lives. Through the 1950s, the situation steadily declined in the country, with armed insurrections and rebellions, principally among the Kayin people. Due to the perceived suffering the Bamar had encountered under British rule, affirmative action of sorts was introduced by the government of U Nu in the 1950s, primarily due to the disproportionate control the Anglo-Burmans had in government departments and the running of the country. Many Anglo-Burmans began to lose their jobs, to be replaced with pure Burmans as the bureaucracy of the country became increasingly Burmanized. Additional measures relating to the Burmese language were introduced so that to take the matriculation exam to enter Rangoon University, prospective students were required to be fluent in written Burmese (which many Anglo-Burmans had not been taught), even though all books and most teaching were still carried out in English.

Military rule[edit]

In 1962 General Ne Win overthrew U Nu's government and established strict military rule. It soon became apparent that this new military government had other plans as a socialist, xenophobic and isolationist regime was born. Many more Anglo-Burmans left due to discriminatory measures taken against minority groups, particularly those the military deemed as vestiges of colonial rule, specifically the Anglo-Burmese and the Karen. Anglo-Burmans already in the Armed Forces were dismissed and those who wanted to join were now barred. There were mass dismissals of Anglo-Burmans from the Civil Service in departments where they had previously dominated such as the Railways, the Union of Burma Airways, Customs Department, Division of Forestry and Mining and the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs.

All schools were nationalised, the principal target being missionary schools, and English was no longer taught from kindergarten level. Standards began to fall in the education system and the previously highly esteemed University of Rangoon was closed for some time, after which the Rangoon University Student Union (RUSU), hotbed of the nationalist movement during the 1930s and 1940s, was blown up by the military. Once the university reopened its doors, English as the principal medium of instruction was abolished and foreign institutions no longer accepted degrees obtained from the university.

The Anglo-Burman Social Club in Rangoon was subsequently requisitioned by the military and turned into an officer’s mess and the Anglo-Burman Union was banned. During this time, many Anglo-Burmans left for Australia and New Zealand, with small numbers emigrating to Canada and the U.S.A.

Present-day[edit]

Today, some people identifying themselves as Anglo-Burmans are believed to remain in Burma. Because of the similar heritage and roles played, and because Burma was part of the British Empire as part of India after British colonizations, Anglo-Burmans were once counted as Anglo-Indians; today, Anglo-Indians accept Anglo-Burmese as their "kith and kin". World reunions of Anglo-Indians usually include many who would be classed more correctly as Anglo-Burmese, to reflect their Burmese blood.

Notable diaspora[edit]

The most famous Anglo-Burmans today are to be found outside of Burma's borders such as the Bollywood actress Helen Jairag Richardson, the late British television actor Richard Beckinsale, his daughters the actresses Kate Beckinsale and Samantha Beckinsale, the music critic Peter Barakan (ピーター・バラカン), the British TV personality Melanie Sykes, the jazz musician Jamie Cullum and his brother Ben Cullum and the singer Annabella Lwin. The alternative musician Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly (né Sam Duckworth) is also Anglo-Burmese.[citation needed] The sons of Aung San Suu Kyi and Michael Aris, Alexander and Kim, are technically Anglo-Burmese, despite not stemming from the colonial era. There is also Zuleikha Robinson, a British actress raised in Thailand and Malaysia by a Burmese-Indian mother and an English father. Burmese writer Wendy Law-Yone and her daughter Jocelyn Seagrave, who is a U.S. actress, are also Anglo-Burmese.

Educational system[edit]

Anglo-Burmans were enrolled in missionary-run schools where English was the medium of instruction with Burmese as a second language. For some Anglo-Burmans who married full blooded Burmese, their children, whilst still being counted as Anglo-Burmans, were usually more openly exposed to the indigenous culture and spoke and used the Burmese language more frequently than their more "Anglo" counterparts. Notable schools include:

Community organisations in Colonial Burma[edit]

  • Anglo-Burman Social Club
  • Anglo-Burmese Association
  • Anglo-Burman Union
  • Anglo-Burman Council
  • Gedhawk

Present-day Anglo-Burman organisations[edit]

  • Australian Anglo-Burmese Society
  • Anglo-Burman Church Organisation
  • The Britain-Burma Society
  • Methodist English High School Alumni Association, Rangoon[4]

Resources[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ "Portuguese Descendants of Bhurma's Mu Valley - The Bayingyi". 
  2. ^ see Finding George Orwell by Emma Larkin
  3. ^ See John Clement Koop, The Eurasian Population in Burma
  4. ^ Methodist English High School Alumni Association, Rangoon

External links[edit]