Burma, the State of Myanmar

By David I. Steinberg | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 7
The Politics of Social Issues

The late nineteenth century guidebooks prepared for the British traveler to Burma would often remark that the visitor, once stepping off the gangplank in Rangoon from India, would breathe a sigh of relief. There was none of the poverty and degradation associated with Calcutta, with its overwhelming numbers of the poor and abject misery creating an oppressive atmosphere. Burma was a pleasant, if backwater, component of the British empire.

This perception was in general accurate. Here was a country rich in natural resources with a relatively sparse population compared to its arable land and one that had not in memory been subjected to the famines that seemed to plague India or China. There was, at least among the Burman population, none of the grinding social discrimination associated with the Hindu caste system. Although there was not equality of income, the great disparities of wealth seemed to have escaped Burma—shared but not desperate poverty seemed to be the norm. The Burmans were considered, condescendingly it is true, as charming and perhaps naive, and although that characterization was in many ways inaccurate (as are all such stereotypes), it was far more benign than those associated with the subcontinent.

This impression of Burma was reinforced by its traditional and colonial achievements. Burmese (Burman) women had much higher status than the women of either India or China, and this was refreshing to foreigners. They never performed suttee, as did widows in India, nor were they subject to footbinding, as were women in China. They controlled much of the retail trade,

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