Gandhian Links to the Struggle in Burma
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Gandhian Links to the Struggle in Burma

By Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan APRIL, 2007 - VOLUME 15 NO.4


Gandhi and Indian Congress Party had influence over Burma’s nationalist movement

 Myanmar’s Nationalist Movement
(1906-1948) and India, by Rajshekhar.
South Asia Publishers, New Delhi,
Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan 2006.
I have known for years that Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian anti-colonial struggle, made visits to British-ruled Burma. However, I could find no supporting historical materials that revealed any contributions to or influence of Gandhi or the Indian Congress Party o­n the anti-colonial struggle in Burma. 

I researched Gandhi’s activities in Burma in his Collected Works, which is a record of his activities, diary entries and correspondence compiled by his secretaries and published in India. I was able to find some of his letters to Burmese leaders and notes of a visit to Burma, but they gave o­nly a glimpse of this part of his life and work.

I decided that should the opportunity arise, I would look into the archives of the anti-colonial struggle in India to find out more about Gandhi’s time in Burma. Happily, that work has now been done by the Indian scholar Rajshekhar of Tilka Majhi Bhagalpur University. His book, Myanmar’s Nationalist Movement (1906-1948) and India, covers this period of time in depth, drawing o­n more than a hundred sources from India and elsewhere, including sources as arcane as Soviet press articles of the 1940s.

The second section of Rajshekhar’s book provides interesting details about the joint activities of Gandhi and the Indian National Congress and Burmese activists U Ottama and U Wisara, both Buddhist monks, and Aung San. Many of the situations that confronted the anti-colonial struggle in Burma at that time still resonate today, as the following passage from chapter 3, “Myanmar’s Nationalist Movement (1906-1939) and the Influence of Gandhian Techniques,” illustrates:

“Early organized anti-colonial activities in 1918 took place under the General Council of Buddhist Associations (GCBA), and its leader U Ottama. The GCBA protested in joint fashion with the Indian National Congress against the various acts of the British administration used to suppress anti-colonial activities and against the visit by the Prince of Wales.

“Leaders of the struggle in both countries were detained in outlying towns (house arrest) and public meetings required police permission (which was never forthcoming). U Ottama massively popularized the wearing of local pinni, handmade cloth in Burma, similar to the kadhi (homespun) campaign in India.

“Colonial authorities ordered newspapers not to publish news of political agitation or disaffection. U Ottama fostered both boycott and ‘home rule’ campaigns in harmony with the Indian Congress. In 1921 he was tried by the British authorities for sedition and imprisoned. He was the first person (but not the last) to be given a prison term for making a political speech in Burma.”

Rajshekhar also portrays Aung San in a different light than the rebellion that bears his name. Aung San, a member of the GCBA, compiled 170 detailed cases of abuse by government agents, constables and military police. His investigations into the impoverished conditions in Burma’s villages led to his recommendation that all villagers resist collection of taxation and defy other rules by nonviolent methods.

The author also touched the Dobama Asiayone (“We Burman Association”) organization which held the same view as the Indian Congress Party o­n the advent of WW II.

Dobama Asiayone included many people who became post-colonial political figures, including U Nu and Aung San, who had come to prominence in the mid-1930s during a nationwide university strike.

Three days after the Congress condemned fascist aggression, Dobama Asiayone stated, “We condemn fascism not o­nly when it suits our convenience, but always, because it is in contradiction to…principles and ideals we stand for.” At the time, Aung San famously wrote: “In my view…every nation in the world must be free, not o­nly externally but internally. This is to say, every nation in the world, being a conglomeration of races and religions, should develop such nationalism as is compatible with the welfare of o­ne and all, irrespective of race, religion, class or sex. That is my nationalism.”

Rajshakhar has done history a tremendous service by bringing to light the links between Gandhi’s anti-colonial struggles in India and similar efforts in Burma.

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