“Races” of Burma


I am currently reading Races of Burma, an ethnographical albeit insensitive look at over 100 ethnic groups in Burma, written by a British Colonial Army recruiting officer Major C. M. Enriquez. His official company: Late 3/20 Burma Rifles (Kachins). Enriquez wrote it as a handbook for the Indian Army, published in 1933: at the time. Burma was annexed as part of the Indian subcontinent after the Anglo-Burmese wars in the mid-1800s. It gives a bit of insight into the later development of small armies all over Burma.

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With titles of chapters such as “Ready Reference of Important Races” and “Tribes enlisted in the Burma Rifles,” along with eager descriptions of the tribes “with larger chests and shorter legs are more apt to be soldiers,” a reader can get a little uncomfortable; this look at humanity through body type. But while he spins “otherness,” he takes a fascinating journey through photographs, map, description and highlights the “custom” to which he seemed to respect.

Of note, under Seasons, Methods, and General Policy [when looking at the “Races of Burma”]

The Recruiting Officer in Putao recently met an old man who had just spent the last 14  years collecting the value (in pigs) of his married daughter, and was returning home with his mission triumphantly accomplished. Less fortunate is the present Taung Ok of Htawgaw who, though now 40 years old, is still paying off the price for his late mother. The other day, a Kachin brought to Court a complaint that his opium had been stolen.

“How long ago?”

“Oh, some time?”

“How long?”

“Some years”

“How many years?”

“Oh before British Annexation.”

“Your opium was stolen, “ said the Magistrate, “nearly forty years ago. The case is transferred to the prehistoric courts of Majoi Shingra Bum.”

In these circumstances the recruiting system must be sufficiently elastic to meet all manner of needs. Without labouring the point, it need merely be said that the Burmese are highly civilized plains-men, with an ancient literature, and a religion (Buddhism) that is profound philosophy: while the Chins are naked hill-tribes, with no writing at all, and a religion (Animism) which is simply a crude form of nature worship. Obviously a system that suits the one does not necessarily answer with the other.

I think it’s clear that the Chin were looked down upon as “primitive” and that carried on long after the British were gone. Though he explains later that there are over 50 different smaller groups with their own language within the ethnic group called “Chin.” No doubt their land is filled with natural resources and they are being exploited, hence the extremely restricted travel to the region. Not to mention loads of military bases. I also wonder how much influence the British import of opium into China affected the prevalence of it in the Kachin and Shan states early on.

While it is a dated piece of anthropological work, the book does offer some insight (not to mention a great visual history) into the intensely varied layers of Myanmar’s ethnic map.

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