Burmese Responses to Indian Immigration Waves During the British Colonial Era
1994 Burmese Responses to Indian 1 Immigration Waves during the British Colonial Era By U Khin Maung Saw, Berlin 1. Introduction Among Southeast Asian countries, Burma 2…
Burmese Responses to
Waves during the British
By U Khin Maung Saw, Berlin
Among Southeast Asian countries, Burma
is immediate neighbour of the Subcontinent, but she was one
of the last countries in that region to have come into contact with India and its civilisation. According to
archaeological finds, the presence of Indian culture was definitely established much later then her
Southeast Asian neighbours, especially compared to Cambodia and Indonesia, or even compared to
There might have been some Indian immigration and settlements in Burma even before the first dynasty
of the Burmese, the Pagan (Bagan) Dynasty established in A.D. 9
century. Buddhism and the Pali
language used in Buddhist Canons came very early to the Mons, Arakan and Pyus, much earlier than the
emigration of the Burmese in the country which is now Burma. Pyu, Mon and Burmese scripts were
based on the South Indian scripts. No doubt that the natives of Burma might have thanked Indian
settlers and traders at that time. The Indian community in Burma might have been very small and
because of that the natives had never reacted about Indian immigration at those times. However, during
the British colonial era, the attitude of the Burmese towards the Indians has changed. Why?
In this paper the present author will try to find out the facts, possible reasons and evidences according to
historical, social and political changes in Burma caused by Indian immigration waves during the
2. The birth of negative attitudes of Burmese towards the people from the Subcontinent and
2. 1. Indian immigration waves after British annexation of Burma
After the First Anglo-Burmese War which broke out in 1824 and ended in 1826, some parts of Burma
were annexed by the British. These areas became part of British India since 1826. Hence, since 1826
people from the Subcontinent were able to come to Burma freely and unconditionally and some were
brought by the British for various reasons. In comparison, the volume of Indian immigration before the
middle of the nineteenth century, though continuous, was never on a very large scale compared to what
it came to be from 1852 onwards. A new chapter in the history of Indian immigration into Burma began
after the British annexation of Lower Burma after the Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852), and the
whole of Burma after the Third War in 1886.
There were five types of Indian immigrants: (1) Permanent settlers; (2) Long-term settlers, who came
to seek their fortune in the then most prosperous country in Southeast Asia, but for retired life they
preferred to stay in India rather than in Burma; (3) Seasonal workers who came for a fixed short period;
(4) Government servants and traders who wanted to earn and save money so that they and their offspring
could settle permanently in Burma as rich people; and (5) People brought by the British for various
Burmese Responses to Indian Immigration, Saw 1994 Page 2
The biggest attraction for the Indians to come and seek their fortune in Burma was the fact that salaries
wages there were much higher than in India. Hence, thousands of Indian labourers, especially from
Madras, Bengal and Punjab, began to enter Burma. Thousands of Indian businessmen too, began to
acquire landed property. They built houses for residential and business purposes in all big towns in
Burma. As a result, most of the big cities, particularly in lower Burma and in the coastal areas were
dominated by people coming from the Subcontinent. Verily, Rangoon gradually came to have a
population composed largely of Indians. As a result, Rangoon, the then capital city of British Burma
ceased to be a Burmese city. Rangoon came to be known as kula;®mio> " Kala Myo" (city of Indians)
to the Burmese from other towns particularly Mandalay, the last capital of the Burmese Kingdom.
Indian immigration to Burma was sufficiently large in number. "In 1872, there were 136,504 Indians in
Burma. In 1891, the Indian population had increased to 420,830; in 1901, to 568,263; in 1911, to
743,282; in 1921, to 887,077; in 1931; to 1,017,825, that is 6.9% of the total, Burma's population in that
year being 14.6 millions".
Indians were prominent in transport, industry, construction, railway service, banking, insurance,
exchange business, hotels and restaurants, army, police, prison department and post offices, better say,
almost all of the semi-key positions in Burma were taken by the Indians. Prof. W. S. Desai noted "There
was no department of the public services, police, military or civil, without Indians." ......"The lion's share
in the profitable exploitation of Burma was indeed reaped by British capitalists; but Indian businessmen
certainly came next".
Ton That Tien also noted: "Apart from lending money to the Burmese farmers at profitable rates, the
Indian Chettyars also acquired a considerable amount of Burmese agricultural land existing in 1939.
Most of this land was acquired in the 1930's, when the world economic crisis and the resulting slump in
prices forced many Burmese farmers to part with their lands in order to meet their debt obligations. In
business also, the Indians held a predominant position. They controlled 60% of general business, 80% of
the textile business and 90% of the rice export trade".
There were many rich men in Burma, but most of them were non-Burmese. Hence, the Burmese
started worrying about their future and negative attitudes towards Indians evolved. The descendents of
the People of the Subcontinent had to bear the burden of the 'Divide and Rule Policy' of the British
Colonial Masters. Until the present time, they are neither cordially accepted nor looked at with affinity
by the Burmese people. A similar situation can be found in many former British Colonies in Africa.
2.2. Social tensions
2.2.1. Two peoples without similarity and affinity
Burmese as well as all ethnic minorities of Burma belong to the Mongolian race and the people of the
Subcontinent are either Indo-Aryans or Dravidians. Burmese and the majority population of Burma
(90% at that time) are Buddhists while the people of the Subcontinent are Hindus and Muslims. Indians
observe caste. Burmese and all other ethnic minorities of Burma never observe caste. Race, features,
complexion, religion, language, culture, civilization, way of life and mentality, none of them is similar.
As a result, social tensions between the two peoples broke out.
Burmese Responses to Indian Immigration, Saw 1994 Page 3
There were intermarriages between Indian men and native women. The children of Indian Muslims by
native women were called Zerabadis. The mother had to convert into Islam, and children were brought
up as Mahomedan. If they did not do so the marriage was illegal according to Islamic law and the wife
and children could not have the right to inherit property. On the other hand when either an Indian
Muslim woman or a Zerabadi woman wanted to marry a Burmese Buddhist man or other native man and
wanted to convert into Buddhism or Christianity she was expelled and made an outcast by her relatives,
community and society. Generally they had to elope, and when they were captured by her relatives they
should expect a very harsh penalty for both. The natives felt this as an insult.
wrote: The children of Hindus by Burmese women were brought up as Buddhists, so that no
social problem was created thereby". Dr. Aye Kyaw,
on the other hand, stated: "In mixed marriages
between Burmese Buddhist women and Hindus, Burmese women were in a worse position" -- Burmese
women, having no knowledge of Hindu law and custom, took Hindu husbands and subsequently lost all
the rights conferred them by Burmese customary law because they were mere mistresses. It is worth
nothing that a born pariah who was not within the pale of caste Hinduism could contract a legal marriage
with a Burmese woman."
In fact, both statements are correct according to the particular situation. The destiny of that Burmese
woman and her offspring depended totally on the Hindu husband and his relatives, how tolerant,
generous and honest they were. Some of them were brought up as Buddhist, unfortunately, some were
made outcasts. However, in any case, the Indian Hindus also never let their women marry a Burmese
Buddhist man or other native men. The natives felt this point as double standard human relationship.
Because of the above mentioned double standard law applied by the Indians, the legislative council of
Burma had to introduce “The Protection Act for the Burmese-Buddhist Women”.
Here I would like to cite Prof. Dr. Aye Kyaw
, who wrote: "The result was that antagonism among the
diverse religious communities, though not apparent in the beginning when the act was put into force,
eventually gathered strength as questions of maintenance, divorce or inheritance arose, and as Burmese
women, albeit embracing new religions, and adopting new names when they took Indian husbands,
found themselves mere mistresses and their offspring bastards, both legal nonentities." "This situation
was known to the colonial government as well as to Burmese nationalists and judges. Accordingly, the
special Marriage Act was amended in 1923. This amendment, though going some way toward rectifying
the position of Burmese women, was far from satisfactory". ......... "Furthermore, the threat of 'the
Indian peril' turned from bad to worse when the communal conflict broke out in Rangoon in 1938. This
incident, combined with the demands of Burmese nationalists made way for speedy enactment of the
Buddhist women's Special Marriage and Succession Act, Burma Act of 1939, in the House of
Representatives. This act came into operation on April 1, 1940, just before the Second World War
spread over Burma".
The emergence of this Indian-hybrid community, especially the Muslims Zerabardis (numbered 125,262
in 1931) roused fears in the Burmese mind. The Burmese were worried that it could endanger their race,
religion and culture, and eventually they might become minorities in their native land.
2.2.2. Lowering of Indian prestige in the estimation of others
Burmese Responses to Indian Immigration, Saw 1994 Page 4
Burmese are traditionally humble and easy going people. They usually do not want to do menial jobs.
Some professions such as toilet cleaning, rickshaw pulling and coolie are considered to be "low class"
for them. This was the main reason all kinds of menial jobs were taken by the Indians during the
colonial period and even many years after Burmese independence. All toilet cleaners, excrements
carriers, sweepers, coolies and rickshaw pullers were Indians. The Indian labourers were willing to
accept any kind of job with lower wages. They left their families in India, and were satisfied with poor
boarding and lodging arrangements. In some cases they did not have boarding and lodging, instead they
lived on the street platforms of the big cities.
Although rickshaw pulling was introduced by the Chinese in Rangoon, some Chinese millionaires in
Burma prohibited their compatriots to engage in that job and lent money so that they could do some
business. The Chinese millionaires were afraid that the Chinese community would be looked down
upon not only by the natives but also by other immigrants, if some Chinese were doing menial works.
The Burmese (and other ethnic minorities too) will not pull a rickshaw; they will ply the cycle-shaw
called "side-car". So, rickshaw pulling was entirely done by the Indians.
As the Indians did the menial jobs as mentioned above and sleeping on the roads without
accommodation had brought the Indians into disrepute. The Burmese and other ethnic minorities lost
their respect for Indians. Worst than this was the fact that the Chinese community in Burma also looked
down upon the people from the Subcontinent. Even Prof. Desai admitted that "Rickshaw-pulling by the
Indians in Burma and in other foreign parts has certainly lowered Indian prestige in the estimation of
2.2.3. Burma under British-India: Was it by accident?
When the British authorities declared Burma as a province of the British-Indian Empire, the Indians
behaved as if it were there divine right to come and settle in Burma. Only when the Indian immigration
waves to Burma became dangerously large enough did the British government started limiting Indian
immigration. Although it was done even before the separation of Burma from British India, it was
already too late. As a result, the Burmese became more nationalistic and antagonistic against the
peoples from the Subcontinent together with anti-British feelings.
It was also one of the main reasons why Burma did not want to join the British Commonwealth after she
regained her independence, because there was a clause stating that a citizen of a Commonwealth
Country could go, stay and work in another Commonwealth Country. Both General Aung San and U
Nu believed that only when Burma did not join the British Commonwealth, could they prevent
immigration waves from the subcontinent!!
Ironically, the above-mentioned clause was abolished one-sidedly by the United Kingdom later, because
of the immigration waves of peoples from its former colonies, especially from the sub-continent, to
Great Britain. There were many big demonstrations organized by the people from the sub-continent
carrying posters "We are here because you were there"!!
Some British colonial officers admitted later that it was the biggest mistake of the British to put Burma,
which is traditionally very far from India racially, culturally and socially as part of the British-Indian
The following are some documents:
Burmese Responses to Indian Immigration, Saw 1994 Page 5
(1) The Report of the Joint Select Committee on the Government of India Bill 1919, III, Clause 41:
where it was written that "after hearing evidence the Committee have not advised that Burma should be
included within the scheme. They do not doubt but that the Burmese have deserved and should receive
a Constitution analogous to that provided in this Bill for their Indian fellow-subjects. But Burma is
only by accident part of the responsibility of the Governor General of India. The Burmese are as
distinct from the Indians in race and language as they are from the British".
(2) The Report of the Indian Statutory Commission vol. II London, 1930, vol. II § 224: In 1927, The
Indian Statutory Commission, popularly known as the "Simon Commission", was appointed under the
chairmanship of Sir John Simon. This Commission gave its opinion that "we hold that the first step
towards the attainment of full responsible government in Burma is the separation of Burma from the rest
of British India....We would add that Burma's political connection with India is wholly arbitrary
and unnatural. It was established by the British rulers of India by force of arms and being
maintained for the sake of administrative convenience. It is not an association of two peoples
having natural affinities tending towards union ... there is nothing common between the two
(3) The Cambridge History of the British Empire, Cambridge, 1932, p. 761: where it was written that
"it is not improbable that Burma would be better administered and would enjoy improved
opportunities for progress, if it were detached from India".
These reports had proven that it was the mistake of the British Colonial Masters to put Burma under
British-India. However, it cannot be ruled out that they did it wittingly and intentionally to introduce the
"Divide and Rule Policy" between the two different peoples for their administrative convenience. Had
they administered Burma as a separate "Crown Colony" like Ceylon or Hong Kong, there might have
been fewer problems for all, the Burmese, the Indians and even for the British rulers themselves. At
least, if they were sincere enough, as the last solution, they could have administered British Burma and
British Malaya together under one governor-general either as "British Indo-China" or "British Southeast
Asia". Just after First Anglo- Burmese War, i.e. just after the annexation of the Arakan and Tenassarim
provinces, most of the British officers who came to administer Tenassarim province were from Malaya,
however, all British administers in Arakan were from India. That's why the development and infra-
structure in Tenasarrim was much better that of Arakan! Apart of religion and language, both Malayans
and Burmese, being Southeast Asians, have very similar feature, complexion, traditions, foods, habits
and characters. Apart of that Malaya too, was like Burma, an under-populated country. So, neither
Burmese would have immigrated to Malaya nor Malays would have settled in Burma, and therefore both
countries would not have to face alien problems after they regained their independence. Unfortunately,
the British imported a million of Indians to Burma and tens of thousands of Chinese and Indians to
Burmese Responses to Indian Immigration, Saw 1994 Page 6
It can not be ruled out that the British Colonial Masters might have committed it intentionally because
they already knew that alien problems will evolve in these countries one day. They might have pre-
calculated the following points from the very beginning: (1) The Burmese were so "arrogant" and
considered "rebellious child" of the "Crown". Therefore they should be punished, (2) A huge wave of
Indian immigration into Burma would be expected and the authorities should encourage it; (3) "Divide
and Rule Policy" should be introduced, (4) Since there is no similarity and affinity between these two
peoples there would be racial tensions; and (5) As long as there would be racial tensions it would be
easier and better for the British rulers to manipulate their colonies by giving the reason that both peoples
were not fit for independence.
2.3. Divide and Rule Policy of the British Colonial Rulers
2.3.1. Favouring the Indians
When Burma became a British colony most of the natives were untouched by the English language.
Since India became a British colony much earlier than Burma some Indians could already read and write
English well. Some of them had good proficiency in English except pronunciation. Some Indians
worked as English teachers in some schools and some became junior officers. British colonial
authorities introduced "Divide and Rule" policy and favoured Indians and some ethnic minorities like
some of whom had already converted into Christianity.
Therefore, the British encouraged Indian immigration at the beginning of the annexation of Burma.
Prof. Desai admitted: "Indian immigration served both British and Indian interests. To the British, the
Indians were more dependable than the Burmese; they were used to British administrative methods as
well as language. To the Indians, wages and salaries in Burma were higher than in India and working
conditions better. Thus, attracted by these conditions they flocked into Burma, and in time, came to
occupy a dominant position in the Burmese economy". ....... „In wholesale, the retail trade, the Burmese
were progressively ousted by the Indian immigrants. At the Rangoon docks, by 1934, the Indians nearly
completely displaced the Burmese".
As mentioned earlier, the British preferred Indians for public sector jobs. Most of the policemen,
postmen, railways and other transport workers, prison guards and officers, doctors, nurses and hospital
workers, clerks, armed forces personnel and even menial workers were Indians. Here I would like to
cite Ton That Tien who wrote: "That in some forms of occupation half of those engaged, and that in
other forms of employment over 40%, should be aliens, would be a remarkable situation in any
On the whole the British were too distrustful of the loyalty of their Buddhist subjects (the Burmese and
other ethnic groups like Mons, Shans and Arakanese) to become familiar with modern science,
technology and warfare. All independence struggles, rebellions, boycotts and other, were brutally
crushed by the British-Indian Army, Para-Military Police and Burma Police which were mainly
composed of Indians.
When the British sponsored army, the Burma rifles was established the bulk of the soldiers were from
minority ethnic groups such as Karens, Kachins and Chins. Previously animistic ethnic minorities who
were converted into Christianity were given privileges and were disproportionately recruited into the
colonial armed forces as the loyal subjects to protect "His Majesty the king of Great Britain and the
Emperor of India" from the "enemies". Generally this army was not sufficiently trained and equipped
to withstand an attack from outside but rather a Para-military police force designed to deal with internal
rebellions and disturbances. This was proven when the Japanese invaded Burma in 1941.
Burmese Responses to Indian Immigration, Saw 1994 Page 7
This "Divide and Rule Policy" too, was so effective that ethnic minority problems cannot be solved in
Burma (and also in India) until today. Thailand, on the other hand, never became a colony of any
western power, did not and does not have well known ethnic minorities’ problem like in Burma though
Thailand shares many minorities with Burma. No colonial masters could introduce the „Divide and
Rule Policy" either between the majorities and minorities, or between the natives and immigrants there.
After World War I, as elsewhere in Asia, conditions in Burma became more difficult. The Burmese
became more conscious of the presence and dominant economic position of Indian immigrants with
whom they now came into competition. The inherent superiority of the Indians as labourers,
businessmen, police and judicial officers has put the Burmese at a disadvantage.
Some Indians and their offspring realized the inappropriateness of that policy, so, they did not support it.
Instead, they joined the Burmese independence movement. Others, however, especially civil servants of
the British colonial government and/or those who were converted into Christianity behaved as if they
were the co-rulers of Burma and their attitude towards the natives, especially towards the Burmese and
the majority Buddhists was terrible
and thus there began to rise in Burma an antagonism against
Indians in addition to anti-British feelings.
2.3.2. Indo Burmese Riots
Anti-Indian riots broke out in 1930 and 1938. According to official reports 120 persons lost their lives
in the first while the second caused the death of 200 persons and seriously injured 850 persons. Loss of
property was evaluated at about 20 million rupees. Particularly during the second riots, among the 55
persons shot dead by the Military Police, 52 were Burmese and only three of them were Indians.
126.96.36.199. Indian point of view
Prof. W.S. Desai, an Indian Hindu, who used to work as Professor of History at the University of
Rangoon presented his view about the first riot in 1930 in his Book "Burma and India, in page 39:
"Even officers (British or Burmese?) who had openly sided with the rioters were not brought to the
book. A number of Indian constables resigned in protest. When an Indian police officer was
courageous enough to give the correct statement of facts before an enquiry committee, he was labelled
hostile and became a marked man. The life of the poor Indian labourer was counted cheap by the
bureaucracy. Soon after, Burmese convicts in the Rangoon Central Jail rose against their officers and
carried out murderous attacks upon them. Now the jailors and warders were largely Indians. The Indian
Military Police had to be called in, and several convicts were shot down before the situation could be
brought under control".
Burmese Responses to Indian Immigration, Saw 1994 Page 8
Also in page 39-42 it was written that "In 1938 an anti-Muslim riot took place in Rangoon and certain
other towns. The Burmese mind had for some time been agitated at the growing population of Zerabadis
in the country. Again, there were Indian Mahomedans, who while having their wives in India, were in
the habit of cohabiting with Burmese women in Burma. Marriage to the Burmese Buddhist is not a
sacrament; it is just a civil contract. According to Burmese Buddhist law and practice, a man and a
woman publicly living together, without having gone through a marriage ceremony, are recognized as
husband and wife. The Mohammedan, however, did not look upon his Burmese wife as a legal wife; by
Muslim law property could not descend to her children, since no marriage was performed according to
Muslim law. His property went to his Indian wife and to her children. To rectify matters, the Burmese
legislature passed a law recognizing such Burmese women to be wives in law, they and their children
having the right to inherit property as such". ......... "While matters pertaining to Burmese wives of
foreigners, etc., were agitating the Burmese mind, an Indian Mohammedan had a book published in
which some sort of a critical attack was made upon Buddhism. The result was a serious riot with
hundreds of casualties, incendiaries and looting. But it was merely a religio-communal outbreak: Non-
Muslim Indians (ie. Hindus, Sikhs and others) were not molested. But there is no doubt that ill feelings
against Indian was growing in the Burmese mind. It was really an anti-foreigner feeling of the
awakening Burman. Indians became the target since he was to be seen everywhere more than any other
foreigner. The Indian again had not the same power of resistance, since in his own country he was tied
down. He could be more safely and easily attacked, because his British protectors in Burma were not
seriously interested in protecting him. The British bureaucracy in Burma was following a definite pro-
Burmese line coupled with an anti-Indian policy".
188.8.131.52. Burmese point of view
The Burmese already felt that Burma had become a "de facto colony" of India. To the British, Burma
was a colonie d'exploitation, but to the Indians, it was a colonie d'exploitation et colonie de peuplement.
Whenever Indo-Burmese riots broke out the police and Indian Para-Military Police were used "to restore
the law and order". According to the official statement of the Burmese Government 120 persons lost
their lives in the1930 riot and in1938 another riot caused the death of 200 persons, however, the people
estimated the real number was double and 90% of the persons shot dead by the police were Burmese.
Who were mainly in the police force? Of course Indians!!
As mentioned, Prof. Desai stated that "more Indian than Burmese were killed in those riots and the
British authorities favoured the Burmese". On the other hand, U Thein Pe Myint
also recorded the
1938 riots as: "On July 26
, near the Shwe Dagon Pagoda a protest meeting against the book of Mullah
U Shwe Phi was held. There was riot between police and the Burmese crowd. It was calm on the 27
of July. On the 28
a Buddhist monk was stabbed with daggers by Indian Muslims. In that way Indo-
Burmese riots started and spread out into the whole country. The whole of August was calm again but
on the 2
of September some Indians stoned Burmese-owned cars and killed a Burmese with a
spear in the 24
street of Central Rangoon. Therefore the new riots started again. ............ But the
Indians have money. Money makes everything. In the district towns Burmese were shot dead by the
police before they were able to touch Indians. ........... Even Buddhists monks were shot by the police.
Whether they participated or not most Burmese were arrested. ...... Until 9
of September 165 persons
lost their lives and 818 persons were injured. 55 persons were shot dead and 108 persons were wounded
by the police and soldiers. Among that 55 dead persons only three were Indians and the rest, 52 persons,
Burmese Responses to Indian Immigration, Saw 1994 Page 9
The late Wunna Kyaw Htin U Ba Tin
who later became Deputy Inspector General of Burma Prisons
under U Nu's Government in 1956, and who belonged to one of the very few Arakanese and Burmese
jailors in the Rangoon Central Jail at that time of the1930 riots, and who personally witnessed the riots
in "Rangoon Proper" and in Rangoon Jail recalled in his memory that not only the Burmese convicts in
the Rangoon Central Jail rose against their Indian officers and made murderous attacks upon them but
also there was a mutiny of the Indian convicts against Burmese staffs and tried to do the same. The
Indian Military Police was called much earlier than the prison riots because there was an Indo-Burmese
riot near the jail. Since The Indian Military Police fired in the crowd many Burmese civilians including
a Buddhist monk from the "Thayettaw Monastery" which was only one hundred feet away from wall of
the jail, were shot dead. The mutiny of the prisoners started only when they heard about the riots near
the prison and some Buddhist monks were shot. When the Indian Military Police arrived they mainly
aimed at the Burmese prisoners and pulled the trigger, instead of giving warning shots. That's why
several Burmese convicts and none of the Indian prisoners were shot down.
I do not want to blame Prof. Desai because he was an Indian and he had to see from their point of view.
Whether the British bureaucracy was a pro-Burmese line or not, has already been proven in history.
Which country was granted Dominion Status earlier? Which country was seriously considered by the
British during the war that she will be granted independence after the war? Which country remains in
the British Commonwealth and which country quit the British Commonwealth just a few hours after her
independence? Is it India or Burma? However, Prof. Desai's version also revealed the "Divide and Rule
Policy" of the British, though his view was presented in favour of the other side.
The late Mahatma Gandhi made a very fair statement that the both peoples, the Indians and the Burmese
were totally trapped and used by the British. As a result, anti-Indian feeling among the Burmese and
anti-Burmese feeling among the Indians evolved, which means the "Divide and Rule Policy of the
3. Burmese Responses
3.1. Creation of new definitions
3.1.1. The real definition of the term "Kala"
Burmese traditionally called the people from the Subcontinent "Kalas". Some believe it came from the
Pali word "Kula"
meaning "the noble race" (short form of "Kula Putta" meaning "son of the noble
race") because the Lord Buddha himself was an Indian. In fact, it is a word of courtesy.
The other hypothesis traced by Prof. Forchammer
to Gola, the name applied in an old Pegu inscription
to the Indian Buddhist immigrants, a name which identifies with Sanskrit Gauda, the ancient name of
northern Bengal, hence the famous city of Gaur.
Here I would like to cite Hobson-Jobson of Col. Henry Yule and A. C. Burnell, page 495 where it was
written: Kula, Kla, n.p Burmese name of a native of Continental India; and hance misapplied also to the
English and other Westerns who have come from India to Burma; in fact used generally for a Western
foreigner. The origin of the term has been much debated. Some have supposed to be connected with the
name of the Indian race, the Kols; another suggestion has connected it with Kalinga (see Kling); and a
third with the Skt. kula, ‘caste or tribe’; whilst the Burmese popular etymology renders it from ku, ‘to
cross over’ and la, to come, therefore ‘the people that come across (the sea)’. But the true history of
the word has for the first time been traced by Prof. Forchhammer to Gola, the name applied in old
Pegu inscriptions to the Indian Buddhist immigrants, a name which he identifies with Sanskrit
Gauda, the ancient name of northern Bengal, hence the famous city of Gaur (see GOUR, c.).
Myanmar-English Dictionary, Department of the Myanmar Language Commision, Ministry of
Education, Union of Myanmar, "A History of the Myanmar Alphabet, p.iv.
Burmese Responses to Indian Immigration, Saw 1994 Page 10
"In South India, the Andhra dynasty arose after the dissolution of the Maurya kingdom. Then arose such
dynasties as Pallava, Kadamba, Calukya, Rashtrakuta and Cola. During the reign of those dynasties
there developed from Brahmi such scripts as Pacchimi scripts in the west, Madhya Pradesh script in the
middle region and, in the south, such scripts as Telugu, Kanati, academic Grantha, Tamil which are
contained in Kadamba, Calukya and Rashtrakuta. These Indian scripts descended from Brahmi and
spread to Tibet, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia along with Indian beliefs and
culture in the period of 100 A.D to 800 A.D and helped in the development of indigenous scripts in
those regions ".
Since the early Indians who came to Southeast Asia by sea route and brought scripts were from Southern
India, it is very possible that those people were called Cola/Chola people by the natives. So, it cannot be
ruled out that Cola/Chola is the origin of the Mon word Gola/Gla, the Karen word Kola/Kula, the
Arakanese word Kula and the Burmese word Kala/Kula.
It proves that the Burmese as well as people of Burma did not have a negative attitude against the people
from the subcontinent in the pre-colonial period, but since the Indian immigration to Burma was large in
number so that some "ultra" nationalists took to creating a new definition for the word "Kala".
3.1.2. The definition invented by the "Ultra" Nationalists
Some invented that the origin of the word "Kala" came from the Burmese verbs ÷ (ku) meaning to
cross over and ·· (la) meaning to come, which can be translated as "the one who came across the sea".
This definition, although harmless, was a forced Burmanisation. Even today some people still believe
that it is the true derivation of the word "Kala" and use this explanation which definitely has no
scholarly basis. Even Prof. W.S. Desai
was totally trapped by that new invented definition and he
wrote: "Burmans call Indians Kalas. This term has been interpreted in two ways. Ku in Burmese means
to cross over while la means to come. So Kala is one who crossed over and came into the country, that
is, a foreigner. The other interpretation is that it is a Sanskrit Kula meaning clan or caste, Hence it is
thought the term was applied to Indians since they observed caste. Kalas therefore would mean 'the
caste people'. Most probably the first interpretation is the correct one."
3.1.3. The definition invented by the Indian Community in Burma
Although the word "Kala" has a harmless meaning, the people of the sub-continent do not like to be
called "Kala". They feel insulted because the word "Kala" means "Coloured" or "Blackie" in Hindi,
Urdu and Bengali languages. They interpret this in their own way and claimed that the Burmese call
them "coloured people" and usually complain about that word.
This reaction on part of the people from the subcontinent living in Burma is, I believe a hypersensitive
one and could even be considered as ethnocentric. For, it the above argument was true then the
following misinterpretation could occur:
Burmese Responses to Indian Immigration, Saw 1994 Page 11
(1) The Burmese term for Chinese is Tayok. This word could be claimed to have its derivation in the
Burmese word t (ta) meaning "one" and the Burmese word yut\ (yoat) which means "to have bad
manners". So, the word Tayok will then be misinterpreted to mean "the one with bad manners", which is
not the case. Moreover, the Chinese Community in Burma had and has never complained about this
word instead they are proud to say in Burmese: "We are Tayok".
(2) The Thais call the Burmese Phama in their language. The pronunciation Phama can be
misinterpreted in the Burmese language either as Pam (Phama: meaning "whore") or Pa;m (Pha'ma:
meaning "female frog") . However, the Burmese have never complained about this word!!
(3) In contrast, the Indians, Pakistanis and Bengalis called the Arakanese (Rakhaings) Mughs or Moghs
or Maghs which the Arakanese consider as derogatory, however they don’t care and still use this term.
3.1.4. The Term Magh or Mogen:
The Bengali term for the Arakanese is "Magh" or "Mogen", however, it was and is never applied by the
latter to themselves.
Some Arakanese believe the term Magh to be derogatory. Here I would like to cite Maung Tha Hla:
“The people of Bengal contemptuously referred to the Rakhaings as Magh, which suggests mixed race
or unclean beings, a smearing racial slur. The early European historians confused the term and
erroneously concluded that the Rakhaings were products of interracial marriages before they
finally discovered that it was an ethnological fallacy because the Rakhaings are Mongoloid and are
cognate to the Burmese. In confuting the term, the Rakhaing Chronicles pointed out that Magh applies
to the descendants of Rakhaings who married Bengali wives during the time when parts of Bengal were
under the wing of the Rakhaing monarchy. They are Buddhists and their dialect Chittagonian. A theory
expounds to implicate Magh with Maga, the name of an Aryan race, who were speculated to have
migrated into Rakhaing from Bihar, adjoining Bengal. The exposition was unsubstantiated in the light
of the Rakhaing annals".
Another hypothesis stated: In the early dynasties, the Arakanese (Rakhaings) as well as the Burmese
from Pagan used the Pali language. The synonym of Pali is Magadha. That’s why the land Arakan was
called Magadha Desa and the natives of Arakan were named Maghs by the people of the Indian
subcontinent. Then, the name ‘Magh’ could be positive and not derogatory. However, almost all
Arakanese (Rakhaings) consider this term to be an unsavoury meaning. The present author too, wants
to point out bluntly the following to argue the above mentioned hypothesis: “If the Rakhaings were
called Maghs because they used the Pali language before they switched to the Mramar language, then,
why were the Burmese from Pagan not also named the Maghs by the people of the subcontinent,
although the Burmese too used the Pali language before they switched to the Myanmar (Mramar)
language, same as the Arakanese (Rakhaings) did?
Burmese Responses to Indian Immigration, Saw 1994 Page 12
The biggest river in Burma is called Irrawaddy which is the corruption of the Pali or Sanskrit word
‘Indra Vati’ which can be roughly translated as ‘the Ruling Place of God Indra.’ That’s why the Hindu
people of the Subcontinent named the place which is now Burma as “Brahma Desa” meaning “the Land
of Brahmas” in the ancient times. That Hindi word Brahma Desa was adapted by the Portuguese later in
Century A.D and called that country “Birmania”. It was adopted by the French as “Birmanie”
and became the German word ‘Birma’. The British called ‘Brahma’ with their own pronunciation
‘Burma’. On the other hand, the first ever recorded European, who visited Burma, Marco Polo,
mentioned the country as ‘the kingdom of Mien’. Marco Polo was in China before he visited Burma.
The Burmese called their own land Myanmar and the Chinese named this country ”Mien Tien” and the
"Hobson-Jobson" A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo Indian Words and Phrases, at page 594 where it was
written: "Mugg, n.p. Beng. Magh. It is impossible to deviate without deterioration from Wilson's
definition of this obscure name; 'A name commonly applied to the natives of Arakan, particularly those
bordering on Bengal, or residing near the sea; the people of Chittagong.' It is beside the question of its
origin or proper application, to say, as Wilson goes on to say, on the authority of Lieut. (now Sir Arthur)
Phayre, that the Arakanese disclaim the title, and restrict it to a class held in contempt, viz. the
descendents of Arakanese settlers on the frontier of Bengal by Bengali mothers." ........ "There is a good
reason to conclude that the name is derived from Maga, the name of the ruling race for many centuries
in Magadha (modern Behar). The kings of ancient Arakan were no doubt originally of this race. For
though this is not distinctly expressed in the histories of Arakan, there are several legends of kings from
Benares reigning in that country." ......... "On the other hand the Mohammedan writers sometimes
confound Buddhists with fire-worshippers, and it seems possible that the word may have been Pers.
magh = magus."
Therefore, present author finds it as a double standard, ethnocentric, lingua centric and a hypersensitive
reaction on the part of the Indians to the term Kala.
3. 2. Creation of new words with bad meaning
3.2.1. Word formation in Burmese slang affixing "Kala" to poke fun
Actually, the prefix Kala had and has no derogatory meaning either in Burmese literature or standard
Burmese. The temples built in Indian style in Pagan (Bagan) was called ÷··.÷· Kala Kyaung
meaning "temples built in Indian style". Had the word Kala a derogatory meaning, the Burmese in
Pagan Era would not have named their temples using the prefix Kala.
Unfortunately, in the early part of the 20
century, because of Burmese ill-feelings towards Indians, the
meaning of the affix Kala has been changed in the Burmese slang. When one cannot create a new
word with bad meaning, the affix "Kala" (meaning Indian) is added and many new proverbs making
joke about the Indians are formed. Those words were especially created by "Clowns" from Burmese
theatres. Axel Bruns
also mentioned this in his book.
I would like to point out some words with bad meaning:
Burmese Responses to Indian Immigration, Saw 1994 Page 13
Burmese word Literal translation Meaning
(Kala Kyint Kala Kyan)
doing and planning like an
acting like an Indian overacting
(Khawtaw [Kala] Kyi)
looking like a Chittagonian (to
(Khawtaw Tahtaung ah)
one thousand Chittagonians' eye
(Kalathey Kalamyaw ate)
(Kalathey Kalamaw ate)
sleeping like a dead Indian
sleeping like an Indian in coma
sleeping like a dead Indian
sleeping like a tired Indian.
in sound sleep
3.2.2. New Burmese "proverbs" and literal translations:
(1) ÷··.÷ ÷·÷÷.· (Kala thike kyar win kike thalo) meaning "as if a group of Indians were
bitten by a tiger".
Normally Indians talk very loudly and are very talkative. If one cannot understand their language it will
be too awful. They are already too loud in normal conditions so one cannot imagine how noisy they will
be if they were attacked by a tiger. This proverb is used when people are talking very loudly or a certain
place is unbearably noisy.
(2, ÷··-.¸ ÷··..±-·¸≥÷¸ (Kala khat te ye kala phin hsay tar ne kone), which can be
literally translated as "all of the water fetched by the Indian is gone by washing his private parts".
This proverb is used when one uses all of his income for nothing and cannot save money.
(3, ÷··.¸∑ .∑¸ (Kala shway khway nin) meaning "(as if) a dog tramples on the Indian Gold ".
Indians use thin bronze sheets called tinsel as an imitation of gold. When a dog runs on that sheet a
noisy metallic sound which is very unpleasant for listeners will be made. When one talks with a very
loud and unmelodious voice this proverb is used.
(4) ÷··¬.¸· _÷÷. ¸˙¸·. (Kala a yaw win kyetchee shanego loke pay chin), which can
be translated literally "if you are friendly to an Indian he will give you chicken shit as asafoetida".
Generally it means Indians are not honest and they think they are so smart and even try to cheat their
(5) ÷··--¬ -÷·.·.¸_÷-¸ .¸·÷÷÷·· ÷·±∑-· ..·÷ (Kala ta oke sagar myar nay gya
don nauka kala kyar hsweta ma thi lite) meaning "a group of Indians were talking (so loud) that they did
not notice that the hindmost one in their group was snatched away by the tiger".
This proverb condemns the loud, over-talkativeness of Indians.
(6) ¸.¬¸∑ ÷¸÷·· ..·.-·. (Myin ohn khun, kyun kala, maya taw thu) meaning "the best
horse is the one with russet colour (the colour of coconut shell) or (reddish brown), the best slave is an
Indian and the best wife is a village girl".
Some interpret this positively, saying that Indians are honest so they should be appointed as servants, but
some interpret it negatively meaning that Indians are so stupid that they only deserve to be slaves.
3.2.3. Different feelings because of pronunciation
Burmese Responses to Indian Immigration, Saw 1994 Page 14
As mentioned earlier, rickshaw pulling, excrements carrying and sleeping and living on the roads
without accommodation done by many Indians in Burma had lowered Indian prestige in the estimation
of the Burmese. Though Buddhist Jatakas and Pali language originated in India, some Burmese totally
forgot this fact and they do not feel nice any more when a word sounds like Indian. For example the
Burmese word -.∂·.· (Sandar Dewi), which can be roughly translated as the moon princess, originated
from the Pali word "Chandra Devi". Therefore "Chandra Devi" and "Sandar Dewi" are the same word
with different pronunciations only, namely the first one is in Indian (that means original) and the latter in
Burmese. Whenever a Burmese hears the word "Sandar Dewi" he can imagine a very beautiful
Burmese princess in royal costumes but when he hears "Chandra Devi" he can only imagine an ugly
Indian woman with a "Sari" doing some menial jobs. Similarly, the Burmese word -”÷.- (Setkya
Waday) derived from the Pali word "Chakra Vati" means "the ruler of the universe", when a Burmese
hears "Setkya Waday" he will imagine a mighty emperor like "Alaung Phaya" but the word "Chakra
Vati" brings to his mind an old fat bald headed Indian trader, who used to own "Chakra Vati Store" near
Sule Pagoda in Rangoon.
Here I would like to point out some more examples as mentioned above:
Burmanized pronunciation Original Indian pronunciation
-.∂- (Sandagot) Chandra Gupta ¸·¸·-·,
.-·.· (Maha Dewa) Maha Devan .-·.·-¸,
÷√¸ (Kaensana) Krishna ¸-¸˙¸·,
¸·»÷.μ· (Yaza Kommar) Raj Kummar ¸·÷.·,
-.†·.- (Seinda Mani) Chandra Mani ¸·¸·.¸¸,
¸·»¸·¸ (Yaza Htani) Rajisthan ¸·--±¸,
.¸œ- (Thuyathati) Swarassati ±∑·¸±-,
.».¸ (Zeya Pura) Jaipur .¸,
Here, I would like to relate an event which I witnessed at the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in1966. A group of
pilgrims coming from central Burma headed (as usual) by a Buddhist monk were looking at the
paintings about the biography of Lord Buddha. Those paintings were different from the usual paintings
in Burmese temples because Prince Siddharttha, who later became Gautama Buddha, wore Indian
costumes instead of Burmese costumes. An old lady in that group complained immediately,
--..·÷.-· ÷··¸·”÷ ¸.-.∑·¸.÷·" "What a shame! What kind of stupid painter! What
has he done? In his paintings our Phaya Alaung
Prince Theikdatta, looks like an ugly Indian". I
could not control the situation and had to interrupt her and told her with a funny feeling °”÷.-·
-·-≥-¸·÷ -.·.·.˙-.¸.··-¨ "Lady, do you think your Lord Buddha was a Burmese?" She
looked at me astonished and looked in a puzzled way at the Buddhist monk, their group leader. The
monk smiled at her and had to answer, °--.·-·÷·.”÷÷· ÷··¸_.˙·.∑·.-·.¸ ¬·.˙·
¸¸-∫·¸¸¸.-·.-·- ÷¸-≥-¸·-·÷··¬--÷- ...-· -··¨ "Of course, our Lord Buddha
Burmese Responses to Indian Immigration, Saw 1994 Page 15
was an Indian. He was born there and he died there. Don't you know that?" Only then that old
lady kept quiet.
Indian immigration waves into Burma were encouraged by the British authorities at the beginning due to
their "Divide and Rule Policy". Since there is no similarity and affinity between the two peoples social
and religious tensions evolved. Both peoples, especially the Indians were trapped by the British.
Unfortunately, some Indians did really behave as if Burma were their colony and it were there divine
right to do every thing, whatever they like in Burma. The descendents of the People of the Subcontinent
had to bear the burden of the 'Divide and Rule Policy' of the British Colonial Masters. Until the present
time, they are neither cordially accepted nor looked at with affinity by the Burmese people. A similar
situation can be found in many former British Colonies in Africa.
In some cases Burmese responses too, were rather harsh at that time. Together with their ill-feelings,
and also because of their low regards towards the Indians some Burmese slang and colloquial usages
making joke about Indians and poking fun on Indians were created. I would consider these proverbs and
slang were formed in the same way as some slang in the British-English e.g. "Frogs" for the French
people, "Sauerkrauts" for the Germans, “He is talking like his Dutch Uncle”, "to go for Dutch treat" and
"to take a French leave" and so on were created.
These jokes were invented by clowns and "ultra nationalists", and never existed
in the standard literature. Unfortunately even some foreigners (mis) interpreted the Burmese word Kala
as an anti-Indian and vulgar word. Those incorrect interpretations were then amplified and disseminated
by some people. They generalized as if most of the Burmese were anti-Indian and had negative attitudes
towards the people from the Subcontinent. This statement is not true. Although many Burmese used to
have ill-feelings towards the Indians during the colonial era, these feelings are now slowly vanishing
though not totally vanished especially among the new generation who were born in post-independent
era, practically the new born generation after 1988.
I used the word Indian in this paper to represent not just the people of India, but rather the people from the Subcontinent that
means Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who are called Kalas by the Burmese. The word Burmese or Burman is also
only for the Bamas, the biggest ethnic group in Burma and not for the citizens of Burma.
Burmese Responses to Indian Immigration, Saw 1994 Page 16
In this essay the present author prefer to use the word "Burma" instead of "Myanmar" for the country though the latter is the
real and correct word in the Burmese language. Also other "anglicized" words like Rangoon instead of the correct word
Yangon are used because these words are internationally known and established.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 marked a turning point in the economic and administrative history of British-Burma.
The British government wanted to export Burmese rice and they extended the rice fields in Lower Burma, and they also
constructed railway lines. As they needed peasants and coolies they imported tens of thousands of Indians.
Prof. B.R. Pearn wrote in "A history of Rangoon" (published in 1939) "The population of the city was not merely
increasing; it was changing in character. The opportunities for trade and for employment which were now available attracted
a considerable Indian population. The Census of 1872 shows that there were some 16,000 Indians, being 16% of the whole
population, in the town; in 1881, there were over 66,000, being about 44% of the whole. The Burmese population had
actually undergone a slight decrease, from 69,000 to 67,000, and relatively had declined considerably, from nearly 70% to
about 50%. Of the total population in 1881, less than 49% had been born in Rangoon. Thus was commencing the process
which has made Rangoon an Indian rather than a Burmese city".
B.R. Pearn, The Indians in Burma, p. 8
Desai, W.S., India and Burma, Calcutta, 1954, p. 25.
Ton That Tien, India and Burma, in: India and South East Asia 1947-1960, Geneva, 1963, p. 154.
W.S. Daisai, India and Burma, Calcutta, 1954, p. 38.
U Aye Kyaw, Religion and Family Law in Burma , in: Tradition and Modernity in Myanmar, Berlin, 1993. p.245
U Aye Kyaw, op. cit. p. 247
See and compare: Maung Win Shein, Economic, Social and Political Changes in Burma (1886-1940), Polish Academy of
Sciences, Warsaw, 1987, p. 32.
See also Report of the Committee of the Burma Legislative Council (1929) in J.L. Christian, Burma and the Japanese
Invader, Bombay 1945, Appendix, A.P. 368.
The Karens are the second largest ethnic group in Burma while the Burmese are the largest. But the ratio between the
Burmese (Burman) and the Karens is approximately 9:1. The last census of Burma in 1992 stated that the total population of
Burma is nearly 42 millions and among them about 30 millions are Burman (Burmese) and about 3.5 millions Karens live in
Ton That Tien, op. cit., p. 152.
B.R. Pearn, The Indians in Burma, p. 25
Some pure Indians converted to Christianity, especially Madrasis and Goanese were ultra-favoured by the British. Most of
those Indians were so proud of their status and over-acted as if they were more British than the Englishmen. Some of them
behaved as though they were superior to the natives. Some used obscene words to the Burmese like "You Burmese have no
culture", "You Burmese are heathens". Some of them entered into Buddhists monasteries and temples with shoes on. Some
insulted Buddhists monks by calling them "bald-headed beggars".
Burmese Responses to Indian Immigration, Saw 1994 Page 17
See: Thein Pe Myint, Bonwada Hnit Do-Bama, (Communism and We Burmese Association), Rangoon 1954, p. 175.
Ibid, pp. 174-175.
He was the maternal uncle of the present author (the eldest brother of the present author's mother) and he told me the story.
See: Myanmar Language Commission, Myanmar-English Dictionary, Yangon, 1993, p. 10.
See: Myanmar language Commission, Myanmar-Myanmar Dictionary, Yangon, 1991, p. 9.
See and compare: U Wun, The University Burmese-Burmese Dictionary, Rangoon, 1952, p. 22.
Yule, H. Col. and Burrel, A. C., Hobson-Jobson, Rupa & Co., Calcutta, 1990.
Desai, W. S., India and Burma, Calcutta, 1954, p. 37.
Most of the Indians and the Pakistanis from Northern India, Bombay, Punjab, Kashmir and Pakistan have much fairer
complexion than the Burmese from Central Burma. So, how could the Burmese name the Indians coloured people?
Myo Min, Old Burma, Hanthawaddy Publications, 1946, p. 69
Maung Tha Hla, The Rakhaing, P. 18, NY, U.S.A, 2004
Axel Bruns, Hla Thamein, Birmanisches Marionettentheater, Berlin, 1990, where it was written: "Hsaik-Ka-La wird als
ein Inder mit dunkler Hautfarbe, oft mit einer Jockeymütze auf dem Kopf, dargestellt. Er ist ausnehmend häßlich mit seinen
hervorstehenden Augen und dem gebleckten Gebiß. Besonders auffällig ist seine Beinbekleidung, ein kurzer Lun-gyi, der
vorn offen ist und des öfteren einen auf seinen großen Penis frei gibt, was naturlich schallendes Gelächter auslöst. Diese
häßliche Karikatur eines Inders ist vielleicht im Zusammenhang mit den starken Spannungen zwischen den einheimischen
Birmanen und den Indern zu sehen, die von den britischen Besatzern zu Tausenden als billige Arbeitskräfte ins Land gebracht
Phaya Alaung (Bura;Aelac\;) means the one who will become Buddha in the future or the one striving to attain
Burmese Responses to Indian Immigration, Saw 1994 Page 18