Censorship in Colonial Burma
“Why should freedom of speech and freedom of the press be allowed?…[A government] would not allow opposition by lethal weapon. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns.” This sentiment is credited to Lenin and reflects the position of those who are in power who feel the threat of opposition (Goldstein 2000:1). When Burma is mentioned with regard to censorship, the current government is assumed as the perpetrator. While the current regime does indeed censor a great deal – arguably one of the most in the world – of interest in this paper is the censorship of Burma while under British rule in 1900-1939. The British Crown sought to first shape the morality of the Burmese hoping to mold them into the image of the Englishman (Larkin 2003:67). With a boom in popular mass culture, Britain began to suppress opposing images and ideologies which could be quickly disseminated to millions through a single play or story. As nationalism ideology began to take shape again, Britain struggled to keep the opposition from spreading “ideas…more fatal than guns” as they fought to maintain their power.
Colonial rule of Burma began in the late 19th century as mass media was just beginning its wide distribution. As with many colonies, Britain ruled from afar primarily exploiting Burma to add to its empirical strength. During this time, most Brits looked at the Burmese as savages, exotic, and immoral. Burmese dramas were popular in schools before the British arrived. Once the British observed these dramas, they were deemed as having no literary importance. The dramas were accused of being “immoral, cruel, or foolish…[and] handicapping the Burmese race” (Larkin 2003:68). Many of these dramas were proclaimed obscene and indecent. While the Brits tried to remove the dramas through censorship and punishment, it was eventually decided to instead educate the school children in moral behavior. The hope was that through education the students would self-censor upon realizing the dramas were full of immorality. Initially the Brits were most concerned with controlling the “Burmese cultural diet” (Larkin 2003:70).
The ruling British Crown was also concerned with the image the Burmese perceived of them. It was important to the ruling Brits to make sure they were not questioned whether in their right to rule, their method of leadership, or in their morality. Many books could have been banned based on their portrayal of Englishmen, but since many Burmese could not read English they were left alone. Film was found to be much more threatening than books “since films have a wide appeal in Burma which English novels have not” (Larkin 2003:73). The images of the films were censored by such vague criteria as “excessively passionate love scenes” without clear definitions of excess (Larkin 2003:76). The British also felt that humor could cause disrespect for traditional figures of authority. Therefore, Charlie Chaplin was censored because of his portrayal of bumbling policeman and clergy.
The review of films definitely kept the censors busy but sedition was where they were most concerned. Sedition is anything that might prove a direct threat to their rule (Larkin 2003:78). Ironically, because the British authorities had removed the ruling Burmese king in 1885 they were especially sensitive to anyone who spoke of returning Burma to its monarchy. As nationality gained momentum during the early 20th century, the ruling British began to suppress more and more. The Burmese began to speak of inequalities, brutalities, and exploitation. The English began to sanction and punish publications for articles written. Many Burmese lamented on their inability to report the complete facts in context especially if the articles reflected poorly on the British. In addition, British objected to political literature if it contained any form of communism which was in direct opposition to imperialism of which they prescribed. British officials tried to justify this censorship by saying they were “not in favor of allowing books on Communism to spread all over Burma and more particularly to fall into the hands of ill-educated and immature youths who might be influenced to carry on dangerous activities to the detriment of the people of Burma” (Larkin 2003:91).
The complete list of censored items in Burma by the British is much more extensive, covering many more topics. In this paper, censorship was justified by ruling British authorities on the basis of creating moral individuals, projecting and protecting a capable image of themselves, and by removing direct threats to their rule. Ultimately, Britain lost this battle as, indeed, “ideas…more fatal than guns” lead to Burmese independence.
I chose this theme because of my desire to learn more about Burma and its history. I was further intrigued by the ideas set forth by Goldstein as he described European censorship in the 19th century. Traditionally we first make a judgment on a ruling party’s ability to rule before we decide whether the opposition should be squelched or not. With the luxury of time, judgments can be made regarding Britain’s right to rule Burma before the institution of censorship is considered. Further, with the luxury of knowledge and enlightenment, the ethnocentric ideas that Britain tried to impose can be viewed as distasteful. As the story of Burma unfolds in early 20th century, the big empirical nation of Britain is the bad guy. The underdog opposition that led to Burma’s independence emerges as the hero, the victor. On one hand, my American ideology compels me to believe that everyone has the right to express themselves and question authority. On the other hand, nationalism – which I just invoked – demands respect and loyalty which must sometimes be blindly given.
Goldstein, Robert Justin. 2000. “The War for the Public Mind: Political Censorship in Nineteenth-century Europe.” Introduction. In The War for the Public Mind: Political Censorship in Nineteenth-century Europe, 1-34. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Larkin, Emma. 2003. “The Self-Conscious Censor: Censorship in Burma Under the British, 1900-1939.” Journal of Burma Studies 8 (1): 64-101. doi:10.1353/jbs.2003.0002.