Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Pacification Of Burma (1885-90) – Part (2)


Indian soldiers in Burma (1887).
My first acquaintance with Burma was made in the early part of 1883. I was then a member of the Legislative Council of India. Mr. Charles Bernard, who was Chief Commissioner of British Burma, had asked for a year's leave, and Lord Ripon selected me to take his place. During that year, 1883-4, I went over Lower Burma—British Burma as it was then called—and learnt the methods of the administration and became acquainted with the officers in the commission and the nature of the country and its people.

There was at that time very little communication between the Court of Ava and the Chief Commissioner, who represented the Governor-General in Council. The embassy which the King had sent to Simla with the ostensible purpose of making a new treaty had been suddenly recalled, notwithstanding, and perhaps in some degree because of, the very honourable and hospitable manner in which Lord Ripon had received it.

The King was already negotiating a treaty with France, and in 1883, before the mission despatched for this purpose to Europe had left Mandalay, it was believed to have been drafted. But when I surrendered the office to Sir Charles Bernard on his return from leave in February, 1884, there was no thought of war in the near future.

From Rangoon I was transferred to Nagpur, to the post of Chief Commissioner of the Central Provinces. Towards the end of 1885, fever drove me to England on sick leave just as the relations with the King of Burma were broken off and war had become unavoidable. Returning from leave in November, 1886, I found awaiting me at Suez orders posting me to the Public Service Commission, of which the late Sir Charles Aitchison was president.

At Bombay I found instructions to proceed at once to Hyderabad in the Deccan, as the Viceroy (Lord Dufferin) desired to see me. At Hyderabad I waited on Lord Dufferin. He told me that Bernard might have to leave, and he wished to know if I would accept the appointment of Chief Commissioner of Burma if he decided to offer it to me.

He added that it was in his opinion the post in all India most to be coveted, and that if he was not Viceroy he would choose Burma: an unnecessary stimulus, as ever since leaving that province in 1884 my ambition had been to succeed Bernard. I told the Viceroy that I would go to Burma if it were offered to me.

I was with the Public Service Commission at Lahore, Allahabad, and Jubulpore, and back to Bombay, before I heard anything more about Burma. At the end of January, 1887, we were leaving the Parel Station, Bombay, for Madras, where the next sitting of the Commission was to be, when the train was stopped just as it began to move, and the station-master ran up with a clear-the-line message for me from the Viceroy, desiring me to wait further orders at Bombay.

I left the train gladly, as I knew that it meant that I was to go to Burma, and I was delighted to be relieved from the work of the Commission, which was distasteful to me, especially as it appeared from the character of the evidence brought forward, a matter left entirely to the local Government in each province, not likely to lead to beneficial results. On the 3rd of February a telegram dated the 2nd came from the Viceroy, offering me the Chief Commissionership as Bernard's health had broken down, and desiring me to come to Calcutta to consult with the Government.

As soon as I could arrange my affairs I went to Calcutta. The Viceroy received me on the 14th of February. He took me out to the lawn at the side where the great house throws a pleasant shade in the afternoon. There we sat, and Lord Dufferin explained to me how matters stood in Burma, and gave me his instructions on many points and on the general principles which he wished to guide the administration.

The organization of the military police and the material of which the force was to be constituted was one of the chief matters he spoke about. He attached much importance to the enlistment of Burmans, Shans, and Karens, so that the unhealthy posts might be held by acclimatized natives. British officers would have to be posted to command them, and they must be relieved at short intervals.

Lord Dufferin of British-India.
He showed me letters which had passed between him and Bernard about the military police force, to which, as an instrument in the pacification of the province, he attached the first importance. He spoke of the strength of the Commission, and told me to consider it carefully and ask for more men if I thought them necessary.

Generally he considered that true economy dictated the expenditure of as much money as was necessary to fit out the new province with offices, roads, buildings, and river steamers, and it was folly, he said, not to give it. Barracks and shelter for troops and police should be vigorously pushed on.

The questions of the Shan States and our relations with China were discussed. As to the Shan States, I represented the manner in which our relations with the feudatory chiefs in the Central Provinces were managed and the saving in cost and responsibility to be gained by leaving them quasi-independent. Lord Dufferin approved of this policy and preferred it to annexation, even in the case of the Wuntho Sawbwa, who had shown an inclination to refuse submission to our Government.

The Viceroy spoke at length and with emphasis regarding our relations with China, which he looked upon as most important. We were face to face, he said, with a very powerful neighbour, who might greatly harass us if she or even her subordinate officials chose to worry us. Two officers of the Chinese Consular Service had been sent to Upper Burma to be at my disposal in dealing with the Chinese in Burma and in conducting relations with the Chinese Government.

In the matter of the frontiers of Upper Burma, where they touched China, great care should be exercised. "Feel your way," he said, putting out his hand, "and when you come against anything hard, draw back," advice that was most sound in dealing with the ill-defined boundaries of a conquered province. We wished to hold what our predecessors had held or had been entitled to hold, and we did not desire to leave unoccupied space for others to come in. He told me to think carefully whether there was anything I wanted done and to let him know before I left. I was to see him again.

In a country where one man is as good as another, where there are no landlords, no hereditary aristocracy and no tribal chiefs, the Government, especially a foreign Government, is at a great disadvantage. It is impossible to deal with each individual. The first question is, who is the great man of this village: who has influence, who knows the villagers, their characters and so on?

Having found the man, it becomes possible to enter into relations with the village and to treat with them as a whole. In Upper Burma there was a recognized headman in each village who had duties, and powers corresponding to his duties; and in many administrative matters, especially in taxation, the village was dealt with as a whole.

The difficulty in Lower Burma was the absence of such a local authority or unit. The villagers were not held together by any obligation to each other or by subordination to any one on the spot. Each man had his own bit of land which he held directly from the Government. He lived where he pleased, and if he put his house in the same place with other cultivators, it was for the sake of convenience and protection.

A typically well-protected-and-guarded Burmese village.
The villages were grouped for revenue purposes by the British administration under officials who collected the taxes and received a percentage on the amount. Each of these taik Thugyis (headmen of circles), as they were designated, had many villages under him and could not be expected to have local knowledge or personal influence in all of them. He had no powers outside his revenue work.

It was open to anyone to put up his hut in any village, wherever he could find room. There was no one to say him nay, even if he was a gambler, an opium-eater, or a notorious evildoer living by theft and robbery. There were, it is true, village policemen appointed by law, who were intended to supply the wants of a local authority.

But no power was given to them: they were subordinated to the regular civil police and had no status as revenue officials. Consequently they tended to become mere village drudges, although by no means useless and frequently showing both courage and sagacity in police matters.

When I was in Burma in 1883-84 gang-robbery was prevalent, even in the neighbourhood of Rangoon; so much so as to demand close attention from the head of the province. I had observed that in nearly every case where a large gang of dacoits, to use the Indian term, was dominating a district or part of a district they were assisted by sympathisers, who sent them food, supplied them with information, and made it possible for them to live undetected.

The codes of Indian Criminal Procedure do not enable a magistrate to touch cases of this sort. If the people are against the Government—and in 1887 they were certainly not minded to help it—the difficulty of detecting and convicting such secret abettors is almost insuperable. At any rate, it was a slow process, and meanwhile violence and disorder flourished and the peasantry became more and more enthralled to the brigands.

It occurred to me that nothing would give the civil magistrate more assistance than the power of summarily removing persons who, while they themselves appeared to be living harmless lives without reproach, were enabling the insurgent or brigand gangs to keep the field.

I explained my views on these matters to the Viceroy. He promised me his support and desired me to embody my ideas in a draft Regulation before I left Calcutta. With the assistance of the Legislative Department the draft was quickly completed, and on my arrival in Burma it was circulated to district officers for their opinions. It was delayed by various formalities and inquiries, and was not finally made law until October, 1887.

Founded so far as might be on the system indigenous to the country and in accord with the mind of the people, this law was a great aid to the administration. Writing in October, 1890, I said:

"I think that most officers will now admit that the policy of dealing with the people by villages and not by individuals has been a very powerful instrument for suppressing disorder and establishing our authority. It would not have been possible to use this instrument if the village system had no vitality. If we are to rule the country cheaply and efficiently and to keep the people from being robbed and oppressed by the criminal classes, the village system must be maintained in vigour. It cannot thrive or live unless the post of headman is sought after, or at least willingly accepted, by respectable persons."

I believe the provisions of the village regulation are still a living force and are brought into action when occasion arises. But the life of the system is the headman, his dignity and his position. This is what the author of "The Soul of a People" wrote in 1898:—

"So each village managed its own affairs untroubled by squire or priest, very little troubled by the State. That within their little means they did it well no one can doubt. They taxed themselves without friction, they built their own monastery schools by voluntary effort, they maintained a very high, a very simple, code of morals entirely of their own initiative.

"All this has passed or is passing. The King has gone to a banishment far across the sea, the Ministers are either banished or powerless for good or evil. It will never rise again, this government of the King which was so bad in all it did and only good in what it left alone. It will never rise again. The people are now part of the British Empire, subjects of the Queen. What may be in store for them in the far future no one can tell; only we may be sure that the past can return no more. And the local government is passing away too. It cannot exist with a strong Government such as ours. For good or for evil, in a few years, it too, will be gone."

This is a prophecy which I believe has not yet been fulfilled, and I hope never will. But to return to the order of events.

I was detained in Calcutta until the 24th of February. Time by no means wasted. I had frequent opportunities of seeing the Members of Council and learning what was going on in each department. Lord Dufferin allowed me to discuss matters with him more than once.

On the 19th I attended His Excellency in Council and explained my views, especially regarding the village system. Leaving Calcutta in the British India steamship Rangoon on the 24th, I landed at Rangoon on Sunday the 27th of March. Next day I relieved Sir Charles Bernard and took charge of the Province of Burma.

In order to enable the Chief Commissioner to give more time to the affairs of Upper Burma, a Special Commissioner, Mr. Hodgkinson, had been appointed to take immediate charge of the older province. I found that the Special Commissioner was in fact ruler of the Lower Province, and was so regarded by the public. Nothing which was not of a very extraordinary nature was referred to the Chief Commissioner, whose responsibility, however, remained unimpaired.

British occupation basically  redrew
the boundary of today Burma.
For example, two or three days after my arrival the Viceroy telegraphed in cipher to the Chief Commissioner about some matters in Lower Burma which had given rise to questions in Parliament, and of which the responsible Chief Commissioner had no cognizance. No more competent and trustworthy man than Mr. Hodgkinson could have been found for the work. Nevertheless the arrangement did not seem to me quite satisfactory.

There were urgent matters requiring to be settled with Mr. Hodgkinson, more especially the Budget of the Province and the organization of the police in Lower Burma, which needed thorough reform. They had earned the reputation of being the worst and the most costly in the world, and during the last eighteen months they had not belied it. It was necessary to form a body of military police for Lower Burma of suitable Indians, trained and disciplined.

During the few days I was in Rangoon this and other urgent matters—for example, the arrangements with the Bombay Burma Company about the Upper Burma Forests, the Ruby Mines, the condition of some of the Lower Burma districts, the postings of officers, the distribution of reinforcements of military police just disembarking from the transports, consultations with the General Commanding in Lower Burma as to the measures necessary along and beyond the line of the old frontier within the limits of his command, all these things and much more would have given me plenty of work for many days.

I could only dispose of those matters which required my personal orders and leave the rest to Mr. Hodgkinson. I could not remain in Rangoon. Sir Charles Bernard had a powerful memory. The Upper Burma Secretariat was, as has been said, in Mandalay; when Sir Charles Bernard was in Rangoon, he relied to a great extent on his memory.

Letters and telegrams received from Mandalay were dealt with and returned with his orders, no copies for reference being kept. As the Rangoon Secretariat was ignorant of Upper Burma affairs, I found myself completely in the air. I decided therefore to start as soon as possible for Mandalay.

I left Rangoon by rail for Prome on the 9th of March. At Prome a Government steamer, the Sir William Peel, was waiting for me, and I reached Mandalay on the 14th. To a man sailing up the river there were few signs of trouble. The people appeared to be going about their business as usual, and no doubt along the river bank and in the neighbourhood of our posts there was little disorder.

But this appearance was deceptive. Just beyond the old frontier the country from the right bank of the Irrawaddy up to the Arakan Yoma was in the hands of insurgents. On the right bank of the river, forty miles above Thayetmyo, is the Burman fort and town of Minhla, where the first opposition was offered to the British expedition. I found here a small detachment of Indian troops, and in the town, about half a mile off, a police post.

I learnt from the British officer commanding the detachment and from the Burman magistrate that for some fifty miles inland, up to the Chin hills on the west, the villages were deserted and the headmen had absconded. This is an unhealthy tract, with much jungle, and broken up into small valleys by the spurs from the Arakan mountains. The noted leader Bo Swè made his lair here and had still to be reckoned with. His story illustrates the difficulties which had to be overcome.

In November, 1885, after taking Minhla, a district was formed by Sir Harry Prendergast consisting of a large tract of country above the British Burma frontier on both sides of the river to Salin, north of Minbu, on the right bank, and including Magwè and Yenangyoung on the left.

This district was known at first as Minhla, but afterwards as Minbu, to which the headquarters were moved. Mr. Robert Phayre, of the Indian Civil Service and of the British Burma Commission, was left in charge, supported by a small force.

Mr. Phayre, a relative of that distinguished man, Colonel Sir Arthur Phayre, the first Chief Commissioner of British Burma, was the right man for the work. He began by getting into touch with the native officials, and by the 15th of December all those on the right bank of the river had accepted service under the new Government.

Outposts were established, and flying columns dispersed any gatherings of malcontents that were reported. A small body of troops from Thayetmyo, moving about in the west under the Arakan hills, acted in support of Minhla. Revenue began to come in, and at Yenangyoung, the seat of the earth-oil industry, work was being resumed. Everything promised well.

Burmese villagers kowtowing the British-Chief-Commissioner Sir Charles Crosswaite.
Rebel Bo Swe and U Oktama of Lower-Middle-Burma

There were two men, however, who had not been or would not be propitiated, Maung Swè and Ôktama. Maung Swè was hereditary headman or Thugyi of Mindat, a village near the old frontier. He had for years been a trouble to the Thayetmyo district of British Burma, harbouring criminals and assisting dacoit gangs to attack our villages, if he did not lead them himself. He had been ordered up to Mandalay by the Burmese Government owing to the strong remonstrances of the Chief Commissioner.

On the outbreak of war Bo Swè was at once sent back to do his utmost against the invaders. So long as there was a force moving about in the west of the district he was unable to do much. When the troops were withdrawn (the deadly climate under the hills compelled their recall), he began active operations.

The second man was named Ôktama, one of the most determined opponents of the British. He had inspired his followers with some of his spirit, whether fanatical or patriotic, and harassed the north of the district about and beyond Minbu. His gang was more than once attacked and dispersed, but came together again. He and Maung Swè worked together and between them dominated the country.

In May, 1886, Maung Swè was attacked and driven back towards the hills. He retired on Ngapè, a strong position thirty miles west of Minbu and commanding the principal pass through the mountains into Arakan.

Early in June, 1886, Mr. Phayre, with fifty sepoys of a Bengal infantry regiment and as many military police (Indians), started from Minbu to attack Maung Swè, who was at a place called Padein. The enemy were reinforced during the night by two or three hundred men from Ngapè.

The attack was delivered on the 9th of June, and Phayre, who was leading, was shot dead. His men fell back, leaving his body, which was carried off by the Burmans, but was afterwards recovered and buried at Minbu.

Three days after this two parties of Ôktama's gang who had taken up positions near Salin were attacked by Captain Dunsford. His force consisted of twenty rifles of the Liverpool Regiment and twenty rifles of the 2nd Bengal Infantry. The Burmans were driven from their ground, but Captain Dunsford was killed and a few of our men wounded.

Burmese rebel "Bo Swe"?
Reinforcements were sent across the river from Pagan: and Major Gordon, of the 2nd Bengal Infantry, with ninety-five rifles of his own regiment, fifty rifles of the Liverpool Regiment, and two guns 7-1 R.A., attacked Maung Swè in a position near Ngapè.

The Burmans fought well, but were forced to retire. Unfortunately the want of mounted men prevented a pursuit. The enemy carried off their killed and wounded. Our loss was eight men killed and twenty-six wounded, including one officer. We then occupied Ngapè in strength, but in July the deadly climate obliged us to withdraw.

Maung Swè returned at once to his lair. By the end of August the whole of the western part of the district was in the hands of the insurgents, rebels, or patriots, according to the side from which they are seen.

Meanwhile Salin had been besieged by Ôktama. He was driven off after three days by Captain Atkinson, who brought up reinforcements to aid the garrison of the post. Captain Atkinson was killed in the action. Thus in a few weeks these two leaders had cost us the lives of three officers.

In the course of the operations undertaken under Sir Frederick Roberts's command in the open season of 1886-87, this country was well searched by parties of troops with mounted infantry. Bo Swè's power was broken, and in March, 1887, he was near the end of his exploits. In the north of the district, the exertions of the troops had made little impression on Ôktama's influence. The peasantry, whether through sympathy or fear, were on his side.

I have troubled the reader with this story because it will help to the understanding of the problem we had before us in every part of Upper Burma. It will explain how districts reported at an early date to be "quite peaceful" or "comparatively settled" were often altogether in the hands of hostile bands. They were reported quiet because we could hear no noise. We were outsiders, as indeed we are, more or less, not only in Burma but in every part of the Indian Empire—less perhaps in Burma than elsewhere.

On the way up the river I had the advantage of meeting Mr. (now Sir James) La Touche, the Commissioner of the Southern Division, Sir Robert Low, commanding at Myingyan, Brigadier-General Anderson, Captain Eyre, the Deputy Commissioner of Pagan district (which then included Pakokku and the Yaw country), and others.

At Mandalay I was able to consult with General Sir George White, commanding the field force, with His Excellency Sir Charles Arbuthnot, the Commander-in-Chief of the Madras Army, and with the civil officers, namely, the Commissioner of the Northern Division, Mr. Burgess, and Mr. (now Sir Frederick) Fryer, the Commissioner of the Central or Sagaing Division, and their subordinates.

No more capable or helpful men could have been found. The Commissioner of the Eastern Division was out of reach for the time. The only way of getting to that country was by road from Mandalay, which would have taken many days. I had to wait until I returned to Rangoon and could go by rail to Toungoo before I made acquaintance with Mr. Henry St. George Tucker, of the Indian Civil Service, a Punjab officer.

British Chief Commissioner and his four Burmese wives.
The Pacification of Burma (1885-90) - Part (3)
The Pacification of Burma (1885-90) - Part (1)