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In Session: Anticolonialism and Internationalism in Asia
2: Interwar Containment? Choosing Nationalism over Internationalism in Burma, 1938-1942
Friday, March 26, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
Matthew J. Bowser
Northeastern University, United States
In the early 1930s, the Burmese had the choice between administratively separating from or entering into a permanent federation with India. The Burmese left strongly supported federation, but the Burmese right-with the support of the British colonial authorities-succeeded in pushing for separation. This decision set the stage for a political opportunist, U Saw, to spearhead a Burmese form of fascism, through which the socioeconomic crisis in Burma could be blamed on an ‘invasion’ of Indian immigrants rather than the larger structures of imperialism and global capital. While the Burmese left attempted to form solidarities with the Indian anti-colonial movement, with Chinese Communists, and with the Japanese, Burmese fascists pushed a political ideology that instead encouraged a descent into jingoism, anti-immigrant xenophobia, cultural and religious fundamentalism. This movement scapegoated Indians and Muslims, who suffered increasing forms of repression up to and including a virtual ban on Indian immigration in 1941. I argue that the British state amplified this latter political movement both through its close cooperation with U Saw and through its brutal suppression of internationalist anti-colonialism. Scholars of empire, either by intention or by custom, have traditionally reified the idea that nationalism was the primary form of anti-colonial resistance, ignoring the larger set of internationalist solidarities and ideologies that existed prior to and during World War II. This paper demonstrates that, long before Cold War ‘containment’ policies, European imperial powers were punishing leftist and internationalist forms of anti-colonialism while tolerating or even supporting nationalist or ultranationalist forms.