B O O K – Containing Decolonization: British Imperialism and the Politics of Race in Late Colonial Burma (Working Title)

“In the garden of No. 10 Downing Street. Photographer: Unknown.” (Jan 1947). India Office Records, British Library, Photo 134/3(6). Used with permission.

British Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee (left) and his Cabinet discuss setting up an independent Burmese state with Aung San (middle), U Saw (right) and other Burmese representatives. Just six months later, U Saw would send assassins to murder Aung San in an attempt to foment a rightist coup with the tacit approval of certain British officials.

Coming Soon!

I am currently sending proposals to university presses for publication. The manuscript has already gone through several stages of peer review. Details on future publication to come soon!


This book argues that – as the rise of a powerful Burmese anti-colonial movement in the 1930s and 1940s made it increasingly clear that colonialism in Burma would eventually end – British colonial officials in London and on-the-spot formed a tacit preference for Burmese ethnonationalism in order to combat the more revolutionary trends within Burmese politics. At first, this relationship may seem paradoxical: ethnonationalists, by definition, demand political independence. But formal rule was often the least of British imperialists’ concerns, a “burden” even. It was a means to achieve the much more important ends of preserving a foothold for British capital and geo-strategic concerns. Colonialism had since become an end in itself, but as increasing constitutional concessions made Burmese cooperation ever more crucial, pragmatic British officials steered politicians into power that were least damaging to their interests. While Burmese socialists, communists, and other radicals fought for a true revolution to eliminate the social and economic systems causing widespread oppression in late colonial Burma, Burmese ethnonationalists used the same revolutionary energy to substitute a British ruling class with a Burmese one. Although it meant the end of direct British rule, ethnonationalists would nevertheless maintain a capitalist social and economic structure with which Western capital could continue to do business. Unlike communist governments, they would also remain open to compromise with Western strategic imperatives.

Therefore, this work bridges the gap between the “divide-and-rule” politics of formal British colonialism and the informal imperialism of Anglo-American Cold War “containment” policies. Instead of creating an arbitrary divide between colonialism and “neo”-colonialism at the moment of decolonization, this work identifies – at least in Burma – an unbroken policy of repressing revolutionary politics and amplifying ethnonationalist politics to benefit Western imperialism and global capital. In short, British imperialists sought to “contain” revolutionary forces in the process of decolonization just as they sought to “contain” them during the Cold War. If formal colonialism could not be maintained, informal imperialism would have to do; so much has already been said by scholars of decolonization. The major intervention of this work, then, is to demonstrate how British imperialists used ethnonationalist politics in particular to achieve this end, and how ethnonationalists themselves used imperial backing to gain power and push their racial regime both during colonial rule and in post-colonial authoritarian governments like the Tatmadaw junta.


This work makes two key interventions. First, for imperialism studies, it bridges the gap between works on colonial “divide-and-rule” policies and works on neo-colonial “Containment” policies during the Cold War. It provides a key case study for explaining how imperialists and authoritarian states in general (whether colonial or post-colonial) utilize ethnonationalist politics to prevent social and economic revolution. Second, for Myanmar studies, it identifies the origin of the racial regime that scapegoats Indians and Muslims as foreign invaders and exploiters, encapsulated in the racialized term “Kala.” This racial regime led to indigenous Muslims, such as the Rohingya, to be perceived as Indians, leading to their misidentification by ethnonationalists as “illegal Bengali immigrants.” The present-day Rohingya genocide is a result of the persistence of this racial regime, first utilized by the British and then re-activated by the post-colonial military junta. Therefore, this book paints a more complete picture of the relationship between imperialism, race, and capitalism, and provides a greater scholarly understanding of the politics of race in late colonial and post-colonial Burma/Myanmar.

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