Root Causes of the Burmese Crime Wave of 1924?

Orwell’s first year on the beat was a catastrophic one for the British police force in Burma. Retired civil servant J. K. Stanford wrote in his memoirs of that time, ‘Everyone had realized what an astounding assortment of malefactors – murderers, dacoits, thieves, robbers, house-breakers, forgers, coiners, blackmailers, and so on – each district possessed. They seemed to spring up like dragon’s teeth. Violent crime in Burma had risen at an alarming rate. Dacoity – defined as crime committed by roving gangs of more than five hooligans – had doubled in the last ten years, as had murder rates, giving Burma the dubious distinction of being the most violent corner of the Indian Empire. As one police report put it: ‘Murder stalks through the land with impunity.’ The sheer brutality of the crimes astounded British administrators. Dacoits raped women and girls as young as eleven, afterwards covering their victims in kerosene-soaked blankets and setting fire to them. There were descriptions of a dacoit king famous for crucifying his victims. The dead body of an Indian was found in a well with a bamboo stick forced up his anus. A monk was lured out of his dwellings to have his throat slit. A fisherman was hacked to death for his daily catch. ‘This year,’ said the police report for 1924, with considerable understatement, ‘has been a very difficult one for the Police.’

Burma’s unprecedented crime wave sent the police force into turmoil, and Orwell found himself right in the deep end. ‘Crime season,’ as the police called it, was between January and June, when the demands of agricultural labor were low. And this was exactly when Orwell began his first posting out in the field. The British police authorities set up countless committees to investigate the root causes of what one report called the ‘bestial savagery’ and to find out how best to deal with it. All police leave during crime season was revoked. Ninety British officers and 13,000 Burmese policemen had to oversee a land of some 13 million people. The Burmese policemen were underpaid and undertrained. Corruption was rampant among magistrates, and criminals were seldom convicted. It was a potentially disastrous situation.

The British authorities desperately searched for solutions. One committee denounced alcohol as a catalyst for murder. The ever present dani [nipa palm], which lined the rivers I had sailed through, could be distilled into a lethal brew, and toddy was attainable from any palm tree. The committee recommended total prohibition for Burmans. Another pointed to the demoralizing influence of the imported adventure movies – mostly violent depictions of America’s Wild West – that were doing the rounds on travelling cinematographs. One officer blamed the high rates of violence on the Delta’s infernal mosquitoes. And there were some, much more disturbing, diagnoses which referred to ‘the innate criminality of the Burmese character’. Only one report ventured to look at the impact of British intervention on Burmese culture: the way in which the British government had removed respected headmen and replaced them with its own bureaucratic counterparts. A Burmese police officer added ‘a minute of dissent’ to one report, pointing out that young Burmese boys now had to attend schools styled on the British educational system and were no longer able to go to the pongyi kyaung, or traditional monastic schools. He felt the government should have had the foresight to see that disabling the country’s centuries-old religious education system would lead to disaster. There is, he wrote, ‘no reason to assume it has come to such a stage that the Burmese people are less moral than any other nation’.

SOURCE: Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, by Emma Larkin (John Murray, 2005), pp. 71-72

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