Yangon (1850-1860)/ Development of Burmese Nationalism

Yangon (1850-1860)/ Development of Burmese Nationalism
Trinity church built in 1869

It was clear to the colonial authorities that there was a need for sociopolitical reposition of Buddhism in British Burma for the interrelated link between Buddhism and the monarchy in Rangoon, and more importantly the inclination of the Burmese to look to the monarchy for Buddhist patronage (Steinberg, 2010).

According to Gaese (2006, p.194), new road and street names have been adopted after the 1852 war, gradually “turning Rangoon into a typical English provincial town in features and appearance”, for instance Churchill Road was introduced. Public buildings built at the time were also greatly influenced by Victorian, Tudor, Gothic and classical styles (Perriere, 1999).

Figure 1: Trinity church built in 1869 was constructed in Indo-Saracenic style that was influenced by Gothic architecture (Pearn, 1939).

Although 70 per cent of the population of the city were Burmese, they were marginalized into outer wards, such as to the west of the Thayet Taw monastery in Lanmadaw or further from the downtown area on either side of the Cantonment (Pearn, 1939). By the time a great number of Burmese returned from studying abroad, they found out that downtown Rangoon was dominated by Indians and almost all downtown land had been sold without compensation to the traditional owners. 

In order to have full control of the city, the British abandoned the monarchy structure and undercut the position of Buddhism. They eliminated the position of the thathanabaing, so that the sangha lost administrative cohesion (Pearn, 1939). Monks no longer had the power to compete for modern positions. 

Since the marginalization of the Burmese was not only cultural and political, but more importantly religious, it was not surprising that the nationalist Burmese response has had a strong Buddhist aspect from the early twentieth century until the present day. 

It was critical to note that the first nationalist movement towards independence grew out of the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (Ware, 2016). Furthermore, the nationalist Burma Independence Army recruited during World War II was almost totally Burmese and Buddhist. This reveals that the development of the Burmese nationalism has had a profound impact in the Burmese society even decades after the Second Anglo Burmese War. 

Figure 2: According to Fraser’s Plan in 1852, Buddhists architecture except for Sule Pagoda were not put into consideration when it came to urban planning (Pearn, 1939).
Figure 3: There was not a land specifically planned for the ongoing Buddhist worship and development (Pearn, 1939).
Figure 4: The Plan adopted in British Rangoon shows the basic urban grid at the time with Sule Pagoda being in the center of the city (Pearn, 1939).

During the process of “place- making”, the configuration of religious space was emphasised and it helped scaffold the colonial narrative of British India and bulwark colonial rule against undue influence by the Burmese king in the relegation of the previous privileged position of Buddhism. This marginalisation of the Burmese and the gradual downplaying of Buddhism through the elimination in social structure in colonial Rangoon has been a contributing factor fuelling Burmese nationalism, as well as making this nationalism as much Buddhist as ethnic. 


Htin Aung, Maung.A History of Burma. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1967)

Pearn, Bertie Reginald. History of Rangoon. (Rangoon: American Baptist Mission Press, 1939)

Steinberg, David. Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know. (New York : Oxford University Press; 2 edition, 2010)

Ware, Anthony. Religion and Urbanism in Origin of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar/Burma: An urban history of religious space, social integration and marginalization in colonial Rangoon after 1852. In Religion and Urbanism: Reconceptualising sustainable cities for South Asia. (Oxon: Routledge, 2016).

Laurie, William F. B. The second Burmese War: a narrative of the operations at Rangoon, in 1852.(Bangkok: Orchid Press, 2002)

Perriere, Benedicte. Eternal Rangoon: Contemporary Portrait of a Timeless City (City Heritage S.) (California :Asa Editions. 1999)

Gaese, Hartmut. Megacity Yangon: Transformation Processes and Modern Developments : Second German-Myanmar Workshop in Yangon/Myanmar 2005(London: LIT Verlag Münster. 2006)


1 Comment on “Yangon (1850-1860)/ Development of Burmese Nationalism

  1. The relation between street naming and identity, or claim, can be traced from the naming by Lord Dalhousie in around 1852 (Pearn,1939, p.188), and renaming following the independence in 1948. For instance, Montgomerie Street, named after Dr. William Montgomerie, is now known as Bogyoke Aung San Road and Fraser Street is now known as Anawrahta Road.

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