Colonialism – A game of Othello

In the game of othello, discs are placed in a way such that black discs could be flipped to become white after each move and vice versa. For amateurs to this game, they would most likely adopt the ‘maximizing’ strategy in the beginning where they try to flip as many discs into their own color in the least number of moves. However, as we come to notice, this is the fastest way to lose the game. Colonialism in South and Southeast Asia during early 19th century to 20th century by the British likens this game of Othello.

The British are represented by the whites and the Asians, the blacks. When the British gained control of India and Burma, they practiced the ‘maximizing” strategy where they tried to influence the natives heavily from all aspects political, economic, social and culture, covering a large area in a short amount of time. Which lead to a strong resistance from the people under them and they ‘lost’ the game. However, the response was not the same throughout the social classes and these classes responded differently1 as colonization marginalized only certain classes, usually the peasants.

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In India, depending on the time period and the policies enacted by the British the reactions to colonization differ greatly between classes and sometimes even in classes itself. One such policy where responses differ in one class, the peasants, was the switch to a capitalist structure for agriculture2 and giving the zamindars (rich peasants) full ownership of the land3. Prior to the British, land was seen as a community commodity shared between the three classes of peasants, the rich, middle and poor4.

This interdependence led to peace during the Mughal period.5 However, when the view of land changed, the zamindars were free to manipulate the poor peasants working under them. Furthermore, the British demanded high taxes from the zamindars and to maintain their previous lifestyle they had to ‘share’ their burden with the middle and poor peasants.6 The money lenders (merchants) tend to gain in this respect too as the people had to borrow money to repay their debts. This results in “peasantization”7, creating a wide gap between the haves and the have-nots in the peasant class. Thus, rifts were created between the now affluent zamindars and merchants against the poor peasants.

This unhappiness was the catalyst to the participation of the exploited peasants in the 1857 Indian Mutiny. During the mutiny, the peasants saw it as a period where the British were weak and a chance to vent their anger. Furthermore, the peasants had no education, thus they did not have profound ideas like ‘nationalism’ to respond to the British’s policies. The only way that they know how to react was through violence. Some writers may argue that it was both the British and landlord’s fault, which caused peasant unrest, but it was the British who enacted such policies, which made it favorable to exploit the poor peasants.

Nevertheless, the sepoys who were infuriated that they had to use rifle “cartridges coated with lard”9 and forced to accept terms to serve outside India, were the ones who started the Indian mutiny. The sepoys saw themselves as the elites of society as they risked their lives for their own country.10 When the sepoys disregarded British rule, it paved the way for other classes to revolt including some of the elites like displaced princes and aristocrats and some merchants who found fewer avenues to earn profits.11 The rebellion was the same, but was made up of people from totally different classes and the underlying reason for the rebellion was different. Thus, we can see the complexity when we try to determine the causes of a particular movement. It is a combination of many different factors at the right time. Different classes have different concerns. We cannot always blame the British for the people’s plight especially for the peasants.

Similarly in Burma, the ‘maximizing’ rule was imposed on them too. Administrative patterns were transferred from India to Burma without adjusting to local circumstances.12 The Burmese also had an established caste system before the British came. And the repercussions were similar to the Indians. Most of the elites were displaced, the King was exiled, and the people lost the connection between their leaders and religion.

Furthermore, Buddhist institutions and temples were destroyed. This sparked off the Min-Laung movement in1885 right after the King was dispose of which involved people from all classes. This knee-jerk reaction was not organized, but what brought them together was their tight bond between their government and religion and the importance of Buddhism to their culture. In Burma, monks were high-ranking people who set the laws and even the Kings had to ‘bow’ to them.14

In the lower caste, comparable problems surfaced with the new economic structures. The idea of land being “freehold” caused dissatisfaction from the peasants as greedy landlords could now easily take their land away from them. They also had the same problems of land tax, land tenure and Indian moneylenders.15 However these peasants’ problems were not really heard until the Saya San peasant Rebellion in 1930 came into the picture. This rebellion was different from previous ones as it was organized and led by a leader Saya San.16 It was more successful because all the peasants needed was a leader to guide their discontentment into a rebellion as the Burmese were conservative people and “dared not dream of an open rebellion”17 against the British powers.


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