Britain Separates Burma from India Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After the three Anglo-Burmese wars of the nineteenth century, Great Britain finally absorbed Burma into its empire on February 26, 1886. Burma was then ruled by the viceroy of India from Calcutta and Delhi as a province of India. With the Government of India Act of 1935, Burma was separated from India; it became a separate colony when the act took effect in 1937.

Summary of Event

Since 1886, Burma had been ruled by the British as a province from India, which brought to Burma a modern administrative and police system and absorbed it into the global system of finance and trade. The British also created a new, nonhereditary, urban, elite landlord class that was educated at the University of Rangoon, which had been founded in 1920. British citizens acquired increasingly larger amounts of land, and Indian moneylenders and Chinese businessmen moved to Burma to provide the credit for a growing market-driven economy. [kw]Britain Separates Burma from India (Apr. 1, 1937) [kw]Burma from India, Britain Separates (Apr. 1, 1937) [kw]India, Britain Separates Burma from (Apr. 1, 1937) Government of India Act (1935) Burma, separation from India India;separation of Burma [g]Burma;Apr. 1, 1937: Britain Separates Burma from India[09440] [g]India;Apr. 1, 1937: Britain Separates Burma from India[09440] [g]South Asia;Apr. 1, 1937: Britain Separates Burma from India[09440] [g]Southeast Asia;Apr. 1, 1937: Britain Separates Burma from India[09440] [c]Colonialism and occupation;Apr. 1, 1937: Britain Separates Burma from India[09440] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Apr. 1, 1937: Britain Separates Burma from India[09440] Cochrane, Sir Archibald Douglas Aung San Ba Maw Ne Win Nu, U Saya San Dundas, Lawrence

Meanwhile, a resistance movement led by monks and former monks developed. In 1906, the Young Men’s Buddhist Association Young Men’s Buddhist Association[Young Mens Buddhist Association] was established. Although it was initially a modernist organization concerned with cultural and religious revival, it became increasingly nationalistic and political. In 1909, the British introduced the Government of India Act, which created a Legislative Council with a nonofficial Burmese majority. The Burmese, however, were not mollified. In response, the British declared that the Burmese were not ready for responsible government and excluded them from the Government of India Act of 1919, which extended the provisions of the 1909 act. This statement aroused considerable resentment among the Burmese and led to such an increase nationalist agitation that the British gave Burma five seats in the Indian Legislative Assembly in Delhi. By the end of the 1920’s the idea of separating Burma from India had become popular—it was welcomed by the British business classes—but the Burmese were concerned that the British wanted Burma to be a Crown Colony whose constitutional freedoms could be denied. In the House of Commons in London on January 20, 1931, the secretary of India insisted this charge was inaccurate, and he stated that the British were committed to the introduction of responsible government in both Burma and India.

A former monk named Saya San crowned himself king of Burma in 1930 and led his Galon Army against the government. His rebellion was snuffed out after two years, and he was captured and hanged, but his death became a rallying point for nationalists. In 1930 the Dobama Asiayone (which translates as the “We Burmese Association”) was founded by a number of graduates of the University of Rangoon. They called themselves Thakin (master), and they became the recognized leaders of the Burmese nationalist movement. Aung San, one of the Thakin, had became one of the most important leaders of the nationalist movement by the mid-1930’s.

The growth and organization of the nationalist movement in Burma prompted the British to reduce the movement’s support by co-opting increasing numbers of conservative and opportunistic members of the educated classes into the Burmese civil service and the imperial government. The result was that the Government of India Act of 1935 separated Burma from India, and the country received a fully elected assembly. The Burmese gained considerable authority—more than the Indians—over their own affairs.

In the only general election held in Burma by the British, which took place in December of 1936, 24 percent of the population was allowed to vote for a 132-member House of Representatives. Burmese became ministers responsible for all aspects of their government, except for foreign relations, defense, and the financial system, which remained under the direct control of the governor, who administered these offices through official counsellors and a financial adviser. In addition, the British kept control of the “excluded areas,” the tribal areas of the Shan States and the Karen Hills in the east, Kachin in the north, and the Chin Hills in the west. Burma was separated on April 1, 1937, and Sir Archibald Douglas Cochrane was appointed governor in February of 1936. His appointment was also a concession to Burmese nationalism: In the past, the governors of Burma had been senior members of the Indian Civil Service, but Cochrane was a former submarine commander and member of Parliament.

The secretary of state for India, Lawrence Dundas, continued to be the British cabinet minister responsible for Burmese affairs, but he did so through the new Burma office. Ba Maw, the leader of the Sinyetha (translated as the “poor men” or “proletarian”) Party became the prime minister after he received the support of the thirty-four seats held by non-Burmese groups—Europeans, Indians, and non-Burmese minorities—but he quickly lost power in Burma’s faction-ridden politics. He was followed by three other prime ministers, none of whom could command the support of the majority of the Burmese politicians.

During World War II, Aung San fled to China, where the Japanese took him and his group, called the Thirty Comrades, to Japan for military training. By May of 1942, the Japanese had captured all of Burma, and the British retreated to Imphal, India, where they established a government in exile. On August 1, 1943, Aung San was appointed Burma’s war minister, and U Nu became the country’s foreign affairs minister. Ne Win formed the Burma National Army in 1943, and Aung San formed the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, which became the most popular nationalist organization in Burma.

The Japanese retreated in May of 1945, and in October of 1946, Aung San and his allies were appointed to Britain’s Governor’s Council. In September of 1946, Aung became head of the provisional government, but on July 19, 1947, he and six colleagues were murdered at a cabinet meeting. U Nu succeeded Aung after October 17, 1947, and he signed the treaty with the British that gave Burma its independence as of January 4, 1948.


The separation of Burma from India through the Government of India Act of 1935 accelerated the pace of reforms in Burma. The British colony was given a large dose of self-rule, even though the British remained firmly in control of the police and the army, which were backed by the British navy. However, these reforms merely encouraged the Burmese, especially the younger generation of Thakins (many of whom had become Communists), to demand complete independence. They became frustrated with Britain’s hold on power and with what they saw as the collaborationist and compromising attitude of the older generation of Burmese leaders.

As this younger generation became increasingly radicalized, they turned first to the Kuomintang in China and then to the Japanese—who ultimately became Burma’s ally—for assistance in expelling the British. In the short term, the separation of Burma from India led to the introduction of a modern political system roughly modeled on the British system of representative government. This began the short-lived practice of democracy and responsible government. In the long term, however, the separation of Burma from India made little difference to Burma. By the end of World War II, Great Britain was a bankrupt nation with little financial or political choice but to grant independence to its colonies, including Burma. Government of India Act (1935) Burma, separation from India India;separation of Burma

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kitchen, Martin. The British Empire and Commonwealth: A Short History. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996. The book concentrates on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It explains how Britain came to have the only true empire in the Victorian era and how it emerged victorious in two world wars.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rose, J. Holland, A. P. Newton, and E. A. Benians, eds. The Cambridge History of the British Empire. 8 vols. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1929-1963. This is the definitive history of the Commonwealth, although it has become somewhat dated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tarling, Nicholas, ed. From c.1800 to the 1930’s. Vol. 3, part 1 in The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia. 4 vols. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Different sections of the five parts of this volume offer authoritative details of the history of Burma leading up to the separation of Burma from India and its aftermath. Includes segments written by Tarling, one of the foremost authorities on modern Southeast Asian history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tinker, Hugh. The Foundations of Local Self-Government in India, Pakistan, and Burma. New York: Praeger, 1968. The importance of the history of the British parliament to British political development made Parliament see constitutional development as a key to national development and as the means toward freedom for colonies. Accordingly, the British colonial model was to establish local government and then follow it with a responsible provincial government before granting full independence. Tinker’s book is considered a classic in the field.

Muslim League Protests Government Abuses of Minority Rights in India

Defense of India Act Impedes the Freedom Struggle

British Soldiers Massacre Indians at Amritsar

Moplah Rebellion

India Signs the Delhi Pact

Formation of the British Commonwealth of Nations

Categories: History