John Nisbet.

Burma under British rule--and before; (Volume 2) online

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the person addressed. Thus they will often say " Yes "
when they really mean " No," simply from disinclination
to offend. But they are not habitual liars by centuries
of heredity like their near neighbours, the Bengalis of
Chittagong. If they tell a lie with some personal object
and the falsehood is detected, they merely laugh and try
to turn it off They feel " ashamed " {Shetthe) ; but it is
at being found out and having no luck, for there is no
actual shame felt about the falsehood itself. When a
Burman does lie, which is not infrequently the case, he
lies somewhat more boldly and comprehensively than
judiciously and discreetly ; hence detection is compara-
tively easy. According to their code of honour the use
of falsehood is quite justifiable in escaping from the snares
of the deceitful. If there is ill blood between two villagers
and one trumps up a false charge of having lent money
before witnesses whom he produces, the opponent will not
attempt the difficult task of trying to prove a negative ;
he will bring witnesses in equal or larger numbers to prove
that he paid the money back again. And the friends of
each party who come as false witnesses will not see any-
thing particularly wrong about their friendly procedure.

From the above it will be seen that sincerity is not a
leading characteristic. This want of conscientious scruple
not infrequently gives rise to very peculiar cases in court.
It has previously been noted that notwithstanding the
freedom of intercourse between young lads and lasses
there is comparatively little immorality. Cases do how-
ever occur, and if found in flagra7iti delicto the girl will
often sacrifice her lover by bringing a charge of rape
against him. So much so is this the case that rape



charges in general tax to the utmost the discriminative
powers of the magistracy. One or two exceedingly
amusing tales might be told in connexion with cases of
this sort if only the subject were less unsuitable for these

The Burmese are credulous and superstitious to a
degree. One is almost tempted to say that it forms one of
their most constant and unvarying characteristics. Their
credulity with regard to persons claiming to be invulner-
able, to be endowed with supernatural powers, or to be
a member of the royal family of Alaung Payd amounts
to something that is difficult for the western mind to
understand. Along with this they are arrogant and
boastful, although they are by no means courageous indi-
vidually; nor were they brave as an independent nation.
They know no happy mean, but exhibit the utmost
extremes of fear or timidity and of unbounded arrogance
or boastfulness. Either a man is powerful and therefore
to be feared, or else he is weak and consequently may be
despised. As might therefore be expected, they are
timid and obsequious in the presence of those having
authority over them.

Though sometimes performing acts of great daring and
fearlessness, yet the Burman has little or none of the active
courage founded on self-discipline, just as he has no self-
control and no thrift. With passive courage, however, —
in submitting cheerfully to the inevitable, or in enduring
adversity which has befallen them or is about to happen
— the Burmese are well endowed ; and the high bearing
they then often maintain is no doubt the direct outcome
of their religious philosophy and their belief in destiny
being controlled by the influence of past deeds. An-
other characteristic arising mainly from their religion is
their marked tolerance. In matters of religion this even
goes to an extreme, as all their most sacred shrines, such
as the Shwe Dagon pagoda in Rangoon, are swept and
scavenged by low caste natives of India not professing
Buddhism. And in other matters tolerance and non-
interference are also observed, for the Buddhist is not his
brother's keeper. Their religious superstition can easily
be worked upon, even commercially. Thus, the owner of



a small local two-foot gauge railway running from Thatdn
to Duyinzeik near Moulmein, wanting a village settlement
at the latter terminus on the Domdami river, invested
in an image of Gaudama to which he applied a coat of
luminous phosphorescent paint. Planting it where he
wished the new colony to spring up, the fame of the
miraculous image soon spread, a pagoda was erected
enshrining it, and the settlement of a village quickly
followed as a matter of course.

Though not exactly what one would call witty, — for
their jests are too often characterized by coarseness rather
than by any finer quality, — yet they are gifted with a very
keen sense of humour and a great love of laughter and
banter. They laugh merrily at any joke or misfortune
having a comical side ; but as is usual with the practical
joker they look very shamefaced when the laugh turns
against themselves.

While the men are easy-going and fond of idleness,
the women are energetic and rather inclined to be greedy
and grasping in monetary matters. Apart from money
spent on works of religious merit, specially undertaken
for the salvation of the soul of the benefactor and from
these selfish motives only, generosity is wanting. Many
years ago Government wished to found a small hospital at
Kyaikto, a little town on the Sittang plain, and the Assist-
ant Commissioner was instructed to invite the headmen
and elders to a meeting in order to explain the object
and intention of Government to them and to see if they
would contribute in any way. After much explanation
of the benefits, and many inquiries as to whether contri-
butions would have to be made monthly, annually, or once
for all, the list was opened by one of the most influential
men present saying he would give sixpence (four annas) !
Nor is gratitude a common feature in the Burmese char-
acter ; it is just as rare as generosity. Not one of the high
officials of the Court of Ava was willing to accompany
their royal master into exile in 1885 ; and it was even
with difficulty that Burmese attendants could be obtained
to accompany the King and Queen as personal servants
to the place of banishment, the fortress of Ratnagiri on
the Bombay coast.



Though naturally lazy, the Burman quite understands
the value of diligence. Indeed, his religious philosophy
teaches him that when the influence (Kan) of his past
deeds is not sufficient to ensure him success in matters
like agriculture and trade, this can only be attained by
working hard.

As a race the Burmese have no mechanical ability or
inventive talent, and altogether they are lacking in
initiative. Consequently adminstration was usually
weak throughout the country, at any rate during recent
historical times.

Impulsive and illogical, they are fairly law-abiding,
notwithstanding the ease with which bravos claiming
supernatural powers and invulnerability can usually get
together a band of dacoits — that is to say, a robber gang
consisting of five men or more — when the harvest brings
money into the hands of the villagers.

Submissive in trifling things, the women are frequently
violent in temper ; and then they display remarkable
command of a copious and forcible language of abuse.

Not directly cruel, they are yet callous beyond measure
to the sufferings of either human beings or the lower
animals. Yet in their disposition they often show kindly
traits. They are very hospitable, and most houses have
a room known, whether otherwise used or not, as the
guest chamber [Etkd-kan).

They are not demonstrative of joy or pleasure, though
apt to lose control during anger or great grief, when they
become very excitable and frenzied.

As it is considered impolite to express surprise or
astonishment, the Burmese often appear to foreigners
apathetic and indifferent, though this is in reality far
from being the case. On the occasion of an embassy
passing through Rangoon about 1883 on its way to
Calcutta, the members were shown all the wonders on
board a man-of-war then lying in the harbour ; but no
word of surprise fell from them, and they even went so
far as to draw upon their imagination to the extent of
saying that the quickfiring guns and latest novelties of
armament were just like what they had in Mandalay.

The Burman never goes straight for any point he

VOL. II. 225 Q


wishes to attain. The gist of what is wanted only comes
out at the last moment of an interview, just as if it were
a happy thought striking him for the first time.

Idiot children are exceedingly rare in Burma ; but
adult idiots and lunatics are regarded with much awe as
being inspired. They are allowed to roam about the
villages, and it is considered very unfortunate when such
cases find their way into the Government lunatic asylum.
Those afflicted with blindness also receive great con-
sideration and care.

The Burmese are, like most Eastern nations, keen
judges of character. They epitomize such opinions by
having nicknames for all the civil officers in the different
districts as well as for not a few of the merchants at the
seaports. Many of these names hit off personal appear-
ances, while others touch on peculiarities of mind or
manner. Some are complimentary, and others quite
the reverse. " Thunder and lightning " was known for
promptitude and decision, while " Next Time " was the
name applied to an officer who very frequently in
sentencing a prisoner told him he would get a heavier
punishment if brought up again.

" Golden Face " was killed in the war, but " Pot-belly "
still, from one of the high seats of administration, throws
a shadow far more ample than it was when he first
received this soubriquet more than two decades ago ; while
the " good-natured Assistant Commissioner " yet retains
the golden opinions of the people, and is perhaps the
most popular of all officers with Burmese and Europeans.
Some of these nicknames are distinctly graphic, and at
times very appropriate. " Square bottle " is decidedly
suggestive of the weary district officer, whose flagging
appetite needed ante-pastal fillips of hollands and

Though the Burmese affect to despise deceit, to be
known as an " honest man " is equivalent to being con-
sidered a fool, much in the same way as being considered
good-natured is apt to mean that one permits oneself to
be easily imposed on.

Affectionate in family life, they have a happy buoyancy
of spirits, such as usually accompanies the spendthrift



disposition. There is, however, a lack of demonstrative-
ness surprising- in a race so impulsive. Kissincr is
unknown, the nearest approach to it being a sort of sniff
or " smell " (Nanthe), and even this is seldom given.
After long absence on business I have known a husband
return to his wife, when the first greeting and conversa-
tion were simply as follows : " Are you well } " " Yes,
I'm well." " Are you hungry ? " ** Yes, hungry." And
forthwith the wife placed the rice pot on the cookincr-
place to prepare food for the husband. A short inquiry
after health is the usual form of salutation. In India it
is necessary to inform a visitor that he has " permission
to leave "; but in Burma the visitor, or the person meetino-
an acquaintance casually, himself terminates the inter-
view by saying, " I am going," to which the other then
replies, " Go," or " All right."

In personal behaviour they are singularly modest.
Though the open skirt {Tamein) is difficult to manacre
in windy weather, and shows up to above the knee at
each step, yet the Burmese woman exhibits marked
modesty in all her movements. In ordinary everyday
intercourse the behaviour of Burmans towards their
womenfolk is habitually courteous and entirely free from
anything like coarse familiarity.

Judged without bias, the Burmese are distinctly a
moral race ; but, in arriving at this judgment, it must
be taken into consideration that their ideas concerning
morality are based on views obtained from a very
different standpoint from the highest level of western
ethics ; and that makes all the apparent difference. Allow-
ing for parallax in traversing this aspect of character,
the Burmese must be considered a moral nation, which
shows comparatively fewer lapses below the norm of
their own standard than is probably the case in more
civilized countries.

Many of the traits of Burmese character can well
be judged by data furnished by themselves. Gentle
affection, kindly regard, benevolence, and freedom from
all kinds of desire are considered the four cardinal
virtues. Three kinds of maturity are recognized as to
size, age, and virtue, throughout the three states of



existence — past, present, and future. Six senses are
accorded to human beings, in the shape of the faculties
of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and think-
ing. The four infidelities are due to selfish desire,
ill-will, ignorance, and fear ; while the five greatest sins
that bring immediate retribution are killing a father,
killing a mother, killing a monk, raising a blister on a
Buddh (whose life cannot possibly be taken), and making
a schism among the disciples of a Buddh. The five
things difficult of attainment are being a Buddh, hearing
the Law, becoming a priest, being a righteous man, and
becoming a human being. The four things that cannot
be trusted are a thief, the bough of a tree, a ruler, iand
a woman. The five masters or tyrants are animal con-
stitution, subjection to the operations of the four causes
(influence of past deeds, mind, season, and nourishment),
passion, death, and the chief of the evil spirits {Man Nat).
Water, fire, rulers, thieves, and evil-wishers constitute
the five kinds of enemies, that can best be overcome by
the exercise of truth, principle, industry, and the giving
of alms. The four most foolish persons are those born
at midnight, those born on the last day of the lunar
month, those born when the sky is dark with clouds,
and those born in a dense forest. The three ways of
earning a living are by relying on the favour of another,
on fortune, or on one's own industry.

Much can also be learned concerning national char-
acter from the proverbs, the crystallized condensed
wisdom of past generations, current among the people.
There is a book of proverbs {Nimi), divided into three
sections containing proverbs relating to religion [Damma
Ni7ni), to everyday life {Lazvka A^/w/),andto government
[Ydza Nwn), and many of them are in the form of
rhyming couplets. A general idea of the sense may
perhaps be obtained from the following selections, but,
as human nature is very much the same all the world
over, the general drift of meaning corresponds with that
incorporated in our own proverbs. " The King's waist-
cloth is pure silk." "In a forest of softwoods, the
castor-oil plant is king." " The higher the master,
the lower the servant." " Desire for haste brings de-



lay." " Only something substantial can cast a shadow."
•' Rough speech comes from rough people." " Don't
break the branches of the tree that shelters you." " When
the front part of the house is hot, the back part will
not be cool." " Who is fond of betel nut should go to
Toungoo " (a district celebrated for its areca palms).
" When two buffaloes want to fight, the grass can't
prevent them." " Breaking one leg of a centipede won't
stop its progress." " It isn't the cock-crowing that
brings the dawn." " One doesn't see one's own want
of beauty when laughing at the ugliness of another."
" When clearing reeds, don't let the roots remain."
" It is bad to help a man, or to salve an official's boat."
" A spark from a rubbish heap can burn down a tower."
" The worth of a fowl can be estimated from its bones,
that of a man from his kith and kin." " Opposite
natures don't mate in the same house." " Hot ashes
won't scare a man who comes from the lowest hell."
" When her neighbours are good, a girl can easily find
a good husband." " Gold won't buy a good character."
" Unwise acquisition becomes theft." " When a mad
dog fights with a healthy one, it is always the healthy
dog that gets its ear torn." " When a flea hops on a
dog it raises no dust." "A dog's bark won't make an
ant-hill run away." " Even a small elephant is still as
big as a buffalo." " Although a hen may cackle all
day, she will only lay one egg." " Remaining silent
is worth a thousand pieces of gold." " Hare-lipped
people mustn't blow the fire." " The cattle come before
the plough." " Even a fine river is spoiled by shoals."
" One bird is as beautiful as another." " No one heeds
a dog that is always barking." " Unused iron soon
rusts." " When once the elephant's tusk protrudes, it
is not withdrawn again." " One may give a sniff (kiss)
without being in love, and can draw one's breath with-
out actually giving a sniff." " Burning the granary be-
cause one dislikes a rat." " If you don't know the market
rate, go by the village price ; if you can't knot your
hair, follow the village custom." " Live near a thief,
you may become a thief : live near a fisherman, you may
become a fisherman." " If you want good pickled tea,



don't hurry the hill men." " A wasteful eater soon
grows poor." " Snakes bite snakes." " Show the king
of the crocodiles what to do in water." " One knows
best when one's own belly pains." " Like moonlight in
the hollow of a bamboo." "It can't be darker than at
midnight." " Birds die even though one can shoot with
the crossbow." " Spirits can do what men can't."

The Burman has a strong personal feeling that it is
impolitic and useless to strive against those set in author-
ity over him. In this respect he seems to have been
so thoroughly disciplined under Burmese rule that the
lesson has become hereditarily engrained in him.

A good many years ago, while I was on tour in the
Shwegyin district in company with the Deputy Com-
missioner, our guide towards the next camping ground
was a man who was gradually, by means of many
questions, drawn out to speak of himself and his affairs.
Apparently these had formerly been, but were not now,
fairly prosperous. He had saved a little money, which,
in an evil moment for himself, he had lent to the head-
man of the village ; and now he was not able to get
it back again. On the Deputy Commissioner asking
him why he did not file a suit in the court against the
headman, the reply was promptly given that it was of
no use because the latter was a powerful man and could
make it very uncomfortable in the village for our guide
if he dared to bring a lawsuit.

The idea, however, seemed to bring a ray of hope to
the poor man. Later in the evening, after the assembly
of notables and inquisitives of the place had left our
camping ground and returned into the village, a few
forced coughs were heard, and our guide of the morning
became dimly visible in the usual attitude of obeisance.
He had come to speak about the money that was owing
to him by the headman, and the gist of what he said was
this : — " You see, sir, if I bring a case against him, I
won't get the money ; and he'll make it so nasty for
me here that I shall not be able to stay in the village.
But you are far more powerful than he is, and you would
be sure to get it back for me. So, as I daren't bring
the case, if you do, V II give you half the 7Honey." Here,



in a nutshell, are very typical examples of the national
traits in fearing a ruler and in relying on the favour of
those in high places.

Politeness and innate good breeding are marked
features of Burmese behaviour. Although they may
feel nervous and ill at ease, both Burmese men and
women possess a great deal of natural savoir faire and
comport themselves in a most becoming manner in the
presence of those superior in position to themselves.
Respect is very fully shown in their demeanour as
prescribed by their code of etiquette ; and although it
may strike the stranger unaccustomed to Eastern for-
malities that in this matter they leave deference behind
and appear cringing, yet there is none of the grovelling
obsequiousness common to many of the Indian races.

This innate politeness, in addition to suggesting to
them replies intended to please rather than crudely
true answers to questions put, often exhibits itself in
giving non-offensive names to objectionable things.
Thus opium is very frequently spoken of euphemistically
as " black medicine," although they have a horror of
any one who falls under the toxic influence of either
this drug or of alcohol ; for, of course, the national want
of control makes narcotics and stimulants exceedingly
dangerous to the Burmese. Hence the stringent
measures adopted by Government to try and confine
the use of drugs and drink to non-Burmans. More-
over, the use of intoxicants is also, with wise prevision,
stringently forbidden by the Buddhist religion.

In Arakan, however, partly no doubt from its proxi-
mity to Chittagong, and partly also perhaps from the
notoriously malarious nature of its climate, the use and
consequently the abuse of opium have been spreading
within the last twenty or thirty years. About eighteen
years ago I was once talking on this subject with an
old Arakanese, a village headman in the Kyaukpyu
district, and he was deploring the results of the use of
opium. Finally, he summed up the position by re-
marking, with a laugh, " First of all the Bengalis come
down from Chittagong and work for us as coolies in the
fields ; and then from one step to another they go on



till they end by becoming the fathers of our children,
and that is all because of the opium — Te ket the, it is
very annoying."

No account of Burmese character would be complete
without reference to their gambling propensities, which
they have in common with their Chinese relatives. But
they have less control over themselves than the latter,
and are not infrequently reduced to utter poverty through
this vice. This, however, is not, like opium and liquor
to a certain extent, due to the advent of western
civilization and British administration ; for under their
own rulers gambling was unchecked. It was even encour-
aged in the shape of lotteries at Mandalay, while one
could legally reduce oneself together with one's wife and
children to the status of slaves by inability to withstand
the temptation of gambling.

These traits of the national character, and more especi-
ally those of the male Burmese, are hardly such as can
reasonably be expected to maintain the race in the
competition, now commencing and soon likely to assume
vast proportions, between them and Chinamen, Shans,
and natives of India; and the consequence must be that,
even although Burmese may remain the language of
the country, the population which will be found through-
out the province a century hence will most likely be
of an exceedingly mixed character. The Burmese hold
the country at present, but their vis ineriics, strengthened
by the heredity of generation after generation, is so
great that it seems improbable they can continue to
maintain this advantage.

Though they are often very aggravating by their
passive resistance when it is desired to get work out
of them, it is impossible to help liking this jovial,
laughter-loving, indolent race ; and Burma will be a
much less desirable place to live in than it hitherto has
been, when once the present happy, careless, casual in-
carnation of " lotus eaters " has given place to a more
industrious, a more thrifty, and a more calculating race
of people.


chapter IX


WHEN the young Hindu known in early life as
Seiddatta, the son of Suddawdana, Rajah of
Kappilawut and Ruler of Maghada (Nipal or Behar),
broke loose from the tyranny of the Brahmins or priestly
caste, and subsequently as Gaudama, the recluse, founded
the religious philosophy of Buddhism, he snapped asunder,
once and for ever, for his religious followers the fetters
of caste with which those professing the Hindu religion
are to this day enthralled. Buddhism recognizes no
caste, and the Burmese have perhaps fewer social dis-
tinctions of this nature than any other nation. In no
other country could mere claims of birth be less regarded
than in Burma. The true extent to which this national
freedom from either religious or social caste differences
goes could, however, only be fully seen in Upper Burma
while it still retained its independence as the Kingdom of