Thursday, September 14, 2006

Pre-World War II immigration in the British empire

The pre-World War II Indian immigration into Burma has always perplexed me.

One the one hand I have met so many Indians who were affected by the post-war backlash against them in Burma. For example, rice mills and property seized and are not recognized as full Burmese citizens. There is a standard condemning story about chettiar money lenders that Michael Adas's book counteracts to a certain extent:

Adas, Michael. The Burma Delta: Economic Development and Social Change on an Asian Rice. Frontier, 1852-1941. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 1974. .

Wouldn't an economist argue that the Burmese as a whole benefited from flows of Indian labor and capital into Burma before the war? Reading this recent book really threw this belief into question:

Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia 1941-1945 (2004) by Christopher Bayly,Tim Harper.

This book looks like only a military history, but it is actually a panoramic social history of the pre-World War II British Empire in Southeast Asia too. It certainly sheds a different, more sinister light on the British empire than, for instance, Niall Ferguson's book.

This book is a near perfect history book. It is well written in an engaging style that has made it very popular. The book is built upon original primary archival sources such as memoirs which make it original, not just another rehash of secondary sources. It combines multiple perspectives from the high level governor or viceroy to the coolies at the waterfront. It gives you a better idea of the impact of war on society as a whole than any other book that I've read.

This book is also a sobering story of free flowing immigration in the British Empire on the eve of of World War II. It shows some of the chaos that this freedom for all to immigrate led to. Massive Indian immigration into Burma overwhelmed the local population, displacing them with cheap labor. In the agricultural sector money lenders foreclosed and seized land, the Japanese invaded, the Indians fled, and a dependence on Burmese rice to the tune of 15% in Bengal contributed to a famine, 3 million people died, who had specialized in jute production before the war. Can one fully predict exogenous shocks? The pre-empire social formations were probably more resilient to them.

The British empire seems to be a test case in many respects for all the arguments of market liberalisation that the discipline of economics presents, such as freedom of immigration.