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J. S. Furnivall and Fabianism: Reinterpreting the ‘Plural Society’ in Burma

  • JULIE PHAM (a1)

Buried in an obscure journal published in Burma is a letter addressed to its readers commemorating the tenth anniversary of the publication. The editor had asked one of the publication's founders, a well-known former Indian Civil Service (ICS) officer turned progres-sive reformer, to pen a few lines. Years later, the writer achieved acclaim as an ardent supporter of Burmese nationalism and independence and one of the founding scholars of Burma and Southeast Asia studies. These were his words of inspiration to an audience that comprised mostly educated Burmese:

Burma did not lose its independence because the rulers of Burma came into conflict with the British Empire, but because they had not sufficient wisdom to preserve their country; they did not know enough of Burma or of the outside world. And it will not again be capable of independence until Burmans know enough of Burma and of the outside world to guide its destinies.

In essence, the Burmese were responsible for their own colonisation because they lacked ‘wisdom’ and only through gaining this elusive knowledge could they be free. This opinion was based on nearly three decades worth of first-hand observation of Burmese society. The author was J. S. Furnivall.

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This essay is heavily based on chapter two of my M.Phil dissertation, see Hoai Julie Pham (2002), ‘Empire, nationalism, and Fabianism in the thought of John S. Furnivall’, University of Cambridge. I am indebted to John Ady, J. S. Furnivall's grandson, for giving me access to Furnivall's private papers. I also thank Ady, Tim Harper, Reiner Leist, Robert Taylor, and Peter Zinoman for carefully reading and criticising earlier versions of this essay.
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Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-asian-studies
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