The Cabinet Papers banner

Before the Second World War


Britain's interest in Burma dates back to the activities of the East India Company in the 17th century. The region was conquered by the Anglo-Indian army during the 1880s and administered as part of India. This administrative arrangement, together with the question of Indian immigration, motivated Burmese nationalism during the inter-war period and led to urban unrest. Following a round table conference in December 1931, the British government adopted a policy of moving towards responsible government.

The Government of Burma Act in 1935 provided for responsible government, headed by a cabinet of Burmese ministers. This was achieved through division of the Government of India Act. By the late 1930s, however, a more radical nationalism emerged under the Thakins (Masters), led by Aung San, an activist at Rangoon University.


Involvement of the British East India Company in Malaya also dates back to the 17th century. British protection was extended over Malay states, but not all joined the federation - and as a result we talk of federated and un-federated states. The British administration was decentralised and chaotic as differing treaties were established with various states. In 1933, Sir Samuel Wilson reported extensively on conditions in Malaya.

Attempts to reform the administration were fraught with difficulties so the British concentrated on protecting the substantial economic interests found in the tin mines and rubber plantations (Malaya was the world's largest exporter of natural rubber and tin). They used the Tin Control Scheme of 1931 and the International Rubber Regulation Agreement of 1934 to maintain stable prices.


During the 1930s Britain's authority in the region was undermined by China's invasion of Japan. In 1938 the British government responded by completing the construction of the naval base in Singapore. However, British military power in the region, limited by the absence of effective colonial administration, collapsed in the face of the Japanese advance. By January 1942, Burma, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore were in Japanese hands, which was, according to Churchill, 'the worst disaster and biggest capitulation in British history'.