Almost exactly 80 years ago, Burma, now Myanmar, was separated from India. It is an anniversary that has passed virtually unnoticed, even though separation was one of the most important turning points in the country's history.
In 1935 the U.K. parliament passed its Government of Burma Act, and in mid-1937 Burma went from being a province of the Indian Empire to something just shy of a dominion, with its own semi-elected government, a parliament, and a governor answerable directly to London. It was meant as a step toward home-rule and a recognition of Burma's distinct identity.
Separation had come after years of heated deliberation. But problems related to issues of identity were only just beginning, and over the remainder of the 20th century would lead to war, isolation and impoverishment. Today, the same issues haunt the peace process between the government and ethnic-based armed organizations, the fate of Muslim communities, and even the country's opening to global business. They remain largely unresolved and are central to Myanmar's future.
Separation from India was a triumph for Burman nationalism. The Burmans (now generally referred to as the Bamar) are the overwhelmingly Buddhist, Burmese-speaking majority of the Irrawaddy valley. Three 19th century conflicts, known as the Anglo-Burmese Wars, had crippled and then destroyed their empire, which at its zenith stretched from near Bhutan to the outskirts of Bangkok. In 1885 the British abolished their thousand-year-old monarchy and annexed the Irrawaddy valley to the new Indian province of "British Burma." The Burman national psyche never really recovered.