Decolonization: Is a Path to Prosperity for All Decolonized Territories?


                  Did decolonization actually lead the path to prosperity for the populace of decolonized territories, including ethnic minorities? Decolonization, a crucial transition in world history, especially in the Global South, redesigned the fate of many new nations and populations. The world is expected to bring a new era of freedom, sovereignty, and prosperity to the former colonies and their populations through the process of decolonization. However, the real situation of post-colonial nations in the Global South is far different from expectations. Shan State, a former colony of the British, faces various challenges of decolonization.

The historical setting of decolonization in Shan State

                The Shan and the Shan State of Burma state that “the Shans settled in the valleys on both sides of the Salween River and established some principalities, varying in size and importance. Neither Burma nor China could ever achieve an effective conquest of the warlike Shan princes and their states” (Lintner, 1948). The Shan pollution inhabited the valleys of the Salween rivers, established over thirty principalities, and had their own hereditary ruling system led by a Saopha for each principality. Bertil Lintner illustrates Shan’s principalities as

“The smallest, Namtok, measured 35 square kilometers and was inhabited by a few hundred peasants scattered in two or three tiny villages. The largest principality, Kengtung, encompassed 32,000 people, which is larger than the state of Maryland. With 11,890 square kilometers, Hsipaw was one of the largest states, roughly Connecticut’s size” (Sargent, 1994).

                 During the colonial period, the Shan federal authorities gained some autonomy and had a chance to practice their traditional legitimacy under British rule. Each Saopha could exercise their power over the respective principalities and was responsible for managing their own territory with their own traditional hereditary ruling system, with some limitations from Great Britain. In the book, Twilight Over Burma written by the wife of  Hsipaw Saopha, delineates the status of each Saopha during colonial times as follows:

“The thirty or so Shan states of the northeastern Shan plateau achieved a status different from that of Burma proper, which was a directly administered British colony. They became protectorates, and the British recognized the authority of the Shan Saophas. Each Saopha was responsible for administration and law enforcement in his state; he had his own armed police force, civil servants, magistrates, and judges” (Sargent, 1994).

Through the decolonization process, the Shan region gained independence, joined the Burmese Proper, and became a part of the new independent state of Burma. Silverstein (1958) states in Politics in the Shan State that 

“The chiefs and representatives of the Shan States, with their counterparts from among the Kachins and} Chins, agreed to join with the Burmese in forming an independent state. The Panglong Conference participants laid down several conditions covering the interim period before the actual transfer of power.”

                  This work will investigate the consequences of decolonization on the wellbeing of Shan society through a movie that is a remarkable story of the last ruler of Hsipaw and his Austrian wife, “Twilight Over Burma” by Sabine Derflinger. This movie shares the real situation and changes in the Shan region, which was once a sovereign kingdom after the decolonization process. This work also reflected not only the elites but also the opinions of the grassroots populations. Sargent was an Australian woman who met and married Sao Kya Seng, the last Shan traditional ruler of Hsipaw, during the Second World War. Their relationship reflects the clash and fusion of the two different traditions and the decolonization effect of the Shan population. As a result of the decolonization, Shan subjects faced the erosion of the Sao Pha, hereditary Shan rulers, cultural assimilation of the centralized military regime, and political conflicts in the Shan State.

                  The decolonization of the Shan region led to the erosion of the Saopha, the hereditary Shan rulers. Shan traditional leaders, the Saophas, faced many challenges after the independence of the Shan State, such as rebellions of ethnic minorities, communism, power-sharing conflict within the Union, and Chinese aggression against the Shan State. Some of them, such as Sao Kya Seng, Saopha of Hispaw, and Sao Shwe Thaike, Saopha of Nyaung Shwe and first President of the Union of Burma, tried to address these problems by modernizing the traditional federal system. The federal leaders of Shan State wanted to keep the Union together but also respect the rights of the Shan people, and they had the support of U Nu, the democratic leader and first Prime Minister of the Union of Burma, who shared their vision. Bertil Lintner states the following:

 “Sao Shwe Thaike, Sao Kya Seng, and other Shans began to organize more concerted efforts to solve the widespread rebellion by political means. They reasoned that by restructuring the federal system, the Union would survive and the fledgling insurgency would be undermined.” (Sargent, 1994).

                   Along with the Saophas and other frontier leaders from Kachin, Chin Hills, and Kayin, the central government led by Prime Minister U Nu held a national seminar in Rangoon to discuss the future of frontier areas and the federal structure of the Union. The Saopha of Hsipaw mentioned this seminar as “ the conference in Rangoon is decisive. We shall employ all our strength and apply all our influence in order to achieve our aim [the federal union]” (Derflinger, 2015, 54:08). However, the effect of the Shan Saophas on modernizing the Shan federal system ended with a military coup led by General Ne Win. In “Twilight Over Burma”, Bertil Lintner mentioned the military coup as follows: “On March 2, 1962, before any decision had been taken, the commander-in-chief of the Burmese Army, General Ne Win, staged a coup d’état and detained all the participants of the meeting.”  Taken together, the purpose of the seminar held by Prime Minister U Nu, democratic institutions, and the hereditary Shan ruling system with the Military Coup in March 1962 were defunct. Lintner (1964) stated that  “the Shan Saophas formally renounced all their powers at a grand ceremony held at Taunggyi and attended by all the princes, Ne Win himself, and the top echelons of the Burmese Army. The duties of the Saophas were taken over by the elected Shan State government.”

                  Shan Saophas’ hereditary system was replaced by the Shan State Government, which was formed with elected representatives. At first, the Saophas and some Shan aristocrats entered the elections and participated in the Shan State Government and the legislature, alternatively exercising their former sovereignty under democratic institutions. However, when the military sought power from the elected government, both democratic practices and the sovereignty of the Saopha were entirely abolished from the principalities of the Shan people. The erosion of the Shan hereditary system was a major shift in Shan civilization. That event marked the end of a long tradition of self-government and the beginning of a struggle for the Shan subjects to defend their own culture and identity without traditional leadership.

Shan hereditary rule was a system of administration that contained the Shan subjects’ autonomy and cultural protections under Sophas’ leadership. The Shan hereditary rulers, the Saophas, were the main source of the identity and culture of the entire Shan region and peoples. The Shan region has unique traditions and culture from the Burmese-dominant plains. However, when Burma became an independent country after its decolonization from the British in 1948, the whole Shan hereditary system and the Shan subjects faced many challenges and pressure under the new institutions. Unfortunately, this system was gradually undermined by the central Burmese government in the 20th century as part of the process of centralized power and cultural assimilation to unify the identity. After the military coup, the new regime, which was composed of military generals, did not have the will to build the country into a federal state. The new regime did not obey or inherit the Panglong agreement, and the military tried to build a unified Burma through the assimilation process. Thomson (1995) states that “the 1974 constitution furthered these interests by partitioning the country into administrative divisions according to Western-based notions of ethnicity and nation. Seven union republics or states were formed, and seven divisions were created for the Burman  majority.” However, both the divisions and states were facilitated and administered by the central government and the military regiment. Increased centralization of state power was conducted under the “Burmese Way to Socialism.” The Shan subjects did not accept assimilation, and they fought back to defend their culture and identity. The cultural assimilation of the Shan subjects by the Burmese government was a violation of their human rights and dignity and resulted in the loss of Saopha rule and the Shan culture.

The erosion of the Saophas ruling system, military coups, and cultural assimilation of the military regime formed the rebellions of the Shan subjects. In October 1949, the Shan region faced the aggression of Kuomintang (KMT) forces from southern Yunnan, China. The central government extended its authority and military power over the entire region, labeling it as defending Kuomintang aggression. In “The Shans and the Shan State of Burma,” Bertil Lintner states that “the Union of Burma Government declared a major portion of the southern Shan States to be under military administration. The aim ostensibly was to suppress KMT bandits in those areas” (Lintner, 1984). During the military administration of the Shan Plateau, the military hadn’t  good relations with either the Saophas or the subjects. In the movie, Twilight Over Burma the Saopha of Hispaw mentioned the situation of the military actions in the shan plateau as “ They [central government] sent troops to Hsipaw, officially to fight against the shan rebels. But in truth they simply harass our people [shan subjects]! Use set fire to villages, tortyre men and rape numerous women!” (Derflinger, 2015, 41:37).  The military did behave as an exemplary army, and the soldiers oppressed the Shan subjectives in shocking ways—they were raped, tortured, and generally treated very badly. The Saophs and the subjects requested that both the central government and senior military officers curb this shocking oppression in Shan State, but they did not receive any response or solutions. From the perspective of the Shan subject, without much relation to the central government or Burmese, both the KMT forces and the military of the central government were outside aggressors to their region. Moreover, the abolition of democratic construction and the Shan Saophas ruling system by the military regime degenerated the general grievances of the Shan subject. This situation pushed the Shan region into civil war and political violence.

As for the Shan people, decolonization did not advantageously impact their circumstances but rather rendered them subject to the political and cultural domination of the Burmese and military regimes. The Shan subjects lost their century-long traditional leadership, the hereditary Sophas ruling system, in which the people enjoyed cultural leadership and autonomy, after the decolonization process. Moreover, the Shan people faced cultural assimilation due to the post-colonial success of central governments, including military regimes, and political violence due to the erosion of the Saophas ruling system and decolonization. The entire Shan population of Shan State still suffers from the legacy of imperialism and decolonization. Both the British, former colonizers, and successive post-colonial regimes of Burma were responsible for the tragic outcomes of the Shan region. This tragic story was only about how decolonization shaped the future of the Shan people. Many minorities have the same situation as the Shans in Southeast Asia.


Derflinger, S. (Director). (2015). Twilight Over Burma [Film]. Dor Film.

Lintner, B. (1984). The Shans and the Shan State of Burma Contemporary Southeast Asia, 5(4),   403–450.

Sargent, I. (1994). Twilight over Burma (1st ed.) University of Hawaii Press.

Silverstein, J. (1958), Politics in the Shan State: The Question of Secession from the Union of Burma The Journal of Asian Studies, 18(1), 43–57.

Thomson, C. N. (1995). Political Stability and Minority Groups in Burma. Geographical Review, 85(3), 269–285.