Britain made all of Burma a province of India in 1886 with the capital at Rangoon. Traditional Myanmar society was drastically altered by the ending of the monarchy and the separation of church and state. Though war officially ended after only a couple of weeks, resistance continued in northern Myanmar until 1890, with the British finally resorting to a systematic destruction of villages and appointment of new officials to finally halt the guerilla activity. The economic nature of society also changed drastically. After the opening of the Suez Canal, the demand for Burmese rice grew and vast tracts of land were opened up for cultivation. However, in order to prepare the new land for cultivation, farmers were forced to borrow money from Indian moneylenders at high interest rates and were often eveicted for failure to pay back the loan. Imported Indian labor ended up with most of the jobs, and whole villages became lawless dens full of the unemployed. While the Burmese economy grew, all the power and wealth was in the hands of several British firms and the Burmese people did not reap the rewards.

A new generation of Burmese leaders arose in the early twentieth century from amongst the educated classes that were permitted to go to London to study law. They came away from this experience with the belief that the Burmese situation could be improved through peaceful protest and negotiations. Peaceful strikes in the early 1920s led to a constitutional reform in 1923 that created a partialy elected legislature with limited powers, but some people began to feel that the rate of change was not fast enough and the reforms not expansive enough. Some of these dissatisfied students founded a new group called Thakin (an ironic name as thakin means “master” in the Burmese language, and this was the term that students were required to use when addressing their British professors, whom they were coming to resent). A peasant rebellion led by Saya San that started in 1930 and lasted for two years gave the Thakin their chance. Though they did not actually participate in the rebellion, they did win the trust of the peasants and displaced the older generation of London-educated elites at the head of the Burmese nationalist movement. They staged a strike in 1936, which was notable because it was during this strike that Thakin Nu and Aung San joined the movement. The British seperated Burma from India in 1937 and granted the colony a new constitution calling for a fully elected assembly, but many Burmese felt that this was just a ploy to exclude them from any further Indian reforms. Ba Maw served as the first prime minister of Burma, but he was forced out by U Saw in 1939, who served as prime minister from 1940 to 1942.

Burmese nationalists saw the outbreak of World War II as an opportunity to extort concessions from the British in exchange for support in the war effort, but the British would have none of it, issuing an arrest warrant for Aung San, who escaped to China. The Japanese offered him support, and he briefly returned to Burma to enlist the aid of twenty-nine young men who went to Japan with him to receive military training as the so-called “Thirty Comrades.” The Japanese quickly declared Burma independant, and when they occupied Bangkok in December 1941, Aung Sang announced the formation of the Burma Independence Army (BIA) in anticipation of Japanese liberation. The Japanese duly moved into Burma in 1942 and disbanded the BIA, forming the smaller Burma Defense Army in its place with Aung Sang still at the head. Ba Naw was declared head of state, and his cabinet included both Aung Sang and Thakin Nu.

It soon became apparent that Japanese promises of independence were merely a sham and that Ba Maw was just a puppet. As the war turned against the Japanese, they declared Burma a fully sovereign state in 1943, but this was just another facade. Disillusioned, Aung San began negotitations with Lord Mountbatten in October 1943 and officially joined the Allies with his renamed Burma National Army (BNA) in March 1945. During this period, Anung San sucessfully created a broad-based coalition of political parties called the Anti-Fascist Organization, renamed the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), to govern the country. The Japanese were routed from Burma in May 1945.

The defeat of the Japanese brought a military administration and demands to try Aung San as a traitor for his early collaboration with the Japanese. Lord Mountbatten realized that this was an impossibility considering San’s hold on the BNA and his popular appeal and sent the conciliatory Sir Hubert Rance to head the administration, who was able to win back the trust of both San and the general populace. After the war ended, the former civilian governor returned, and San was duly arrested. This nearly touched off a rebellion, but the British backed off and sent Rance back to restore order and faith. Negotiations began for Burmese independence, which were completed sucessfully in January 1947. The agreement left both the communist and conservative branches of the AFPFL dissatisfied, however, sending the communists underground and the conservatives into opposition. Another who was dissatisfied by the agreement was U Saw, who felt that Aung San had conceded to much in the negotiations. Consequently, he engineered the assassination of Aung San and nearly his entire cabinet in July. Thakin Nu was asked to form a new cabinet, and he presided over Burmese independence on January 4, 1948.