- Term that describes social and economic institutions under colonial rule, first used by J. S. Furnivall, a retired member of the Indian Civil Service who served for a long time in Burma and was critical of the government's laissez faire economic policies. In a plural society, ethnic groups preserve their own cultural, linguistic, and religious identity-resisting assimilation-while interacting with each other primarily in the marketplace, through commercial transactions. Furnivall described this as "different sections of the community living side by side, but separately, within the same political unit" (Colonial Policy and Practice, 1948). An ethnic division of labor emerges that marginalizes some groups; most Burmese were poor farmers, but the capitalist, professional, and working classes comprised almost exclusively foreigners: European, Chinese, and Indian expatriates and migrants. Because the colonial government defined its role exclusively as imposing law and order and ensuring favorable conditions for profitable operations by foreign-owned firms, it did nothing to change the plural society structure. When economic conditions deteriorated during the 1930s, there were violent clashes between different groups, especially Burmese and Indians. The plural society paradigm has been used to describe other former colonial countries, such as Malaysia, where post-independence governments sought to break the pattern by cultivating a Malay middle class (the New Economic Policy); in Burma, the plural society problem was dealt with by nationalizing ("Burmanizing") economic enterprises after 1962 and expropriating the property of Chinese and Indian businesspeople, causing many of them to leave the country. The result was economic stagnation.
Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). Donald M. Seekins . 2014.
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