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The Chettiars in Burma

  • Sean Turnell


    (Department of Economics, Macquarie University)

In the history of Burma's political economy, few groups have been so roundly vilified as the Chettiars. A community of moneylenders indigenous to Chettinad, Tamil Nadu, the Chettiars operated throughout the Southeast Asian territories of the British Empire. They played a particularly prominent role in Burma where, alas, they were typically demonised as rapacious usurers, responsible for all manner of vices concomitant with the colonial economy. Not least of these was the chronic land alienation of the Burmese cultivator. The purpose of this paper is to reappraise the role of the Chettiars in Burma. Finding that their role was crucial in the dramatic growth in Burma's agricultural output during the colonial era, the paper disputes the moneylender stereotype so often used against them. Employing modern economic theory to the issue, the paper finds that the success of the Chettiars in Burma lay less in the high interest rates they charged, than it did to patterns of internal organisation that provided solutions to the inherent problems faced by financial intermediaries. A proper functioning financial system could have provided better solutions perhaps for Burma's long-term development, but Burma did not have such a system, then or now. Easy scapegoats for what went wrong, the Chettiars merit history's better judgement.

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Paper provided by Macquarie University, Department of Economics in its series Research Papers with number 0512.

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Length: 39 pages.
Date of creation: Jul 2005
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:mac:wpaper:0512
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