[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index ][Thread Index ]

Myanmar: Blessed with geography but

Subject:       Myanmar: Blessed with geography but cursed by history

Myanmar: Blessed with gergraphy but cursed by history
By Alistair Horne
It would be hard to think of a country which has been more
"favored by nature" as the saintly and beautiful Aung San Suu Kyi
   puts it in her memoirs than Burma. Its soil is imcredibly rich,
    yielding three crops of rice a year and growing valuable teak
    forests; it os also packed with oil, rubies and jade. Some of
the        great rivers of Asia, like the 1,300-mile-long
    irrigate it and offer limitless cheap hydro-electrics. Yet
     remains the poorest country in the area,, blessed by geography
     but cursed by history, as down through the ages rival kings
     countless wars kept the Burmese in state of backward
      As recently as the mid-19th century, when Albert the Good was
       renovation Windsor, King Mindon was burying alive carefully
    selected pregnant women beneath the foundations of his new
       in Mandalay to deter evil spirits. Such carry-ons gave the
       imperial British a sequence of (pretty flimsy) pretexts for
    moving in. Though it was always a poor relation under the
      Raj, for the next couple of generations Burma enjoyed a rare
     period of peace and prosperity. Then came the second world war
     and the Japanese. In the terrible retreat of 1942, the British
    left an efficiently scorched earth behind them, firing oil
      and blowing up bridges. The Japanese repeated the process in
       1944-45 while the RAF bombed what remained. "When buffaloes
       fight", say the Burmese, "the grass gets trampled." The two
    grisly campaigns cost the British and (mostly) Indian army
74,000 casualties; but nobody has bothered to count the dead Burmese,
of whom some 100,000 slave labourers are said to have perished
while building the death railway. When peace came, the one hope for
the ravaged country was Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, who was murdered
  together with all his Cabinet.  There followed years of civil
     and a special brand of inward-turned socialism which augmented
    the ruin. Then entered the current nasties, Slorc (it stands
     State Law and Order Restoration Council, an unfortunate
    that might have been invented by the late lan Fleming), who
    keep Suu Kyi virtually penned up and deter many would-be
      from visiting Burma, (She has in fact urged foreigners not to
      come, until Slorc mends its horrible ways.) But last month an
    irresistible temptation came to us in the shape of an
    from the remarkable American entrepreneur of the Orient
      Jim Sherwood, to float down the Irrawaddy on his super-deluxe
    Road to Mandalay river boat. Knowing the Sherwood reputation
      perfection in all things, it was hard to resist. We were not
       disappointed. To watch a bloodred sun sink behind the 2,001
      pagodas of ancient Pagan has to e among the experiences of a
     lifetime. I just missed being sent to Burma in 1945 (thanks to
    Hiroshima), but I had a special reason for wanting to see it
        I reckon I was probably conceived there a matter of some
    significance to the sibylline Burmese. How do I know? Because
      mother was one of those rare creatures of her time, a female
    foreign correspondent (writing under the name of Auriol
    and she published articles in the Sunday Timesfrom Burma
      nine months before I was born. She kept all her cuttings, and
     much of what she and my father had seen we saw too unchanged
    the passage of seven decades: teak rafts floating down the
     glassy river that lollops down from the Himalayas, the
           villages with their gentle Buddhist tranquillity.

   What my mother did see, and we didn't, was, enpassant, an
    itinerant snakecharmer whose 12-foot-long cobra got out
      of control and ran amok in the crowd, biting a girl
     "savagely on the arm". They evidently revived her "by
     spitting into her ear a new form of first aid!"  She
     also met an old lady who had been lady-in-waiting to
    the last queen, Supyalat, wife of King Thebaw,. Deposed
      by the British in 1886, Thebaw put his brothers and
    sisters in red velvet sacks and had them "respectfully
    beaten to death". Of his sumptuous palace in Mandalay,
    the old courtier recounted, "You cannot imagine what a
     sight it was; the carpet was of pure beaten gold, and
      the dresses were magnificent all gold and silver."
    (Alas, the palace my mother visited is no more. It was
      burnt down in 1945 either by Slim's Fourteenth Army
    gunners of the defending Japanese.) During my parents'
       trip to Burma, the bachelor Governor Sir Harcourt
    Butler seems to have been (respectfully) smitten by my
      mother, and kept up a barrage of letters (which she
      kept_ over the next three years, supplying her with
     marginalia of such agreeable political incorrectness
    as: "I have recently been on the Chinese frontier among
     wild people. I am not sure that I like savages. They
       spend so much time delousing themselves in rather
    unpleasant ways, (But) my efforts about human sacrifice
     are being crowned with some success"; and : " I have
     just finished the emancipation of slaves in Burma an
        interesting durbar of savages. Very dirty, very
    reluctant to give up their slaves. In 1926, he reported
     another little local diffculty with an almost modern
  ring to it (shades of Waco): A man called Aung Ze started a
society of young men and women with pretentious mystical
ceremonies. Free
love was one of the attractions. The society was called
Yin-ngwehlon (relying
on the chest-steam) and gave out King Mindon buried alive carefully
  selected pregnant women beneath the foundations of his new
Xanadu in Mandalay to deter evil spirits that any woman who
his cheststeam might hope to give birth to a minlaung (heir to the
throne). Five
or six of the leaders have now been bound over under Section 107.
movement is thoroughly Bolshevistic in appearance, though of course
there is
no real connection with Bolshevism, (opined His Excellency).  Men
and women
roam about at night singing songs with what is probably a seditious
They sleep together under big blankets and as the subdivisional
remarked in one of his cases, "What goes on under the blanket, God
knows." One of Aung Ze's women is now in the family way by him and
the people are so incrdibly stupid that she will want watching. I
     wanted to see what remained of my parents' Burma, to
     find traces of the Raj. They were not always obvious.
    Sir Harcourt Butler's Government House now shelters the
    head of Slorc. The roads and railways are those left by
       the British with little dong to them. Rangoon and
    Mandalay still bear traces of the rectilinear grid that
     laid them out like a humbler Delhi. But much of what
      the war failed to destroy of old gas-lit colonial
    streets id now being bulldozed to make way for hideous
    concrete hotels financed by French and Japanese money.
     Down on the Rangoon waterfront, where the overcrowded
     ferries ply busily back and forth, the Customes House
    still holds up its grandly imperial head. Next door to
     it is the Strand Hotel (where I feel sure my parents
      lodged), most felicitously refurbished by the Aman
    chain of hotels. Electric fans stir the potted palms as
       the sound of a xylophone drifts towards residents
     partaking of tiffin just as the planters of Somerset
     Maugham would have done. The general hospital and the
        high court  building still stand in  unashamed
      Victorian grandeur with Moghul towers; but the City
      Hall is a nearby pastiche built by the Russians in
       similar style in the s. Today, five sinister-
    looking tanks lurk menacingly outside it just in case.
    During their brief flirtation with socialist Burma, the
       Russians also built the InwaLake Hotel, where we
     stayed, a square, soulless block in Cancer Ward style
     now revamped as Rangoon's number one hotel, Perhaps
      one of the best preserved relics of the Raj is the
        British Residence, formerly headquarters of the
        Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, where a portrait of
     Mountbatten of Bruma surveys the entrance, and where
      Aung San once styled during the war under Japanese
     patronage. Mandalay struck George Orwell, who didn't
     much fancy Burma,as "a rather disagreeable town it is
      dusty and intolerably hot, and is said to have five
     main products, all beginning with P, namely pagodas,
    pariahs, pigs, priests and prostitutes." Bashed by the
     war, and further ruined by subsequent jerry building,
       Mandalay has even less now to offer. The Diamond
    Jubilee clock-tower stands isolated in its nondescript
      center; a half-hidden white church has now become a
      telephone exchange, though the red-brick Methodist
     Memorial Chapel still faces the moat of Thebaw's vast
     palace, of which sadly only the mile-long crenelated
      walls and one wooden pagoda still exist, Above, no
      Mandaly Hill where Slim expended so many lives to
    reconquer the city in 1945, sits discreetly one of the
     few visible memorials o the second world war a small
     tablet put up with Gurkha funds to commemorate those
       "who lost their lives in that galiant and fierce
    assault." Below is a new French Novotel, a truly horrid
    blot on the landscape. Towards the legendary Burma Road
     to China, and much more engagingly British, is Maymyo
     once reckoned to be perhaps the best hill station of
     the Raj.  Up and down an agreeable   dilapidated main
     drag, reminding one of old-time Nairobi, trot covered
    gharries with inscriptions like "Catch Me a Tiger." The
     Canda Craig Hotel (founded in 1904), an immaculately
    clean red-brick building offers seven bedrooms at $35
       each, "with 20 per cent discount for foreigners."
    Nearby is an advertisement for the more modern-sounding
                   hotel, Sweety Mattress.

    We had a sumptuous picnic in the very English botanical
     garden, under a monkey puzzle tree and amid a bed of
     municipal red salvia. Across the way is a golf course
     ringed by bungalows with tin roofs and verandahs with
         little ornate turrets a blend of stock-broker
    Sunningldale and Penang. Tenzo, our guide, pointed out
       All Saints Church, where last year he brought two
         elderly British Legion veterans: "I was very
      emotioned." We too felt 'very emotioned" on leaving
        Bruma. Despite its unpleasant regime, there is
     something about the country and its proudly handsome,
    sweetly welcoming people that grabs one, just as it did
     Kipling's British soldier. Our trip had begun with a
    call on Suu Kyi in her beleaguered compound. But, for
    all my admiration for this gallantly heroic lady, I am
      not quite sure whether she is right to tell foreign
    tourists not to come. If I have a guilty conscience, it
      is about what the Raj's war did to her country not
     about disregarding her plea now. For open windows let
     in air and light. More not less exposure of Burma to
     the world must eventually make even Slorc give way. I
     have travelled in, and written about, nasty countries
      like Pinochet's Chile, Honecker's East Germany and
    Brezhnev's USSR and where are they now, all of them? By
                 arrangement with The spectator