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By S. Kella Samuels
Published by SKS Enterprises, Tucson, Arizona, 2012
Amazon price £25, or order direct from: www.sksent.com/books.htm
Review by Patricia Herbert:
The author has written two previous books on Myanmar, namely: Burma Ruby: A History of Mogok's Rubies from Antiquity to the Present (2003) and Jade and Maw Sit Sit of Burma (2004), but this is his first novel, and a very engaging one at that. The Myanmar-born author draws on his own family's recollections and experiences to portray the impact of war upon the lives of ordinary people, in particular that of the Thomas family, Indian Christians who had left India to work for the Rangoon Railways in British Myanmar. Kella has taken care to supplement oral memories with detailed historical research into the war period, and has travelled to various wartime battle sites. One of his aims in writing the book has been to "reassess the claims of the Tatmadaw [Myanmar Army] that it freed the country from colonialism single-handed, protected the country from foreign designs in the post-war era, and promoted the welfare of the people." |
The novel tells of families torn apart, of shattered lives and dreams, and the story takes us through the traumas of wartime Myanmar and on into the post-independence period and military rule. The result is a powerful evocation of cosmopolitan colonial Myanmar, the impact of the rapid British retreat, the Japanese occupation and bitter battles to retake Myanmar, as told through the eyes and interwoven fortunes of different strands of ordinary Burmese society: Anglo-Burmese and Indian families, idealistic young Burman nationalists as well as of some of Myanmar's minority ethnics. The novel opens dramatically with the Japanese air raids and heavy bombing of Rangoon on Christmas day 1941, and the reader is introduced to different characters who are stranded in different parts of the city as they take shelter from the bombs and fire, witness dreadful scenes of destruction and death, and worry about the fate of their family members. Faced with the brutal reality that war has come to Myanmar, the fate of each character is determined by the difficult dilemmas and choices confronting them. The patriarch of the Thomas family is resolved to stay at his post to help keep the railway running, but agonises as to how to get the womenfolk and children of his family evacuated to a place of safety. His two sons, Peter and Benjamin, along with their friend Jeremy and his sister CeCi, are the main characters in the book. Peter and Jeremy decide to fight to defend the country from the Japanese invasion and enlist in the Myanmar Rifles battalion, much to the scorn of their childhood friend and ardent nationalist, Tin Oo, who sees the Japanese as the means to liberate Myanmar from colonial rule. With Rangoon occupied by the Japanese, Benjamin is left to provide for his ailing parents and siblings, and life becomes a desperate struggle to find food and to survive. CeCi, a nurse in Myitkyina, eventually opts to join the streams of refugees on the arduous trek to safety in India. The trials and tribulations endured by all the characters are vividly evoked: battle scenes, life under Japanese occupation, collaboration with the Japanese, and the plight of the helpless refugees. As the tide of war turns and the nationalist Myanmar Defence Force switches sides to join the Allied forces, we follow the fate of the Japanese commanders, the last days of the occupation and the return of the British.
In post-war Myanmar, realisation soon sets in that British rule in Myanmar cannot last, and Peter and Jeremy decide that there will be no place for them in independent Myanmar where ethnic warfare and settling of old scores had erupted, and accordingly they make the hard decision to leave the land of their birth to seek a new life overseas. The novel ends with their return visit to military-ruled Myanmar many decades later where they seek out their old friend Tin Oo who had reached the rank of Colonel, but now eked out a disillusioned retirement on a pitifully small pension. Tin Oo tells his visitors: "I was so hopeful after the war. I thought independence would bring back the glory that was once Myanmar, the old kingdom that my mother constantly told me about. I believed that my children's future would be better than my own life. But you can see for yourself that things have not worked out that way."
Well worth a read, not just for those who lived through the wartime period and its aftermath and so can all the more readily identify with the novel's cast of characters and events, but for anyone to gain fresh perspectives on 20th century Myanmar.
Reviewed by Patricia Herbert
Abhaya: Burma's Fearlessness
Text and photography by James Mackay
with foreword by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Published by River Books, Bangkok, 2011.
Glossy coffee table books on Myanmar usually feature ethnic groups, Buddhist temples and monasteries, textiles and handicrafts, and colourful scenes of local life. With this book we get something completely different: what might be termed campaign political art, published at a time when Myanmar occupies the political limelight on the world's stage of democracy movements.
The author, a documentary photographer who has worked extensively in Myanmar and its borders, has spent time interviewing and photographing former Myanmar political prisoners across the world: in Japan, in America and Europe, in Thailand and its border camps and, under cover, in Myanmar itself. He has put together the testimony of some 250 former prisoners who were willing to be featured to raise awareness of the courage and suffering of their imprisoned comrades. Abhaya is dedicated to the release of political prisoners and commemorates their political experiences.
Abhaya - a Pali term meaning fearlessness, is one of the gestures (mudra) of Buddha images - and the book features double page, full page and half page colour portraits of Myanmar political prisoners, past and current. Each individual is photographed standing with their right hand raised in the gesture of fearlessness, the palm facing forward, on which is written in large black letters the name of a political prisoner still - at time of publication - behind bars. Myanmar's most famous former political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, occupies the front cover. The accompanying text alongside each portrait gives brief biographical/political details of both the individual former prisoner photographed and of the current political prisoner named on their palm. It is not uncommon to read that some prisoners have been sentenced to extremely long and harsh prison terms - among them the famous comedian Zaganar (now released) whose 2008 sentence of 59 years was later reduced to 35 years.
General Ne Win in his long "reign" raised a class called "mawkunwin" (revolutionaries; literally, entrants to the historical record), a culture spread from the USSR or Yugoslavia. In this way, the old dictator sought to ensure the allegiance and obedience of veteran comrades, as well as the legitimacy of military rule. It is impossible to know if the selection criteria of some of today's western-based mawkunwin will stand the test of time, nor to judge the long term effect of support for the Myanmar struggle for democracy from states and organizations abroad.
The history of the future of those featured in Abhaya remains to be written. The lives of many are linked with exiles and those still resisting inside. Some may change their political views within a decade or two, some may submerge themselves in private family life, while others may still go marching on. This handsome publication is a moving tribute to the courage and dignity of many Myanmar who have in recent decades faced relentless political oppression and injustice. The book includes a one page statement by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Myanmar), a human rights organization set up in Mae Sot by former Myanmar political prisoners, which ends "The Myanmar people need your voice now more than ever".
Since the book's publication successive amnesties have been announced by the Myanmar government and many, but not all, of the political prisoners featured therein, have now been released.
Reviewed by Bo Bo Lansin, a PhD candidate at School of Oriental & African Studies, University of London (researching the intellectual roots of the rise of the military in Myanmar)
An Illustrated History & Guide
by Caroline Courtauld
Published by Odyssey Books & Maps, Hong Kong, 2012.
312 pages (plus 158 colour photos, and 16 page Atlas, city maps, plans).
Review by Patricia Herbert:
With Myanmar experiencing an upsurge in tourism and publicity, the publication of this richly illustrated guide by veteran Myanmarphile writer-photographer, Caroline Courtauld, is most timely. The author has visited Myanmar numerous times over the decades, and this book is based on and updates her earlier travel guide, Burma (Myanmar) - also published by Odyssey (1988, and 1999). It is a convenient size for carrying around on one's travels, though given the generous number of colour photos, maps and plans, a little on the heavy side.
Its coverage is extensive as a listing of the main sections will show:- History, Geography, The Peoples of Myanmar, Religion and Society, Festivals & Theatre, Facts for the Traveller, Yangon, Around Yangon, Nay Pyi Taw, Mandalay, Mandalay's Environs, Bagan, Inle Lake, Other Open Places in Myanmar, Mrauk-U & The West, Mawlamyine & The South, The East: Kayah, Kayin & Shan States, The North: Mogok and Kachin State, Practical Information, Recommended Reading, Special Topics, Literary Excerpts, Maps, Photo Essays & Atlas. The layout as such is pretty much the same as in the first editions of Courtauld's travel guide; the main sections all have numerous subsections, with several new updating ones including, among others, on the new Constitution, the Saffron Revolution, cyclone Nargis, the new capital, the mystery of the long-lost Spitfires, flora and fauna, the man [Schumacher] who foresaw the crisis of economics.
The Practical Information section listing travel agents and top hotels is much expanded, a reflection of the changing times as Myanmar's state and private enterprises respond to the growth in tourism and commerce. The hotels listed are mostly suited to the more well-heeled, rather than budget or backpacker travellers (less able to afford to soak up the calm while "sipping your rum sour, a delicious concoction of fresh lime and Mandalay rum, under a swirling fan in the Strand Hotel bar") and are graded by price range (from US$150-300 to under US$50 per night), but, as the author notes, prices are escalating dramatically following the relaxation of trade sanctions and increasing numbers of visitors to the country. The Facts for the Traveller section is also informative on basic matters like getting around the country, on food, and on shopping for tailor-made clothes, souvenirs, crafts (lacquerware, etc) and antiques (with a caveat about legal restrictions on exporting some items). The text is enhanced throughout by the inclusion of extracts from a wide range of writings on Myanmar, while a Recommended Reading section lists key works on many aspects of Myanmar, past and present. Specialists will inevitably spot some inconsistencies and mistakes (eg minthani for minthami and pyongyi for pongyi) in the romanization of Myanmar names and words.
The Guide focuses on the positive, emphasising the country's beauty, the charm of its people, and its principal must-see sites and experiences, but the author does also cover the political developments and problems of the military rule period and the pro-democracy movement from 1988 onwards. I would recommend it as most useful for first-time and fairly new visitors to Myanmar; but such is the author's intimate knowledge and love of the country that more seasoned Myanmar travellers too will find much in this Guide to entice them to explore further. Everyone who discovers Myanmar cannot fail to endorse the author's message that Myanmar has a very special style and is visually unique - "in no other land is the eye so constantly delighted by scenes of casual, almost unintended beauty" - but must also share her apprehension that Myanmar is on the threshold of great, but fragile, change.
Review by Patricia Herbert
Review by Patricia Herbert
30 Heritage Buildings of Yangon: Inside the City that Captured Time
by Sarah Rooney
Published by Serindia & AMA, Chicago, 2012.
166 pages; 200+ ills; bibliog; index.
One outcome of Myanmar's long period of isolation and socio-economic decline under military socialist rule has been that Yangon ('Rangoon' being an anglicised form of the city's original Myanmar name) possesses to this day a wealth of colonial period buildings that have hitherto largely escaped the destructive onslaught of rapid urban development experienced by so many other Asian cities. In colonial times, Rangoon was known as the garden city of Asia, and was a thriving cosmopolitan port city, with worldwide trade and transport links. The period of British rule saw the construction of magnificent edifices: state buildings such as the Secretariat, the High Court, and the City Hall, banks such as the art deco Chartered Bank (completed in 1941 just before the Japanese occupation), department stores such as Rowe & Company, and trading company headquarters, among them that of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, as well as grand private residences and clubs - bastions of colonial life and segregation - of which the oldest is the 1872 Pegu Club, constructed in teak.
Although battered by war, natural disasters, political and ownership changes, and general neglect, much of Yangon's remarkable architectural heritage has survived, but is now in urgent need of restoration and safeguarding from the accelerating pace of economic and political change as Myanmar's government seeks the path of reform and modernity. Some historic buildings - most notably Jubilee Hall - were demolished in the late 20th century, while others including many ministerial buildings are standing empty or have been sold to developers following the move in late 2005 of the seat of government to the newly constructed capital, Nay Pyi Taw, over 300 km north of Yangon.
A frequent observation by overseas visitors to Yangon is how green, relatively unpolluted and uncongested the city is in comparison with Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, nor blighted (as yet) by a plethora of modern bland high-rise, glass-fronted buildings. But for anyone to grasp the city's past grandeur and unlock the history often hidden behind peeling facades and boarded up buildings, this publication is indispensable. Time, however, is not on the side of conservationists, and the purpose of the book is above all to highlight the need to protect and appreciate Yangon's remarkable architectural heritage. The Association of Myanmar Architects has commendably come to the rescue by selecting the thirty key buildings whose origins and life cycle are so well researched, described and illustrated in this book.
The book's foreword, by U Thaw Kaung, retired Chief Librarian of the Universities Central Library, evokes with some nostalgia the old Rangoon of his childhood and long career, emphasising that "once these buildings are gone, an important part of our life, history, and heritage will be lost forever". The Introduction outlines the history of Yangon from the British annexation of Lower Myanmar, and the logistical challenges of turning a swampy riverside location into a modern metropolis; and, turning to the present day, looks at possible options for Yangon's colonial buildings to function as a link between the past and future and to become financially sustainable. The book's layout consists of chapters or topographical sections, as follows:- Around the Secretariat, Around the Sule Pagoda, Merchant Street - The Banking Quarters, Pansodan - Lower Block, Along Strand Road, and, Elsewhere in Rangoon.
Each section describes the buildings selected therein, with for each the architect's name, the construction company, and important dates and names associated with it. The author, Sarah Rooney, has delved into company records, directories, old guide books and archives, as well as drawing on past travellers' accounts and people's memories, to bring to life the complex, often forgotten social history of each building featured. The text is accompanied by old black-and-white photographs as well as by architectural drawings, street plans, and contemporary colour photographs (mostly by the book's designer, Natthaphat Meksriwan). Each section ends with a short essay, for example, one on "World Famous Residents of Dalhousie Road", while another gives an extract from Dagon Taya's May describing a night time walk through 1930s downtown Yangon. Additional features are a one-page descriptive listing of six major architects of the colonial state, and a useful list of the old and new street names, with brief details of the individuals the streets were named after. Also enhancing the text are vignettes of many 20th century Myanmar intellectuals, writers and artists associated with so many of the buildings featured.
Rooney provides many fascinating details and amusing anecdotes, often recalling a way of life that has now just about vanished. She tells of the Jewish community's contribution and in particular that of the Sofaer family whose Sofaer Buildings complex in Pansodan now houses the Lokanat Gallery where some of the original tiles imported from Manchester by Isaac Sofaer are still in situ; of the Chartered Bank's 365 keys that were lost following war damage and of the new sets of keys, locks and door handles that had to be ordered from the original UK supplier; of the Armenian Sarkies Brothers' Strand Hotel built in 1901 and now luxuriously renovated; of the Rangoon Chinese Boon Haw and Boon Pa, founders of the Tiger Balm commercial empire; and she quotes a 1930s visitor to the Pegu Club who recommended it, with reference to its colonial clientele, as useful for "an expert study of the fossils of Myanmar".
Both overseas visitors and local inhabitants will find much to appreciate in this book, and it is to be hoped that, as well as serving admirably as a walking guide to the city, the book will raise awareness and funds to preserve more buildings from the rush to develop and modernise that threatens to destroy Yangon's special character and appeal. To this end a Yangon Heritage Trust has been set up and the Association of Myanmar Architects has identified 187 buildings for listing as in need of protection and renovation.
Reviewed by Patricia Herbert
By Benedict Rogers
foreword by Most Reverend Desmond M. Tutu
Rider Books: London, 2012.
Review by Robert Gordon:
As hopes strengthen that the reform movement in Myanmar is here to stay, international interest in Myanmar has never been so high. For those wanting to explore the complexities of contemporary Myanmar, there is a wide range of recent titles to choose from: Peter Popham's The Lady and The Peacock is the latest and fullest biography of Aung San Suu Kyi. Ben Rogers' previous book Unmasking the Tyrant analyses the personality and mystique of Myanmar's former strongman Than Shwe. Several authors - notably Martin Smith - have written extensively on Myanmar's ethnic mosaic. Andrew Selth, Mary Callahan and others have subjected the Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) to detailed scrutiny, while Sean Turnell has written about the changing face of the Myanmar economy.
But few have yet sought to draw these different strands into one readable whole. Rogers sets out to do so while avoiding the twin dangers of oversimplification and excessive complication. In this he largely succeeds: the book is accessible to the newcomer to Myanmar while offering a host of fresh insights to those already familiar with the country's many challenges.
The book is the fruit of some 40 visits to Myanmar over the past decade or more. Rogers begins with a humorous account of one of the several occasions on which he was officially deported. But, in a sign of the times, he has since been able to visit freely and openly.
Rogers is an activist working with Christian Solidarity Worldwide whose interest in Myanmar had first been sparked on the Thai-Myanmar border when interviewing victims of human rights atrocities. He was deeply affected by the plea of one young Shan refugee whose parents had both been murdered by the Tatmadaw: "please tell the world not to forget us". This book is clearly a part-payment of that moral debt.
After a brisk but thorough survey of Myanmar's post-independence woes and the reasons for the military take-over in 1962, Rogers charts Myanmar's decline from pre-war prosperity to least developed country status. In 1988, Myanmar patience finally snapped and Rogers relies on extensive firsthand accounts to record the outburst of popular frustration, the emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi on to Myanmar's political stage, and the brutal Army crackdown.
Drawing on his many field visits, Rogers devotes the central portion of his book to graphic descriptions of the suffering since inflicted by the Tatmadaw on Myanmar's ethnic periphery, particularly the Karens in the east, the Shans and Kachins in the north, and the Chins and Rohingyas in the west. These accounts do not make for easy reading but, taken together, they constitute a damning record-sheet of institutionalised barbarity which will disfigure the Myanmar landscape for decades to come, and which will make the task of nation-building infinitely more difficult to accomplish.
Rogers makes no claims to impartiality: he recognises that, as a committed activist, he passionately identifies with Myanmar's suffering ethnic minorities. That said, the accounts he assembles have the ring of truth and certainly tally with the many documented cases of abuse recorded by the UN, State Department and other reliable witnesses.
Bringing us up to date, Rogers analyses the reasons for the failed Saffron Revolution of 2007 and documents the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which showed up the callousness and insensitivity of a regime which not only blocked international aid but also punished its own citizens for attempting to bring succour to the affected population of the Irrawaddy Delta.
In part this paranoia was driven by the regime's determination not to be distracted from the overriding need to gain popular endorsement for their new constitution. Rogers records how this referendum - and the follow-up elections of 2010 - were initially dismissed by the international community and many Myanmar as empty charades. Yet, against expectations, the new civilian government began to chart a new course for Myanmar, starting with the highly significant suspension of the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam project in September 2011.
In his final chapter, Rogers looks at where Myanmar may now be heading. Given his exposure to many of the regime's worst features, Rogers might be forgiven for being a sceptic. Yet he concludes on a note of cautious optimism. Improbable as it may seem, ex-generals moulded in the isolationist, centralising tradition of the Ne Win/Than Shwe era are now attempting to move the country forward. This zeitgeist change has been recognised and reciprocated by Aung San Suu Kyi, who has shown no less courage in bringing her own party into parliament. As the country approaches this fork in the road, Rogers concludes with a call for all those who care about Myanmar to redouble efforts to ensure that the country does not head off once again into a blind alley.
Reviewed by BBS President, Robert Gordon
Where China meets India:
Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia.
by Thant Myint-U
Published by Faber & Faber
358pp - maps - bibliog.
Hard back, £20.00
| This timely and wide-ranging study by a former BBS speaker and author of two other Myanmar books (The Making of Modern Burma and The River of Lost Footsteps), puts the searchlight on a remote region hitherto rather neglected by scholars and determiners of Western foreign policy alike, but one that is rapidly becoming a geopolitical centre as the two great civilisations of India and China each seek political and commercial connections and influence in Myanmar. The author argues that, in the absence of a Western counterbalance and with Western sanctions continuing, China and contemporary Myanmar are becoming drawn into close interdependency, with India also having to compete to counter the ambitions of China in the region. |
Thant Myint-U effortlessly combines personal travelogue and observations with an analysis, backed up by in-depth knowledge of Myanmar history, of an area that is not peripheral but one that, if a circle is drawn round the central city of Mandalay with a radius of just over 700 miles, stretches to the states of West Bengal and Bihar in India, to Yunnan and Sichuan provinces in China, as well as to Tibet, and south to cover most of Laos and Thailand. This area is home to some 600 million people and it is this crossroads region that Thant Myint-U sets out to explore and focus upon.
His journey starts in the former capital Rangoon, conjuring up a world where "what was left of Myanmar intelligentsia gathered around in receptions and dinners and speculated endlessly about the junta's latest actions or desires", while observing that there was far less discussion of the much bigger unfolding drama of the economic growth of China and India and what it would mean not just for the West, but for Myanmar. He notes changes experienced in his visits over the past decade or so - gleaming shopping malls, smart hotels, internet cafes and opulent new houses with manicured lawns and swimming pools - while remarking that any sign of the 21st century could disappear within a few paces as paved roads turn into dirt road amongst candle-lit wooden houses. And that is just in the urban areas.
Thant Myint-U travels on to less visited regions, moving from Mandalay, Maymyo and the Shan States , and to Lashio "entering a much more Chinese world than anything I had seen before in Myanmar" and ventures into United State Wa Army territory and to Mongla - "an Alice in Wonderland world" where casinos and fast internet connections allow far away Chinese to gamble without ever setting foot in Myanmar. He crosses the frontier into Yunnan, and then also goes to Assam and Manipur in Northeastern India, his observations again supplemented by solid historical background on Myanmar's past connections with these areas. He discusses the huge trade in Myanmar's natural resources - including timber, jade and rare wild life (for medicinal and aphrodisiac value), as well as of trafficked women - and outlines the oil and gas pipelines and hydropower/dam projects negotiated with China and, to a lesser extent, with India. He flags up, too, environmental concerns raised by government plans to develop a massive industrial complex along the Tenasserim coast, as well as by new railway, deep-sea ports and other development projects set to impact many other areas of Myanmar. His main theme is that as General Ne Win's decades-long isolationist policy began to be abandoned by the new SLORC/SPDC military junta from 1989 onwards, Myanmar's relations with China went from strength to strength while Western rhetoric and policy favoured economic sanctions and boycott.
Thant Myint-U considers Western sanctions on Myanmar self-defeatingly futile. This policy is seemingly now under review following Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest, the National League for Democracy's plan to field candidates for election to the parliament in Naypyitaw, and President Thein Sein's apparent commitment to achieving democracy. It is far too early to tell the outcome, but Thant Myint-U takes care to point out that Myanmar's generals and ex-military leaders are fiercely independent and well aware of the dangers of over-dependency on China, and had already begun to hedge their bets by turning to India and to their ASEAN neighbours. The best scenario, he writes, would be one that "sees real progress in Myanmar coupled with a quick end to Western sanctions".
He concludes: "Progress in Myanmar would be a boon for the region. A peaceful, prosperous and democratic Myanmar would be a game-changer for all Asia". A state of affairs that for sure many have been dreaming of for decades now, and can only hope to live long enough to witness and experience!
Reviewed by Patricia Herbert
The British Escape Through The Jungles of Death 1942
by Felicity Goodall
Published by The History Press: Stroud, Gloucestershire.
239 pages; hardback; maps; ills; bibliog.
ISBN 978 0 7524 6092 5.
Paper back - ISBN: 0701184087
£18.99 or discounted to £17.09 if ordered online from: www.thehistorypress.co.uk
Review by Diana Millington:
Half a million forgotten refugees from a forgotten war, in 1942 the British in Myanmar struggled to escape the swift, ferocious onslaught of the Japanese army and reach the safety of India across the North Western border of Myanmar. The sudden and unexpected invasion caught many unprepared, and they faced an appalling journey on foot through mountains and swamps, leaving behind their homes and possessions in the idyllic country nicknamed the Golden Land, while British and Indian troops fought in vain to halt the enemy.|
The refugees included pregnant women, children, and the elderly. Their route lay through some of the most inhospitable territory on earth, aptly named the Jungles of Death. They were ravaged by disease, starvation, exhaustion, lack of shelter, and the storms of the monsoon. Countless numbers perished during the journey.
Felicity Goodall has discovered many poignant accounts of the refugees recorded in their reminiscences, personal diaries, letters, and scraps of paper carried with them. From her painstaking research into both personal and official documents, she has woven these individual stories into an engrossing, dramatic and gripping tale of human suffering and endurance. It is a story that has long needed to be told, and at last it has been told, with the consummate skill of a highly accomplished storyteller. Photographs, both of the time and more recent, enhance even further this excellent book.
For those of us whose families were involved, Felicity Goodall has filled in the gaps in our knowledge and given us the complete picture. For those who have never before heard of those half million refugees, this is a most illuminating and compelling story. It is a superb, moving account of a terrible episode in the British Empire's history.
Reviewed by Diana Millington
Review by Derek Brooke-Wavell
The Lady and the Peacock
by Peter Popham
(also available in paperback)
This is a remarkable story, and published at a remarkable time for Myanmar - when at last democracy seems almost within its grasp. Central to that story is a truly remarkable figure - Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of the 'father of Myanmar independence', General Aung San; she is a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, but detained under house arrest for 15 years, and only released in November 2010. |
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi could well be Asia's best-known political figure - yet at the start she was like a first-time jockey winning the Grand National. Arriving in Myanmar in 1988 at the age of 43, with no experience of practical politics, in two months she came close to overthrowing a military government and then founded a political party, the National League for Democracy, which won the 1990 general election by a landslide.
That true story was as thrilling as you could wish, but it was put on hold in 1990 by her house arrest - in which condition she has remained, with some breaks up until November 2010.
The world's continuing interest in her over the many years since then has been justified by the enormous potential she showed from the outset. Her success in winning the hearts and trust of the Myanmar people and the world back in 1988 had not been a matter of mere chance. From her own earliest days onwards she had clearly been grooming herself for the stern challenge of taking over her father's mantle in Myanmar, should that ever be necessary. This fact makes her 43 years of anonymity before 1988 of consuming interest.
Peter Popham lays out her first four decades in a very readable way. Born in 1945, she got her startling looks and slim figure from her father; then her upright bearing and fierce integrity came from her mother's upbringing. In India, where she went to school while her mother was Myanmar ambassador there, she learned the skills of democratic debate, and she was bowled over by the example of Mahatma Gandhi, who had controlled a vast popular movement by sheer principle, courage and an infinite willingness to sacrifice himself.
Popham recounts how at a later stage Suu Kyi promised to marry Michael Aris, a British academic - only on condition that he would let her go back to her country if it ever needed her. And after that, and giving birth to two sons, she studied her late father's life as an academic subject, learning even more about what had made him a hypnotic leader. She also pursued postgraduate studies at London University - and when in Myanmar, and particularly when she was under detention, she greatly refined her knowledge of Buddhism and meditation, to which she later turned in the solitude of her house arrest.
Popham does full justice to the breakneck years of the political struggle - 1988-1990. He does not spend a lot of space retelling Myanmar's history before that as other writers have done; nor can his book be completely up to date, because this story is still developing fast. But he does tell the heady story of Myanmar's democracy movement in 1988, with more details than some; and of Suu Kyi's campaigning tours before the election in 1990. This is enriched with excerpts from a diary kept by Ma Thanegi - who had been serving as Suu Kyi's assistant as her little group drove from village to village, campaigning round the provinces before the election, and often finding great crowds to receive them. I suppose Suu Kyi was improvising the whole time, because she had never been involved in elections before her trip to Myanmar; nor did the Myanmar public have much knowledge of what to expect.
Some local officials put on pressure to stop her tour, because it was getting local people involved, in a way that must have disturbed them intensely; but she replied with calm words and adroitly side-stepped most of the opposition; and on one occasion famously walked forwards through a line of levelled guns. But Ma Thanegi also records their personal chat and laughter in the car between destinations, how they managed local accommodation in each place and so forth.
Then the long years of detention after the election victory of the National League for Democracy had been disallowed by the regime; detention which Suu Kyi accepted with as much composure as Nelson Mandela, though it meant years of separation from her family in the UK; and her husband died during this time. She continued to speak out for human rights when she could - and, for instance, asked for a tourism boycott of Myanmar by other countries. But she never stopped believing that a reconciliation would be possible with the military regime - and Popham relates that she was taking part in serious discussion through intermediaries with one of the strong men of the regime, General Khin Nyunt - talks which were brought to an end by Khin Nyunt's sudden downfall. Observers tended at the time to be cautious about giving much weight to such talks because of Khin Nyunt's well-known personal antipathy for her; however, the general was himself released from house arrest in January 2012, and described Suu Kyi's recent talks with President Thein Sein and foreign leaders as "good signs" for the future of the country, so that seems to support Popham's account.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi showed from 1988 onwards that she had a great power to move the Myanmar people and be accepted as one of them despite her long absence from her homeland. Predictably, Myanmar's military rulers took her people-power as a threat to themselves - particularly because she had a British husband and never stopped talking of democracy and human rights, which they saw as slogans of the west. Yet people who knew her better could never conceive of her as a stooge of American or British interests; her deep commitment to the Myanmar principles of Buddhism infuses all her speeches; she has always been a fierce Myanmar nationalist and one who refuses to be pushed around.
It would be a great thing, not only for Myanmar but for the world, if a peaceful way forward can be found in Myanmar - to which she certainly has much to contribute. She has all the qualifications for greatness that one could possibly hope for - endorsed by a Nobel Peace Prize. How much of that greatness she is able to achieve is a matter for the future. But at 66 she is still young - and so is Myanmar.
Myth and Folklore in an Evolving Spiritual Realm
by Donald M. Stadtner
Published 2011 by River Books, Bangkok
Paper back - 348 pp.
Maps, illustrations, bibliography
ISBN: 978 974 9863 60 2
Review by Patricia Herbert:
In this magnificent paperback volume art historian Donald Stadtner brings a new dimension to existing studies of Myanmar by unravelling the labyrinth of myths and legends surrounding the foundation and origins of Myanmar's sacred sites. Stadtner presents not just Myanmar's top three sacred sites - namely the Shwe Dagon, the golden rock Kyaik-hti-yo, and the Mahamuni Temple in Mandalay - but an immense spectrum of holy places, even including non-Buddhist sites.
The appeal of this book is that it works at two levels: as a detailed introduction to Myanmar's spiritual and artistic heritage and as an unusual guide for discerning travellers. The arrangement of the book's subject matter by regional theme assists this dual function, with chapters on Rangoon, the Mon country, Upper Myanmar, Bagan, Later Myanmar Kingdoms, Inle Lake, and State, each chapter subdivided as follows:- Rangoon: Shwe Dagon, Sule Pagoda, Botataung Pagoda, Baghdadi Jews, the lost Mughal tomb, Holy Trinity and St. Mary's, and the Ganesha temple; Mon Country: Pegu, Kyaik-hti-yo, Thaton, and Moulmein; the Buddha's visit to Upper Myanmar: Magwe, and Prome; Bagan: a prophecy of charity and virtue; Later Myanmar Kingdoms: Kaung-hmu-daw, Amarapura, Mingun, Mahamuni, Mandalay Hill, Kyauk-taw-gyi, and Kuthodaw; Inle Lake: the Shan and King Alaungsithu's magic barge; Rakhine State: home of the Mahamuni Buddha.
The wealth of carefully researched material that Stadtner presents is impressive, while the text is enhanced by over 400 beautiful colour photographs (many by Paisarn Piemmattawat and others by the author) of sites, wall paintings and images, as well as of new reconstruction works and scenes of contemporary devotion and donation. Stadtner remarks that in recent decades military patronage has become something of a leit-motif at Buddhist shrines, while wryly noting the airbrushing out of one or two deposed military figures on a modern wall painting. His introduction to the Rangoon chapter encompasses the city's history and different communities, including Indian (Hindu, Muslim and Parsee), Chinese, Armenian, Jewish and Christian, colonial society, independent Myanmar and military rule. Other regional chapters similarly cover a wide range of detail and changes over time as well as recent archaeological discoveries.
A key point made by Stadtner is that the popularity and fame of individual sites rests almost solely on the legends and myths that surround their foundation and the origins of their relics (for example, enshrined sacred hairs or teeth of the Buddha), and that these tales evolve, incorporating local folklore and co-existing nat (spirit) worship to blend with and appeal to the Buddhist faithful whose devotion ensures their long term survival. He also notes that "nascent sacred sites" can arise and grow in fame, or sometimes fade into obscurity. For each sacred site Stadtner traces the legends and myths associated therewith as well as drawing on the evidence gleaned from archaeological research, inscriptions, chronicles and pagoda histories. He comments that in so doing "I felt as I came closer to understanding each pagoda there was always further to go, like Sisyphus rolling his stone up the hill." Stadtner does not shirk from critical comment on some recent restoration works such as "the fanciful reconstruction" of King Bayinnaung's 16th century palace at Pegu - though he omits discussion of the rebuilt palaces of Bagan and Mandalay - and he revisits the question of whether King Bodawpaya's huge brick temple at Mingun was actually completed or left unfinished.
Altogether, a highly recommended and outstanding study of Myanmar's rich and varied heritage, an essential supplement to any guide book to Myanmar, and a work that contains much that even Myanmar specialists will find can enrich their knowledge.
This is a most scholarly work. The author, Atsuko Naono (University of Warwick), was an undergraduate at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. She became interested in smallpox vaccination in colonial Myanmar while working for her PhD at the University of Michigan. She completed her thesis in 2005. She went on to learn Myanmar and John Okell was one of her teachers. Justin Watkins, another Britain-Myanmar member, also from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, helped her to link up with the Wellcome Centre for the History of Medicine at University College, London conference 30 June - 1 July 2006.
State of Vaccination:
The Fight Against Smallpox in Colonial Burma (New Perspectives in South Asian History)
by Atsuko Naono
Published by Orient Blackswan
Hard back, £30.00
| On the front cover of her book is a beautiful picture of Bassein Pagoda, as it was in 1910.
In 1899 the smallpox epidemic in Myanmar resulted in 10,754 deaths. The British Colonial Government faced major problems in trying to reduce this loss of life. Compared to many other areas that were a part of British India, Myanmar was often forgotten. It was not until 1937 that Myanmar was separated administratively from India. Indigenous health in Myanmar was never a high priority for the British. Rich natural resources - in particular timber, oil and rice were more important.
The colonial government promoted vaccination because it was a proven Western technology. A Vaccination Department and Training School was set up in 1906 in Meiktila and extended until 1935. Unfortunately it was found that vaccination's effectiveness often diminished in tropical environments.
Without effective vaccine lymph, British medical officers lacked the means to demonstrate that vaccination was a safe and effective method 'modern' medicine had come up with. Although 'bad lymph' was an easy target for blame, understanding why lymph failed was a more vexing issue. It revealed the fundamental problems that dogged the effort of building a colonial state in Myanmar, particularly the lack of personnel, and finance, and inadequate infrastructure. Among the causes identified were transportation, the tropical heat, the lack of skilled medical officers, and the irresponsible behaviour of Myanmar parents."
However the successful side was that by 1942, before the Japanese invasion of Myanmar, even in Chin State, a very hilly and remote area of Western Myanmar near the Indian boarder, there was a Chin vaccinator in the village of Tiddim. It was his duty to carry out vaccinations in the surrounding area and smallpox was kept under control. Unfortunately the production of vaccine lymph in colonial Myanmar came to an end with the outbreak of World War II when the vaccine depot was destroyed. Even after Independence in 1948, the rebuilding of the depot was nowhere on the agenda and Myanmar once again became dependent on external sources, primarily India, for vaccine lymph.
This book on an important subject has been very well researched with an extensive bibliography, maps and tables. It has put together an enormous amount of data for those who are interested in Myanmar and the History of Medicine.
The Road to Wanting
by Wendy Law-yone
Published by Chatto & Windus
Paper back - ISBN: 0701184087
Amazon Price: £7.74
Review by Derek Brooke-Wavell:
The poignantly-named town of Wanting lies in an ethnic melting pot in south China. Western tourists might find their way there, eventually, at the end of a road that has taken them through a string of colourful locations - Rangoon and Bangkok, perhaps, and trekking through ethnic villages in the Thai-Myanmar-Laos-China border areas. Many a traveller must have entertained the idea for a moment, of stopping off in one of these exotic locations and remaining there forever.|
But of course all these places look very different when seen by their inhabitants, and particularly the poorest inhabitants. The Road to Wanting offers us an epic journey through a variety of these places and cultures, including the brothels of Thailand, from an insider's point of view. The heroine is Na Ga, a village girl from a poor tribe who finds herself moving from place to place, as so many do, looking for comfort and security - but what she ends up with is always dependence on someone else, over whom she has no control.
This is not a political book, in the simple sense. The Myanmar army performs no atrocities - and actually the country that comes off looking worst is Thailand, where the police are shown as routinely arresting escaped brothel girls and sending them back to their keepers. The brothel sequences are not as harrowing as I feared - this is a viable living for many girls. And actually the skill and charm of the storyteller perfuse the pages with a fascination which keeps one's eyes glued to the text.
It is not really the facts of the plot that make this novel, but dialogue, the local sayings and turns of speech, the amazing wealth of detail about life in ethnic villages, as well as the urban residents of Myanmar and China. And the multicoloured scenes follow each other, as recollections by Na Ga, in a sort of wild order that prevents any build-up of anxiety.
The book ends where it started, in Wanting, with Na Ga on the point of returning, as she had dreaded, to her poor birth village. But in the course of her recollections she has achieved a personal epiphany - which makes it all worth while.
Review by Bo Bo:
Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know
by David I. Steinberg
from Oxford University Press
I am often asked by people with an interest in Myanmar affairs for a concise yet comprehensive introduction to Myanmar politics and history. Readable authoritative works on Myanmar, which are aimed at the general reader and not the scholar, are not common. Recently, we got Michael Charney's History of Modern Burma, which remedies this deficiency somewhat, but up-to-date general reference works on Myanmar's complicated and controversial political history are still quite scarce. Coming out in time for the elections of 2010, David Steinberg's Burma/Myanmar serves as a handy guide to Myanmar and her troubles for anyone whose seeks to understand the trials and tribulations of this suffering nation.
As the work of a distinguished political scientist and Myanmar specialist, Steinberg's Burma/Myanmar is admirably comprehensive on modern Myanmar history and politics, but perhaps, a little deficient in its coverage of the arts and culture. The evolution of issues that confront the modern Myanmar nation like economic chaos, clashes between the militant state and the religious orders (Sangha) and ethnic power struggles is traced through colonial times and the tumultuous post-war years prior to the Saffron Revolution of 2007 (vividly documented by Myanmar video journalists in the film Myanmar VJ). The causes, symptoms and resolution (or non-resolution!) of Myanmar's numerous social and political conflicts are documented in an accessible and easy-to-read Q&A format. For example:- Was Myanmar communist or socialist, and what were the ideological influences on society?"; "How was citizenship defined?"; "What is the status and role of the military in Myanmar?; What happened in the referendum on the constitution in 2008 and what are its provisions?; How will the minorities deal with the new government?
Steinberg's description of these conflicts is even-handed and well-researched. I wish his book could be translated into Myanmar for wider distribution among Myanmar activists, many of whom view Steinberg as a scholar who supports the anti-sanctions approach and advocates cooperation with the Myanmar army in democratization. It is regrettable that the political analytical culture of the Myanmar (in exile or in Rangoon) has not developed much since independence. The Myanmar intelligentsia and professional classes will be key players in any future change within Myanmar and their political maturity should be encouraged.
For me, the most catching point in this book is the observation that the Myanmar generals' conception of political power closely resembles that of the pre-colonial Myanmar court. For both, power is finite and its sharing is seen as a diminishment. ASSK and most opposition groups thought the 1990 election would entail the drawing up of a new constitution by those elected and a transfer of power, while in the event the military retained power and took some 18 years to stage-manage a new constitution guaranteeing their dominance. I myself, like many others at the time, still remember the promise made by the then SLORC leader, Saw Maung, that the army would return to their barracks after transferring power to the winner in the election.
Numerous trenchant observations and remarks appear in this book, and they testify to Steinberg's many years of close study of Myanmar affairs. The enumeration of crises facing Myanmar (p.10-14) should be useful to humanitarian and public policy people. The crises of fear permeating Myanmar society and youths stifled through lack of opportunity is particularly worrisome. More attention should be paid to these crises by analysts within Myanmar and abroad. The negative consequences of these crises will reverberate long after military power has ceased.
There are some small factual errors. For example, the birth year of Aung San is given as 1911 instead of 1915. It is stated (p.97) that civilian doctors need to serve in the army for three years before obtaining a license to practice medicine. As the son of an ex-medical professor, I have never heard of this rule in Myanmar, and think Steinberg might have meant the requirement that newly qualified doctors should do 3 years' government service before being allowed to practice privately. More recently, the junta cannot offer job opportunities for new medical graduates (some 2,000 a year) and has introduced a short medical license course and permitted private practice. Apart from these minor issues, Steinberg's work should be recommended as a prescribed text to help understand Myanmar's complicated multi-dimensional chaos. Current events in Myanmar have their roots back in King Bodawpaya's power mania, as well as in the dominance of Buddhist nationalism, anti-Indian sentiments from the pre-war days, also in classic 'Divide and Rule' policy and of course, international power politics from the Cold War and beyond. In conclusion, more literature on Myanmar is welcome and should be published and translated into Myanmar, and more Myanmar and indigenous sources used.
Review in 2010 by Bo Bo (aka) Bo Bo Lansin, MA (History) (SOAS), has a background in the Myanmar media and political world, and is the grandson of the late eminent writer and publisher, Ludu Daw Amar. He is known to the Myanmar reading public as a biographer and essayist on modern Myanmar history and literature, and currently edits a Myanmar online magazine from London http://www.kaungkin.com/ and contributes profiles on famous Myanmar intellectuals to http://www.irrawaddy.org/bur/.
Under Running Laughter -
Burma - the Hidden Heart
by Liz Anderson
Published (May 2009) by Matador
Paper back - 292 pp.
Review by Joanna Smith:
The subject of this biography, Charles Garrad, was someone whose name I knew; and I knew too of his particular distinction. He was the elder of two brothers, both of whom became Anglican priests and served in the Winchester Mission to Mandalay in the early 20th century. He was responsible for the building of Mandalay Cathedral in 1928, which replaced the decayed wooden church built on land given by King Mindon in 1873; but is probably better known for his part in the translation of the Bible into Myanmar.|
This book, as the Introduction reveals, is biography amplified into fiction. The style, therefore, means it isn't dry documentary reporting but a fast moving tale with the pace of a novel, enlivened by dialogue and imagined inner thought, and with a really absorbing story to tell of two families whose lives eventually entwine.
Growing up separately in England in the 1880s, we follow their fortunes until they overlap in 1920, on a boat going out to India. I was captivated by the account of lives lived day to day; a period piece of Victorian England, moving on through experiences of childhood, school, university and eventually the church. Garrad's school days were not entirely happy ones: he was a gentle, studious boy, preferring the library to the sports field, choosing rather to withdraw into anonymity than be noticed, though on occasion could be provoked to a fierce response. But he was immensely hardworking and this did bring its rewards and the university at Cambridge. In parallel we hear of the upbringing of the members of the Rawson family, until they finally travel together.
The stories of these two families whose lives merge are far from ordinary. They show unexpected sadnesses and suffering, endured with considerable tenacity and bravery; sometimes they are faced with agonising decisions, as was a young clergy widow with several children who found herself suddenly without means of support.
I did keep in mind the sub-title of the book - 'Burma - the hidden heart' - but was so entirely absorbed in what was happening in all the lives until that was revealed that I didn't notice how many pages had gone by. In fact Myanmar scarcely features until more than halfway through the book. But then it all slipped into place, and was indeed the heart.
I found the very short hints of Myanmar (Bootalet) dropped in throughout the book a little confusing, though this was probably a considered device to link it all; and perhaps these and the Myanmar voices in the epilogue were slightly uneasy in style. But the conclusion they reveal after the devastating 'Postscript' on 1958 must remain a secret for you to discover for yourself. It is a very worthwhile read.
For an informative article on the Winchester Mission and the Garrad family, I also recommend: http://www.scribd.com/doc/23708085/The-Garrad-Brothers-of-Burma
Joanna Smith has been a member of the Britain-Myanmar Society since her return to UK in 1966 after a 3-year period working in Myanmar, where she was a member of the (reversely-named) Burma-Britain Society in Rangoon! She has been back to Myanmar several times since then; and is a member of an Anglican church in London (St Stephen's, Rochester Row) which has had links with the Anglican church in Myanmar since 1989.
Joanna Smith has been a member of the Britain-Myanmar Society since her return to UK in 1966 after a 3-year period working in Myanmar, where she was a member of the (reversely-named) Burma-Britain Society in Rangoon! She has been back to Myanmar several times since then; and is a member of an Anglican church in London (St Stephen's, Rochester Row) which has had links with the Anglican church in Myanmar since 1989.
Burmese Painting: A Linear and Lateral History
by Andrew Ranard hard cover - 378 pages
A4 size; 175 painters and 300 colour plates.
£59.00 from Amazon - or available to Britain-Myanmar Society members at the discounted price of only £44.00 + £3 p&p, from Nick Esson of Combined Academic Publishers, 15A Lewin's Yard, East Street, Chesham HP5 1HQ, Tel (0)1494 581 601
Review by Wendy Law-Yone
|There are many artistic traditions for which Myanmar is renowned, but painting is not among them. To all but a handful of practitioners, collectors and scholars, the subject of painting in Myanmar has remained for the most part irrelevant or arcane.|
||Yet Myanmar painters have long been prime documenters of their country's spiritual, cultural, and social history, with an artistic pedigree that dates back at least 800 years, to the early muralists and fresco painters of Bagan. Why, then, has the painting tradition in Myanmar been so little explored as one continuous, encompassing whole?|
|A convincing answer to this and other puzzles surrounding the history and historiography of Myanmar art can be found in Andrew Ranard's Burmese Painting: A Linear and Lateral History. Drawing on a wealth of scholarly and journalistic sources, Ranard has produced an impressive survey of Myanmar painters through the ages - from the anonymous muralists of Bagan to the folding-manuscript (parabeik) illustrators of the 19th century; from the court painters and royal portrait artists of the pre-colonial period to the post-war experimenters in Traditional-Western forms; from the exponents of the Mandalay school and the Rangoon school, to the most recent crop of arrivals on the international art scene.|| |
||It's worth noting, as the author discloses in his introduction, that roughly a quarter of the paintings featured in this book belong to him - a collection grown from a few Myanmar paintings bequeathed to him by his parents (his father, Donald L. Ranard, was a senior American Embassy official in Rangoon in the mid-1960s). For all the questions of self-interest this might raise, the countervailing advantages can't be denied. How many art historians are allowed such unhindered access to the original works under discussion? Talk about 'owning' one's material! And if at first we wonder whether this ownership might also account for the inclusion of some rather poor and/or banal paintings, we soon come round, under the author's persuasive guidance, to his view that 'it is impossible to estimate the skill of Myanmar painters with snap judgments.'|
Once we see, in the frescos of Bagan, the roots of caricature and whimsy still evident in the works of today's artists, we also understand why, for example, students of the prestigious Burma Art Club of the 1920's took so readily to British cartoon art as taught by its founding members. Or why the great U Ba Nyan, sent as a young man to study at the Royal College of Art in London, might fall under the spell of Frank Brangwyn. (Possibly, as Ranard suggests, because Brangwyn, by then at the peak of his career, was at work on his murals for the House of Lords panels - and mural painting was a tradition that Ba Nyan, like all Myanmar painters, was steeped in.) |
Little by little, image by image, we are made aware of the 'lateral' agency in Myanmar art - the multiplicity of influences absorbed into the mainstream that perhaps also explains its lack of linear progression (such as can be traced in Western art.) And by the time Ranard stands a few Myanmar artists side by side with the likes of Monet, Rembrandt and Van Gogh, the comparisons are not as far-fetched as they might at first seem.
||Myanmar, says Ranard, is a 'Galapagos Islands of Art' - a territory rich in mutated forms and idiosyncratic styles born of its unique evolutionary history. In that case, he himself seems well-placed, as a dedicated collector, student, and promoter of Myanmar painting, to be its Darwin. But whereas the original Darwin, upon landing on the Galapagos, found the rocks too hot, the plants too smelly, and the iguanas dirty-looking, sluggish and stupid, Ranard's response to his terra incognita is one of deep affection and appreciation. And it is this - more than its striking coffee-table attributes, more than the copious images reproduced in its glossy pages - that makes Burmese Painting not just a handsome catalogue of a little-known oeuvre, but a sensitive tribute to a long line of Myanmar artists - major and minor - whose efforts embody the struggles and aspirations of their countrymen.|