Burma is almost a forgotten country for many reasons. It is comparatively small with a population of about 54 million. For decades the army has kept it in isolation in order to keep the people in its iron grip and the world at large has simply ignored the existence of the country. For example, few know that the Indian states of Manipur and Assam were once under Burma’s hegemony before the British acquired them by force of arms and made them parts of British India. What Indians do know is that the senile Mughal Bahadur Shah II was exiled to Burma where he died in penury. At one time hard Burmese teak was greatly valued by makers of expensive furniture as were high quality blood red rubies.
The East India Company was too busy in Bengal and other parts of India and only as late as 1824 did it turn its attention to Burma. There were three Anglo-Burmese wars and in 1886 Lord Dufferin annexed the country and sent King Thibaw and his wife Supayalat into exile in India. They were deported to Ratnagiri, by the Arabian Sea, where they too died in poverty. Note the irony. The last Mughal emperor of India died in Rangoon and the last king of Burma died in Ratnagiri. The proconsuls of empires were more rapacious than the emperors they served.
In 1897 Burma was incorporated into British India. It became a province under a British governor. However, it was often dubbed ‘the Scottish colony’ because of the number of Scots who manned the administration. The beauty of Burmese women impressed the white men and many married Burmese girls. Thus emerged the Anglo-Burmese, an important component of educated Burmese society. Lord Dufferin himself was impressed with the natural grace of Burmese women as was Kipling, the great poet of empire. Kipling writes that when he was in Rangoon he instantly fell insanely in love with a Burmese girl. Later in his best known poem Mandalay he describes her charms in the demotic language of an ordinary British soldier who is sick and tired of the filth and fog and the cold of London and remembers his beloved in a distant greener, cleaner land on the road to Mandalay.
This introduction to Burma has been provided as a background to Peter Popham’s latest book The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Freedom (Penguin Random House: ISBN 9781846043710) which honestly details the life of the Nobel prizewinner who has suffered for her people with poise and
immense dignity. Her father was General Aung San, a former near-communist student leader against British rule, who actually joined the Japanese when they occupied Burma. However, he soon realized that the Empire of Japan was more repressive than the British Empire. I have read what Field Marshal Lord Slim who led the 14th Army (‘The Forgotten Army’) had to say about Aung San. (My father fought on the British side against the Japanese in Burma).
Aung San was a man of great potential. He made an agreement with the British Prime Minister Attlee and the UK agreed to grant Burma independence on its own and not as a part of the India – Pakistan deal. Aung San, essentially a fervent nationalist, was aware that Burma (a Buddhist country) was not a part of India nor Pakistan. Unfortunately there then descended dissensions in Burma, too long to detail here. Aung San and many of his colleagues were assassinated in cold blood. To stem disintegration military juntas took charge and even today though the country has a functioning parliament it is the army that has the last word. The current President Thein Sein is a former general who is very slowly, initiating reforms.
To placate the people of Burma the dictators sent Suu Kyi’s mother to India as ambassador. After graduating from Delhi University Suu Kyi went to Oxford where she married Dr Michael Aris, a scholar of Tibetan culture. My friend Rehana Hyder was there at the time and often met Suu Kyi and Benazir Bhutto. Both women made a great impression on Rehana. It is refreshing to know that thanks to writers such as Peter Popham, Burma is now at last, being noticed by the international media. This is chiefly because of the immense respect that Suu Kyi commands throughout the world.
However she has problems within Burma itself. Though her National League for Democracy won a landslide victory last November the military will not permit her to stand for the presidency because she married a foreigner and both her sons are UK citizens. However, she will lead the country from the sidelines. Her close aide Htin Kyaw is very likely to become president.
Burma is beset with several problems. The ethnic minorities such as the Chins, the Shans, the Kachins and the Karens are restless.
Above all, there is the problem of dealing with the fascist Buddhist brotherhood who are intent on ridding the country of all Muslims, especially those on the Arakan coast. Buddhism, a belief based on compassion, does not permit genocide. And Suu Kyi, a devout Buddhist, will have to confront the mad monks who are as diabolical as the mad mullahs.
Reginald Massey has been writing a regular Book Page for CONFLUENCE for years. His poetry and prose on a variety of subjects have been widely published. Most of his books are available from Amazon UK.