Memories in exile

Published : Jul 04, 2008 00:00 IST

The structure of the narrative of these histories suggests circularity rather than the more conventional linear approach.

WHILE the main title is an almost mystical metaphor for the complex history of the country nearly forgotten or dimly remembered in the recesses of a peoples memory which its principal river has subsumed even while being witness to its tormented passage through the ages, rather more telling, with a contemporary political significance, is the subtitle. The narrative is of the Histories of Burma. The choice of the number and the noun is deliberate, and this choice inve sts the narrative with a certain historical and political perspective that is clearly out of sync with the political-military establishment ruling Burma since early 1962 or Myanmar, as the military regime that staged the coup within a coup in 1988 renamed it whose perspective of the countrys past, present and still fraught future, unlike that of this narrative, is rigidly unilinear and unidimensional.

The persistence with which certain scholars of Burma insist in rejecting, even if only by inference, the new name opportunistically resurrected from the past and adopted to serve the needs of the present by the armed forces establishment is, however, understandable. It is true that changes or modifications in the name of a city or a country are not a unique phenomenon. In some cases, as in China, such changes have been wholesale. The new world of the West offers plenty of examples of such changes of names. Equally, changes in the names of once colonised countries after they attained freedom seem to stir the worst passions, not of the erstwhile colonisers who could not care less but of their native spiritual allies. The anglicised Indian, for instance, is always loath to use the new place names, more often the new form of a place name that more accurately reflects the way the place is spelt and written by the natives. One has only to think of the persistence in certain circles of the use of Calcutta, or the resistance among certain types of residents of Bangalore to the proposed modification of the spelling of the place to Bengaluru, a switchover that is yet to be implemented though formally approved by the State Assembly and government over a year ago. However, the reluctance to accept the new nomenclature, Myanmar, mainly from those who, like the author of the book under review, are justly outraged over the military regimes ruse to secure just a bit more of legitimacy by appropriating an aspect of the countrys history, is more a political statement than indulgence in colonial nostalgia.

In terms of the events covered by the narration and its historical perspective, too, the choice of the name, Burma, is fully justified. The histories are as much of the land and the people, their layered structures fragmentarily recounted in bits and parts, and in forward and backtracking movements (the palimpsest metaphor is apposite), as of the authors own evolution from a lad who saw his country for the first time in November 1974 at the age of eight in tragic and grimly farcical circumstances, accompanying the body of U Thant, his maternal grandfather, who had retired as United Nations Secretary General three years earlier and had made a home in New York instead of returning to Burma (page 309 ff), to adulthood and academic recognition. The details of the shenanigans and the grotesquery that accompanied that going home, the defining element of which was the smouldering hatred that General Ne Win, who had staged a military coup and overthrown the democratically elected government headed by U Nu over a decade earlier, bore towards U Thant, could well be also a metaphor for the grim and tragic histories of Burma that the author recounts.

The structure of the narrative of these histories suggests circularity rather than the more conventional linear approach. In my Beginning is my End, and in my End is my Beginning. The protagonist of the first of these historical narratives is King Thibaw, the last King of Burma, who ended his days in exile in Ratnagiri on the Konkan coast, whose career can well be the symbol of the decay and tragedy that consumed feudal Burma: defeat, occupation and annexation of the kingdom into the British Imperium. As is the case with some of the other histories, this history is narrated in fragments. The denouement of the Thibaw story after the 28-year-old deposed monarch walked to the ship that was to carry him into exile, never to see Mandalay or Burma again (page 22), is recounted only six chapters later (pages 175 ff). Such fragmentary and incremental recollections of the past, even admitting that histories are often overwritten by other versions as is the case with a palimpsest, present peculiar problems to the reader.

The narrative is crowded by a cavalcade of other native and colonial kings and satraps, adventurers and mercenaries, princes and pirates, heroes and villains. Most of them, like feudal lords and their serviceable vassals, are odious persons, some heroic, but more often degenerate, cruel and cowardly, casual in dispensing death and often meeting violent death themselves.

Flogging in public, torture and beheading of prisoners, strangling to death by a bowstring, a king slain by his courtiers, impaling on a wooden spike atop a hill and being left to die in agony after two days, plots and assassinations these histories have them all.

They were, however, moved not merely by bloodlust but by other kinds of lust, too (pages 74-5).

Scientists today say that human sexual attraction may be based, at least in part, on the influence of pheromones, a personal cocktail of chemicals that signal suitability (or not) of a potential mate. This was apparently old knowledge to the kings of Arakan. According to the Portuguese merchant and travel writer Duarte Barbosa, who visited in 1610, 12 of the most attractive young women from every part of the realm were sent to the palace on a regular basis, not in the first instance to meet the king but to stand, fully dressed in the heat, on a terrace in the sun. They would then take off their clothes, and the damp cloth they had been wearing (with their names scribbled on them) would be sent for His Majesty to sniff. Only those who passed this scent test would be invited into the royal apartments. The rest would be proffered to lesser lords.

However, in the midst of all such forward and backward recollections of the past, the narrative also presents the major events of the history of the country, even if not in a chronological order. The starting point of Burmas history goes to pre-Buddhist times when Abhiraja of the Kosala royal family, part of the Shakiyan clan to which also belonged Gautama, who became the Buddha, arrived at the valley of the Irrawaddy where he founded the countrys first kingdom in Tagaung the starting point of Burmas historical past as taught in schools even now, though human settlements and settled agriculture go back much farther in time, over three millennia, in fact.

Four gripping chapters (3-6) recount the events and personalities of the medieval and pre-colonial Burma, the establishment of several kingdoms and their gradual consolidation into the Burman (not Burmese) state, comprising then as now the core of the Irrawaddy valley, bounded by non-Burman nationalities on the north and the east. The greatest of these consolidators who also engaged in imperial expansion was Aung Zeyya, later to gain greater fame (and notoriety) as Alaungpaya, the founder of Burmas last dynasty.

The Consequences of Patriotism, as exemplified by Alaungpaya and his successors, which included the destruction of the kingdom of Ayutthaya in Siam, the invasion and ravaging of Manipur, Cachar and Assam, an infamy even now recalled in fear and horror by the people of Assam and its neighbourhood, marked the highpoint of Burmese imperial expansion and its decline, providing the rationale to the Raj to go to war against Burma (1825-26) so as to expand and secure its eastern borders.

The final act of this unravelling of the independent Kingdom of Burma was the forced abdication of Thibaw and his exile 60 years later, though by then contending European imperial ambitions, in particular the Rajs perceived necessity to stem French imperialism from expanding westwards, provided the rationale to take direct control of the country.

The story narrated is in essence of the destruction of the feudal order in Burma by the materially more advanced imperial powers, in contention and collaboration. This story, enacted in much of what came to be known as the Third World was, as has been noted even by the most nationalistic of scholars, also marked by one or another version of modernisation, dragging these societies by violence if necessary into a new order even if this violent intervention of modernity was motivated not by any concern for the material improvement and well-being of the conquered people but by profit, thirst for raw materials that had to be extracted more efficiently to feed industries back home the all too familiar story of the encounter between the old order and the new in colonised countries.

Out of this encounter was born the native bourgeoisie, which eventually led the struggle against the colonial rulers, sometimes in alliance with and sometimes in opposition to the still powerful remnants of the native feudal order. In Burma, however, this mediation and interface did not take place; the stagnancy of the feudal order, in the midst of all its self-indulgent opulence, was replaced by a different self-indulgent lassitude of the new imperial order.

So, the narrative poses the question, though not exactly in this form: Why has the democratically inspired anti-colonial struggle in Burma that seemed to be so full of vibrancy and promise in opposition to colonial rule not been able to consolidate itself into relatively stable institutional structures of democracy after the attainment of independence? How is it that Thailand (and South Korea), which was under a brutal military dictatorship that enjoyed United States support, has been able to overcome what was once seen as a chronic propensity to military rule and has relatively stable democratic structures? Why, in contrast, does there seem to be an institutional continuity of military rule in Burma that has carried on for nearly 50 years? Talk about the isolation of the military regime sounds merely a liberal wish-fulfilling fantasy, considering how two of the countrys closest and largest neighbours are happily doing business with the regime. There is more tourism, more trade, more engagement (the authors words), and the democratic opposition remains forlorn 18 years after winning an election conducted under the aegis of the military regime.

Let the author have the last word. There are no easy options, no quick fixes, no grand strategies that will create democracy in Burma overnight or even over several years. The two alternative scenarios he presents towards the end (page 348) are, admittedly, equally grim. One, not particularly encouraging scenario [but] a realistic one, by following the recipe noted above would make possible conditions for political change over the next decade or two and the other, the consolidation (if that is the right word) of Burma over the next decade or two as a failed state, return to anarchy and the conditions of 1948, only this time with more guns, more people, and strong confident neighbours unlikely to idly stand by. If that were to come to pass, the remaining years of this century would not be enough time for Burma to recover.

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