A hidden agenda for recolonisation

Published : Aug 17, 2002 00:00 IST

Burma: The Curse of Independence by Shelby Tucker; Penguin Books, Delhi, 2002; pages xx + 282, Rs.295.

WHY do people write books? Flippant as it might sound, the question cried out to be answered as one read this book. It is short, readable, gives all the relevant facts concisely even if with some necessary and inescapable selectivity. It also provides a most useful descriptive bibliography and a comprehensive chronology, beginning with the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26), which ended with the signing of the Treaty of Yandabo on February 24, 1826, and brought up to very nearly the date of the publication of the book.

Excellent as the book is, one still has to ask, why this book. It does not tell one anything new by way of facts, whether it is in the recounting of the complex ethnic composition of the people of the country and the unresolved ethnic questions, of the contention between the entrenched British colonialism and the aspiring and rampant Japanese imperialism, of the civil wars and insurgencies that continue to this day, of the life and death of Aung San and the various theories about his assassination, of the political economy of opium, of the near permanent role that the armed forces have acquired for themselves almost from the moment the country attained independence and, more brazenly, since the military takeover in March 1962.

Perhaps, a clue can be had in the ideological assumptions evident in the title, the underlying agenda of recolonisation even if not in a physical sense that informs the narrative. The title and the subtitle of the book are the most obvious instances of these ideological assumptions. For better or for worse, what used to be known as Burma formally and officially changed its name into Myanmar over 13 years ago. The switch-over was implemented less than a year after the harsh crackdown of August-September 1988, a date (8-8-88) which came to be invested with near mythic and mystic numerological significance as the protests and repression grew.

Initially, the democratic opposition simply refused to acknowledge the new name, for to do so would be to legitimise the claim of the regime to a continuity from and linkage with the very beginnings of Burma as a nation state, the first Burmese kingdom known as Myanma established in the early part of the Christian era with its capital at Pagan (now Bagan). This, despite the fact that the change simply reflected the name of the country and its people more accurately than Burma, with its obvious Sanskrit origin.

But the democratic opposition, as indeed the military regime itself, has in the past one decade moved from the rigid positions of irreconcilable hostility that they once adopted towards each other. And yet, while within the country itself the name Myanmar is accepted, it is odd that foreign scholars find it hard to accept it. Indeed, the name Myanmar has found particular acceptance among the non-Burman minorities unlike Burma, which, in all its forms, clearly reflects the restrictive concept of the Burman, predominantly Buddhist and Burmese-speaking, as the sole architect and inheritor of the country's history. The subtitle is another clue. The other side of the seeming distress over the events that have followed independence in so many countries is nostalgia for colonial rule. Thus, with no trace of irony and scepticism, is the unqualified assertion (on page 209): "Save for a short period under British rule, Burma has never known peace or unity" (emphasis as in the original).

Appropriately, in this era where history is supposed to have come to an end and we are all supposed to shed memories of national humiliation and feelings of shame and guilt about our own culpability in the crimes of which we are shamed victims, Colonel Blimp comes as the idealistic youth of either sex with a backpack and an endless curiosity about strange lands and strange people, dresses informally and roughs it out with the help of Lonely Planet guides, savvy and street-wise, an expert in illegally crossing borders, doctoring travel documents, forging visas, smuggling documents in and out, exchanging hard currency in the black market, all the while making a virtue of such actions on the ground that following the rules would only strengthen the thieves in the Government House.

There is no denying that many of the post-colonial nation states are doing very badly, that there has been a criminalisation of the state itself with kleptocrats in command. Predictably, the criminalisation of the state in Africa or for that matter any other country outside North America, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand, is a subject on which even the most casual visitor to such countries becomes an expert. What is ignored in all this is that the kleptocrat does not emerge from nowhere, or is a creature unique to the country; rather, almost always he is the product of the very process of colonisation, his actions and aspirations informed by the same greed and amorality that informed colonial exploitation, indeed often in a post-colonial situation a creature created out of necessity by the erstwhile colonial power to facilitate neo-colonial control of the country and its resources. Jean-Bodel Bokassa, Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seko were as much the creatures France, Britain and Belgium (and several other countries, including the U.S.) as authentic sons of the soil of their countries.

The villain of Tucker's narration, cast rather in similar mould, is undoubtedly General Ne Win. This is a role that is well-deserved, though it is also much too glibly assigned. Tucker discusses the possibility that Ne Win may have been involved in the assassination of Aung San, a theme that has also been discussed by several other authors. However, he dismisses as 'inherently implausible', the very words he uses to dismiss, quite rightly, the official version of the assassination, though the possibility of British involvement cannot be dismissed in so off-hand a manner. Kin Oung's Who Killed Aung San? (White Lotus, Bangkok, 1993), one of the sources commended by Tucker, for instance, is far less dismissive of this possibility. However, for Tucker, the BBC programme broadcast on the 50th anniversary of the assassination suggesting a British hand in the killing simply echoed the line of the Communist Party of Burma immediately following the assassination; the suggestion that British business interests is again dismissed as an 'allegation of communist provenance'.

Yes, Ne Win was the eventual beneficiary of the assassination. But there were others who paved the way for Ne Win. Some of them, to the extent one could gather in interactions with the fraction-ridden Burmese rebel groups in exile in the wake of 8-8-88, could well be now in the entourage of Aung San Suu Kyi.

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