On Myanmar/Burma

A year and a half ago, I met a man from Myanmar, or Burma, as it was called then. V. was one of several students who had fled the country after the uprising of 1988, when a demonstration against military rule was brutally quashed. He told me stories of being watched every time he went back, of having to be on his guard even as he walked through his town. He would like to return for good at some point, he said. However, the way things were, he didn’t even go for a visit very often. V. was buried under the weight of his memories, speaking wistfully of afternoons by the river, spicy food shared with Indian neighbours, and the gaiety of the Water Festival. He was also deeply affected by the months he spent in prison after the revolt, fearful and uncertain of his fate. When he finally had the chance, he moved to a new country and rebuilt his life.

V. now celebrates Buddhist festivals in a foreign setting. He misses the summer breeze of his hometown and the gentle rustle of leaves in the courtyard. He takes solace in the close-knit expatriate Burmese community; festivals at the local monastery are an important part of his life, as are visits from family. He struggles to understand his daughter’s career choices and her desire to move to a different town for university. He lives two lives: one in his adopted country, the other in his head.

Buddha's Gold. Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

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Around the time that V. told me his story, I chanced upon two books set in Burma: Guy Delisle’s Burma Chronicles (a graphic novel) and Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma. Both of them gave me Western perspectives of the country, one from that of the spouse of an aid worker, the other from a journalist’s. Larkin wanted to trace Orwell’s five years in Burma, and to see if his days there actually sowed the seeds for 1984 in his head. She met people who read the book and discussed it furtively, believing that he had indeed been prophetic.

However, neither Delisle nor Larkin managed to get too far in understanding the problems that plagued the country. While Delisle was evidently not trying to go beyond superficial observations, Larkin’s attempts were limited by the difficulty of eliciting information from her interviewees, an effect of the constant supervision she was under. G. was in Myanmar for a couple of weeks this year, and told me that the few people he had a chance to speak to were courteous, but a little inflexible, unwilling to make small changes to set patterns. This closed-off attitude could be a result of years of conditioning and fear: for people weary of seeing their families disintegrate and disperse, is silence one of the natural choices?

Downtown Yangon where you can see the confluence of Buddhist and the colonial architecture

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Myanmar’s political troubles are far from over, as the Rohingya refugee crisis shows. V. suggests that the current government isn’t exactly independent, and that the military still exerts an enormous amount of influence. However, despite the criticism and the sanctions, Yangon is vibrant and thriving. As G. puts it, the city is a “testimony to the fact that the foundations of progress are civilizational rather than religious or political”. Does the history of Burma, viewed in terms of civilizational progress, contain solutions to the challenges it has to contend with?

This brings me to the book on my nightstand: The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U, grandson of former UN Secretary-General U Thant. The book describes Burma’s history from 1885, seeking to understand the present situation through past events, including British occupation, Chinese invasion, and the onset of military rule. I tried reading it when I first bought it a few years ago, but I just wasn’t ready for it. I put it aside for a more propitious time, which has now hopefully arrived. (As some of you might know, I strongly believe that some books wait patiently to be read – they know when you are ready for them and quietly sneak into your life – and I try to use this theory to justify my hoarding tendencies.)

I have started the book again, this time with the hope of finishing it. I am counting on V.’s account and G.’s visit to enrich my experience. Accounts from friends and family from two generations ago, when Burma was home to a large Tamil population, add to the mix. These include stories about people fleeing the country during the Second World War and walking for days on end to reach India, some dying on the way. I am learning to appreciate the scars that people carry, but do not display. I am reminding myself that studying history – anyone’s history – can go a long way in bringing some much-needed understanding into our lives.