The Shwe Dagon pagoda is the most famous building in Rangoon. Understandably so. It is more than six hundred years old. It enshrines eight hairs of Buddha. And it is one of the most sublime pieces of religious kitsch in the world. Not far from the pagoda lies another spot, unknown to most tourists, but, in my mind, far more symbolic of Rangoon, and indeed Burma, today. It is nothing but a field. On this field stood the Student Union Building of the University of Rangoon. It was destroyed by soldiers in 1962, after students protested against the new military government which grabbed power that year. People in Rangoon tell sinister tales of mass graves under the field, containing unknown student demonstrators.
The spot is symbolic because the Student Union stood for something that has been systematically erased in Burma. It can be summed up as the City, meaning modern learning, politics, social mobility, cosmopolitanism, and—not necessarily a contradiction—nationalism; everything in short that ought to lead to freedom and independence of thought. The Student Union produced the brilliant men who delivered Burma from British colonial rule in 1948. Having learned about the modern world from the British, they fought to make Burma a modern nation. But this struggle was aborted and is yet to be resumed.
Rangoon is not a modern city. It is in fact an antimodern city. Unlike Singapore, Jakarta, or Bangkok, where new buildings are obliterating the immediate past, Rangoon has remained much as the British left it in 1948. Old people say that Rangoon was once famous as the cleanest and most pleasant city of Southeast Asia. Now the pavements show great cracks filled with refuse. At night the streets are taken over by enormous rats, jostling one another to get at the best bits of garbage floating in the open sewers. The rather pompous 1920s office buildings and trading houses are like tramps in old dinner jackets, several sizes too large. Only the embassies have been spruced up with whitewash. (Burmese love whitewash. Old pagodas are whitewashed; Buddhas are whitewashed to make them look new. But apart from the embassies, Rangoon is evidently not deemed worthy of whitewash.) The decaying city center is surrounded by vast suburbs of brown huts on stilts in slimy water. The once modern capital is being reclaimed by old village Burma.
In some people the dilapidation of Rangoon evokes feelings of nostalgia. They see romantic grandeur in the crumbling porticoes and peeling Edwardian façades. Equally gratifying to the romantic visitor is the sight of a whole population in native dress. Men and women wear long skirts called longyis, which they constantly wrap and unwrap like birds airing their wings. And, of course, they still smoke the whacking great cheroots celebrated by Kipling in “Mandalay.” (Kipling, incidentally, had never been to Burma.) Here at last is the “real” Asia, where, to use a dated phrase, people are themselves. It is difficult to feel such good cheer, however, when one …
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An Exchange on Burma March 26, 1987