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The Road from Mandalay

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 is continuously accosted by people who want things bought for them at the foreign currency stores; basic things, like medicine, that can be resold on the vast black market.

The black market dominates life in Rangoon. It starts right in the customs hall of the Rangoon airport. Customs officers spend endless time checking documents supposed to make sure the visitor spends every cent at the exorbitant official exchange rate. This job done, the officers smile, welcome the visitor to Burma, and ask for “presents”: ball-point pens, key rings—anything that they can sell on the black market. At the same time young men smoking cheroots offer to buy your whiskey, cigarettes, T-shirts, belts, cosmetics. After a day in Rangoon one already feels haunted by the whispered “Want to do business?” This business is not based on greed, but on necessity. Only 8 percent of Burmese imports are consumer goods and most of those, some say, are for the foreign currency stores, where one US dollar is worth seven local kyats. On the street one can get thirty. The black market is like a tapeworm eating its way through a bankrupt economy. Everything is sold and resold. Government employees sell their rice rations. Each morning young men rush to the movie houses to buy up all the tickets that they resell later in the day (most films seem to star Chuck Norris). Many of these young men are university graduates.

The old cars that delighted travel writers in the past are mostly gone; replaced by Japanese pickup trucks. Most cars were privately owned and too many people sold their gasoline rations on the black market. The back streets of Rangoon are now full of rotting old Chevrolets and Hillmans, lovingly maintained for decades, now banned from the roads. Pickup trucks are classified as taxis. One gets vague answers about who owns these taxis. “They are rented by the day,” people say. “Yes, but from whom?” “From rich people.” Rich people can mean anything from military brass, to Burma Socialist Program Party bosses, to Chinese and Indian traders, to merchant seamen. Most young men want to become seamen. It is a way to get rich, as seamen are allowed to import foreign goods. They work on a ship for three years, save every penny they earn, buy a pickup truck, and live off the profit for years.

Sealing off a culture from the corrupting influences of the outside world has a somewhat similar effect to shutting young girls up in a segregated boarding school—they fall in love with the first bit of corruption that comes their way. Despite the longyis and the cheroots, many Burmese make a kind of fetish of modern goods. As one walks barefoot along the long shop-lined avenues that lead to the Shwe Dagon pagoda one looks in vain for fine traditional wood-carvings or delicate religious objects; instead there are gaudy models of such icons of modernity as TV sets, telephones, or girls in golfing gear. The most popular items on the black market for teen-agers are T-shirts with Japanese or English slogans on them—any slogans, as long as they are foreign. The thirst for foreignness stretches to nonmaterial goods, too. A Burmese journalist who writes for a foreign magazine often fails to get his copies through the mail; not because of censorship, but because they are stolen at the post office and sold on the black market. I saw bits of an old Life magazine sold in the street. It had Lyndon B. Johnson on the cover.

Foreign modernity seeping through the rather porous Burmese wall influences Burmese tradition itself; wedding receptions are accompanied by loud bands that play sugary pop music in the style of Frankie Avalon and Brenda Lee. Ancient Buddhist sculptures are “improved” by embossing them with gold-painted concrete or gaudy glass mosaics. Old Buddhas are haloed by colored neon or flashing disco lights. This tells us two things: that Burmese tradition is so alive that Buddhas in neon seem perfectly in order; and that enforced parochialism has done little to protect traditional aesthetics from indiscriminate modern taste. It is hard to say which is worse, the tackiness of Coca-Colonization, or the peculiar flowers that grow in a culture artificially but imperfectly isolated from the modern world.

The decay of Rangoon is not simply the result of bad planning. It is part of a deliberate process to strangle the city, to return to precolonial village Burma, ruled by a ruler who knows best, but is accountable to no one. Rangoon simply does not fit into this vision of Burma. It can only be a source of trouble, as in 1974, when students and monks demonstrated against the government on the site of the Student Union Building and the Shwe Dagon pagoda. There is another, perhaps more fundamental, reason why Rangoon does not fit into the Burmese Way to Socialism: there are too many foreigners living there.

Rangoon was never really a Burmese city, but, like Calcutta and Singapore, a creation of the British; before they arrived, Rangoon was little more than a fishing village. British Rangoon was an urban aberration in a rural society with no tradition to prepare it for the shock of a modern market economy. To the Buddhist Burmans money business was associated with greed and deceitful exploitation. And from their point of view this assessment was essentially correct. The British, the Indian moneylenders, and Chinese merchants did much better than most Burmans. The Burmans who did well out of the new foreign ways mostly lived in the city. Some peasants began to benefit from British investment and the cash economy, but the Japanese invasion in 1942 stopped rice exports and the peasants, on the brink of becoming farmers, returned to the old life of the self-sufficient village, from which they never emerged again.

The true center of Burma was the royal palace, which stood in the center of the world. It was a movable center, as Burmese dynasties generally started afresh in new capitals. But wherever it was, the palace was thought to be a microcosm of the mythical Mount Meru, the middle of the universe in Hindu-Buddhist cosmology. The continent of Mount Meru was the abode of men. Around it lived barbarians, like the British, unenlightened by Buddhism. Burmese kings ruled absolutely in this cosmic center so that their subjects could meditate in peace and overcome Universal Suffering. But while they represented on one hand the ideal of the Buddhist welfare state, they also ruled in the manner of Hindu god-kings, often pragmatically and sometimes cruelly. One monarch tried to increase his power by drinking an elixir made of six thousand human hearts. The last king, Thibaw (1858–1916), is said to have ordered the death of his eighty half brothers and sisters. This involved a matter of some delicacy, as royal blood could not be spilled. So the victims were tied up in sacks and trampled to death by white elephants. No wonder rulers were traditionally regarded as one of the four things not to be trusted; the others were thieves, the boughs of trees, and women.

In 1885 King Thibaw threatened British interests by using the French to protect a state monopoly in teakwood. The British then abolished the Burmese monarchy, an act which deeply shocked the Burmese psyche. The barbarians had crashed the gates and the cosmic order around Mount Meru and the Burmese throne collapsed. The Mandalay Palace became the Upper Burma Club, where British officers and traders drank whiskey at sundown. The royal throne was removed to Calcutta, lest rebellious kings got any ideas of founding a new cosmic center. With the demise of Mount Meru, educated Burmese were forced to recognize the world as described by Copernicus and Galileo, a world in which Burma was but a speck on the globe. As was the case in many parts of Asia, secularization was not the result of human inquiry, but of superior force.

In the place of cosmic ritual the British imposed secular law, spawning a Burmese elite of Anglicized lawyers and clerks; the lawyers to interpret the new laws to their baffled countrymen and the clerks to help their British mentors implement them. The modern state was there in form, if not always in content. In practice Burmese customs still prevailed. But the wounds inflicted on Burmese civilization were deep and they are far from healed. By removing the king, the Burmese lost the protector of their faith, casting adrift the Buddhist hierarchy. By extending government administration over the non-Burman minorities, who had hitherto only paid tribute to the Burman kings, the basis was laid for future civil wars. Worst of all, by making Burma a province of India and by importing a large number of Indians to man the Burmese bureaucracy, Burmese self-esteem was deeply hurt; especially when Indians proved more adept than they at modern trade. Consequently the Burmese road to modernity has been marked by a desire to restore the faith, to fill the throne with a new protector, and to kick out the foreigners; an amalgamation of nationalism, Buddhism, and the Führerprinzip.

The first Burmese leader after the British were driven out by the Japanese in 1942 was Dr. Ba Maw, a French-trained lawyer. He assumed the title of “AnaShin Mingyi Kodaw,” meaning “Lord of Power, the Great King’s Royal Person.” This royal pretension was also couched in terms more in line with the thinking of his Axis friends: “One blood, one voice, one command.” National Socialism, like most variants of socialism, lent itself well to putting old concepts in modern terms.

The most promising leader of what was to be a truly independent Burma was Aung San, who had learned his politics at the Student Union. He collaborated with the Japanese, but then changed sides and helped the Allies beat them. Aung San was associated in the folk mind with Setkya-Min, “the king who will be the future Buddha.”1 Alas, Aung San was assassinated in 1947, the year before independence, at the age of thirty-three. His face is still on kyat notes and his portrait hangs on office walls alongside General Ne Win’s. Aung San’s death was perhaps the worst tragedy on Burma’s road to modernity, for he was a modernist, a confused one, but a modernist nonetheless.

U Nu, who took over from Aung San, was stuck somewhere between modernism and nativism. Perhaps he never quite knew where he stood himself. He was certainly very adept at articulating traditional ideas in a modern manner. His vision for Burma was that of a Buddhist welfare state. He was opposed to capitalism because it turned people away from religion. U Nu’s rule came to an end in 1962, when Ne Win took over by a military coup. After a period of exile he was allowed to return, and he now spends his time studying Buddhist scriptures.

Ne Win has in many ways restored the Burmese kingdom. Unlike many post-colonial leaders, he did not have to shape the new society in his own image, for the old blueprint was still there. He is widely believed to be omnipotent. His alleged irrationality, his extraordinary secrecy, his merciless punishment of the slightest hint of disloyalty, all this reminds people of the royal Burmese style. He even married the granddaughter of King Thibaw. There was the awkward matter of being half-Chinese, awkward, that is, for a Burman ruler, so a book was hastily published proving Ne Win’s pure Burman stock.

People appear curiously reluctant to call the ruler by his name. (Although U San was elected as party chairman in 1981, Ne Win still wields absolute power.) I heard him referred to as the old man, number one, or simply the top. A Burmese writer called his government “the rule of one man’s whims.” Lucian Pye, in his classic study of Burma, 2 wrote:

Powerful forces for irrationality circulated throughout the traditional Burmese system. Belief in the godking meant that it was lèse-majesté to suggest or even to imagine any possible limits to his omnipotence…since the ultimate proof of high status was the capacity to act beyond the comprehension of mere reason, and the higher the official the less he had to account for his actions, there was a powerful urge at the ruling level to act in unaccountable ways.

Courtiers, then as now, have to second-guess their superiors. Getting it right is a matter of life or death, or at least of a livelihood. Keeping knowledge from others becomes an important source of power. A system where people are constantly guessing one another’s motives brings on paranoia. Secrecy becomes a way of life. If others know about you, they will dominate you. If those others are foreigners, all the worse.

Foreign tourists are only allowed seven days in Burma. Foreign journalists are not officially allowed in at all. Diplomats are discouraged to acquire, let alone give out any information. The more they know, the more their interest in keeping it to themselves. The Japanese have the biggest foreign stake in Burma and thus the largest embassy. Anything modern in Burma is usually built by the Japanese, from a new hospital to the ubiquitous pickup trucks. There still seems to be a sentimental idea, if only at the top, that the Japanese are more trustworthy economic allies than the former white imperialists. Ne Win himself was trained by the Japanese army. This is a cause of some ambivalence among the Burmese, who still remember being slapped in the face by arrogant Japanese soldiers.

I was approached in a Rangoon tea shop by a Chinese dentist who seemed genuinely baffled by Japanese success. “Oh, those Japanese, such clever, clever people,” he said apropos of the lack of British goods on the black market. He took me to his house, where he worked on his patients with a large hand-driven drill, made in Tokyo in 1942. He showed me a copy of Newsweek with a Japanese monster on the cover, spewing forth yen notes. He shook his head and jabbed the picture with his finger: “Such clever, clever people.” He did not appear entirely happy about this cleverness.

I wanted to see a Japanese diplomat. The phone was out of order so I went to the embassy to make an appointment with the cultural attaché. I was met at the gate by an anxious Burmese secretary who said the attaché was too busy to see anyone. I said that could not possibly be so. Would he ask again. He returned after five minutes to say that the attaché could not give me the information I wanted. I asked how could that be, if he did not know yet what information I wanted. After another five minutes of consultation with his boss, the agitated secretary informed me the attaché could give me no information at all.

I set off to buy the official pamphlet of the Burmese Way to Socialism. It is entitled “The System of Correlation of Man and His Environment”—written, according to a local newspaperman, by a half-educated progressive journalist and a socialist bohemian who had drifted around Paris. Every state shop will have a copy, I was told. I tried several state shops. None of them had it. In fact they had hardly any books at all. “Paper shortage,” said one of the clerks. He suggested I try the black market. I finally secured a worm-eaten copy from a critic of the government. An old, well-educated Burman, he said he could not make head or tail of it. Most Rangoon intellectuals tend to dismiss it. “Socialism,” said one, “is just an excuse for the old man to nationalize the economy. Not because he is opposed to private enterprise, but because he wants total power.” Other old hands say it has little to do with Buddhism either. Dr. Ba Maw probably came closest to the truth when he said: “Because it was socialist it was good, but because it was Burmese it was better.” He should have said Burman; its peculiar mix of Buddhism, nationalism, and socialism has little to offer the non-Burman minorities, like the Shan, the Karen, or the Kachin. Many of them are not even Buddhists. In their own regions they have organized armed groups to resist the regime. The Burmese Way to Socialism is a nativist Burman response to the modern world. As a blueprint for the perfect Burman society—a society without foreigners, a spiritual welfare state—it is worth looking at.

The Burmese Way to Socialism became the official ideology in 1962, but its basis was laid long before Ne Win came to the fore. It is an attempt to reconcile “objective analysis” with a spiritual view of the world. It presents Marxism in Buddhist terms but is opposed to the “vulgar materialism” of “leftists” who are “ensnared by their habitual ‘matter matters most’ bias and outlook.” The Buddhist law of Constant Change is interpreted in a Marxist way: “The socalled immutable social systems which allow exploitation of man by man (such as the slave system, the feudal system, and the capitalist system) too cannot withstand the inexorable laws of change.”

The combination of Buddhism and socialism would have surprised and probably outraged Karl Marx, who saw “Asiatic” religions as great barriers to progress. But it is not as absurd as it seems. The new creed is in fact an old attempt to become modern while remaining Burman, which has to involve a merger of science and religion. Awareness of this dilemma, of having to reconcile the otherworldly and the secular, only comes with modern education. It did not bother the taxi driver who took me for a drive through the countryside. He drove like a suicidal maniac, at full speed, never touching his brake, overtaking at blind corners, missing equally insane oncoming traffic by inches. He was quite unruffled. I understood why when he stopped at a roadside shrine to pray to the spirits (nats) for his safety. It was they—not his own technical skills—who would decide his fate.

Burman nationalists who were both anti-British and modern were most exercised by the dilemma. British education had secularized their view of the world, while Protestant missionaries threatened their spiritual life, which was of course Buddhist. The answer was to secularize Buddhism. Anticolonialists like the monk Ottama and the writer Kudaw Hmain came up with something remarkably like liberation theology in poor Catholic countries. They argued that Buddhism was really a kind of protosocialism. In the words of a Buddhist journal published in 1920: “Buddhism is a spiritual democracy. It recognizes neither wealth nor caste.” Burman modernists aimed at establishing nirvana on earth. This meant liberation from colonial bondage and capitalist exploitation, which were virtually synonymous; which meant, in effect, that free enterprise in the hands of foreign merchants and multinational companies would block Burmans from reaching spiritual fulfillment; in other words, from being true Burmans.

At the price of alienating the non-Burmans, whose insurgent armies control half the country, and at the price of keeping a potentially rich country poor, Ne Win has Burmanized Burma. The old state monopoly over the economy has been restored by socialism. The first to go after the military coup were foreign companies. Then currency and trade restrictions forced more than 200,000 Indians and Pakistanis to leave the country without their assets. The ones that stayed still bear the colonial legacy. Many speak beautiful English, like the emaciated beggar woman from Dakha, who works the tourists in front of the Strand Hotel in Rangoon: “Spare me just one minute, would you please,” she says, before holding forth on her misery. Nationalization of land dispossessed foreign landowners, most of whom lived in Rangoon. Apart from providing peasants with a steady iron rice bowl, this had the added benefit of depriving students and other middle-class urban trouble-makers of one of the main causes for political unrest in Asia: antigovernment nationalism.

Not that middle-class students seem much of a threat these days. Their hopes for social or economic advancement have been effectively blocked. Indeed, their predicament appears to confirm the cliché that political restlessness only comes with rising expectations. The military has taken over from universities as the breeding ground for the new elite. Most university graduates cannot even find jobs. You find them reading palms at temples, or driving tourists around, or dabbling in business on the black market. Only vocational studies are encouraged, and students are kept away from the city as much as possible by setting up provincial schools. According to a student in Rangoon, “people with the best grades are told to study science, the ones with the worst grades study liberal arts.” Politics are banned from the campus. I asked a teacher of philosophy what his specialty was. “Contemporary philosophy,” he said. “Eastern or Western?” “Eastern.” “Which Chinese philosophers, for example?” “Everything from Confucius to Mao Tse-tung.” “You study Maoism?” “Oh, no, we cannot study politics.”

Those who seek to destroy the City, seek to destroy books, especially books containing foreign learning. This is the first step in destroying the kind of people who read and write them. Books have not been ritually burned in Burma, nor was the Westernized intelligentsia liquidated as in Pol Pot’s Phnom Penh. They were simply made irrelevant, shunted into marginal jobs and ridiculed in popular entertainment. It is always obvious who the villains are in Burmese plays: they wear glasses and use foreign words. Secondhand bookshops sell off moldy English books to tourists. They belonged to people who died or who are too poor to keep their most treasured possessions. None of these books is newer than the mid-1960s. One bookseller said that in another ten years there won’t be any more English books left to sell. Until a few years ago the English language itself was banned in Burmese education. It was only allowed back in the school curriculum, some say, after Ne Win’s daughter found she was unable to follow lectures at her English university (the ban on foreign influence does not apply to all). Young Burmese like to practice their English on tourists now: “English is the international language,” they say, lest one think there is still a linguistic connection with the British raj.

The old English-language journalists, who once worked for some of the liveliest English papers in Asia, are reduced to writing for the two identical state-run papers. There they write such front-page leads as “A coordination meeting on cultivating production and purchase of paddy, oil crops, and winter crops for 1986–87 was held in Mya Eya Hall of Sagaing Division People’s Council Office on June 24.” Or they survive by filing dispatches to foreign wire services. Complete lack of access to any official information and the sheer danger of accurate reporting stops them from filing much. One journalist I know spends years on one story. He is always waiting for “more detailed information.” He clubs together with his colleagues and goes to every embassy function, hoping to pick up the odd crumb of informed gossip. In isolation they have upheld the decency, if not always the standards, of the kind of journalism they were taught long ago. “When we go,” said one of them, “journalism will die in this country.”

I looked up an old writer whom I shall call U Tin Maung. A highly educated man of the old school with years of experience in Britain, he now lives alone in a cheap hostel. His room, filled with books, is opposite the lavatory. Young backpack tourists with mosquito-bitten legs passed his room for their morning wash. “This government has ruined my country,” he bellowed to an Irish girl going by. “I need ten different medications for my heart, and I must buy them all on the black market. But I’d still rather be ruled by a Burmese dictatorship than be under the benevolent despotism of the British raj.” The Irish girl laughed. He then wagged his finger at her: “There is one thing we won’t forgive you for—you lot killed Mountbatten. We loved Mountbatten in Burma.” U Tin Maung smiled at me, grabbed my hand, and said: “As Alice said in Wonderland, things are getting worser and worser.”

Letters

An Exchange on Burma March 26, 1987

  1. 1

    For a fascinating analysis of Buddhism and politics, read E. Sarkisyanz, Buddhist Backgrounds of the Burmese Revolution (The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1965).

  2. 2

    Politics, Personality, and Nation Building: Burma’s Search for Identity (Greenwood, 1976).

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