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An Exchange on Burma

In response to:

The Road from Mandalay from the October 23, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

I enjoyed reading Ian Buruma’s comprehensive and perceptive analysis of the state of things in Burma [NYR, October 23, 1986]. Such coverage of Burma is all too rare, as the dictatorship there has successfully hidden itself behind “the lacquer screen” of isolation and careful neutrality for a quarter century. Burma’s government is guilty of a severe pattern of human rights abuse, which continues uninvestigated, unprotested, and largely unreported.

The frontier areas, as Mr. Buruma noted, are a war zone. The war is, in a sense, an extension of World War II, when ethnic groups became polarized into oppressors and resistance. Thousands die in this war each year, and tens of thousands are made refugees. The government of Burma, in its Albanian xenophobia, does not allow even such international relief groups as the Red Cross or UNICEF to operate in the war zone. This allows the torture, imprisonment, and abduction of civilians in the war zone by the Burmese Army to continue.

Burma has tried to establish a “strategic hamlet” program in the frontier areas, and villages suspected of insurgent support are routinely burned, with their inhabitants forced into walled camps or used as laborers (porters, mine-detectors) for the Army. In the north of Burma, war against the villagers is “justified” by the fact that the hill tribes there grow opium and the opium is traded in by the insurgent groups. There is no market economy or transport system in the northern mountains, except for the opium trade. Opium, which has been grown in northern Burma for over one hundred years, is the only cash crop. Since 1985, the US government has involved itself in this war by supplying Burma with 2,4-D herbicide (a major ingredient of Agent Orange) for narcotics eradication. Burma appears to be using the herbicide as a counterinsurgency weapon, in hill tribe areas suspected of insurgent support. The hill tribes displaced by 2,4-D spraying (which drifts over food crops as well as opium) may seek protection of armed insurgent groups (which can shoot down spraying aircraft), or flee across the borders of Laos, China, or Thailand.

2,4-D is under review in the US, and there is strong evidence that it may cause severe health effects such as cancer and birth defects. Its effects on the already endangered hill tribe cultures, and the environment, as well as the political fallout, may be disastrous. To the hill tribes of northern Burma, US-supplied 2,4-D spraying might as well be a B-52 bombing raid.

There is only one way to end Burma’s Golden Triangle opium trade, and that is a settlement to the long and tragic war. Only if some international aegis can bring Burma and the rebels to a negotiated peace, can development take place. Only with peace and development can the tribal people survive without growing opium. A federal system like that of Burma’s original Constitution is still viable, as are other forms of state alliances. Each year that war and oppression are allowed to continue sets back the time when Burma can develop itself out of its present wretched condition.

Edith T. Mirante

Cranford, New Jersey

To the Editors:

The NYRB‘s periodic reports on lesser-known parts of the world are among its most attractive features. Readers are rightly impressed by the wide learning, linguistic competence and serious engagement of “reporters” like Hobsbawm, Ascherson, or Garton Ash. In the case of Ian Buruma’s article on Burma, however, they may not realize how they are being conned.

It is typical of Buruma’s unscrupulous methods that the only two books on Burma he cites are footnoted after many paragraphs purloined from them almost word for word. It is typical of Buruma’s ignorance of the scholarship on Burma that the two books, Sarkisyanz’s Buddhist Backgrounds of the Burmese Revolution (1965), and Lucian Pye’s Politics, Personality, and Nation Building: Burma’s Search for Identity (1976), described as “fascinating” and “classic,” are actually two longstanding jokes in the field; in plundering them he thus unwittingly recycles their glaring errors of fact, interpretation, and even spelling. One might excuse Buruma his (unacknowledged) ignorance of the Burmese language (would the Review print articles on Latin America by writers who knew no Spanish?), but not his lazy neglect of the major works of Harvey, Hall, Donnison, Lieberman, Aung-Thwin, Taylor, Silverstein, and others.

To give one among many examples, Buruma gloatingly relates that one Burmese, Buddhist monarch tried “to increase his power by drinking an elixir made of six thousand human hearts” (p. 32). This fancy is swiped (unacknowledged) from Pye, who averred (p. 67) that the king (whose name he got wrong) “sought to increase his power through an elixir made of 6,000 human hearts.” The idle Pye took the story from Maurice Collis, the Michener of British Burma, who embellished freely on the travel-report of Fra Manrique, a seventeenth-century Portuguese divine. Alas for Pye and Buruma, the report itself, long since published by the Hakluyt Society, shows that: the king concerned was Arakanese, not Burmese; that he was seduced into the atrocity by an “Alcoranic (i.e., Quranic) and devilish adviser” (for seventeenth-century Catholic missionaries in the East Islam was the contemporary “evil empire”); and that Manrique recorded not what he had seen himself, but tales he heard from local anti-Muslim “friendlies.”

After many paragraphs of bogus learning on Burma’s earlier history, political-tourist Buruma turns to the recent past. Following Pye and Sarkisyanz, he depicts General Ne Win’s March 1962 coup as an atavistic return to medieval conceptions of Buddhist, Burmese monarchy. Innocent readers would scarcely suspect that Ne Win was Army Chief of Staff throughout the first decade of parliamentary government (1948–58); that he took power peacefully in 1958 when U Nu’s ruling AFPFL party split into two hostile factions; that in 1960 he arranged the cleanest elections in Burma history (in which the faction he was thought to prefer was decisively beaten by U Nu); and that he took power a second time only when the Nu regime’s divisive policies and venal practices had driven the country to the verge of anarchy.

Nor does Buruma even mention the international context in which Ne Win decided to isolate Burma from the world. Yet in 1958 a CIA-supported regional rebellion had broken out in Indonesia; external manipulations and internal conflicts had destroyed Laos’ fragile unity; and a divided Vietnam was lurching toward catastrophe. Burma itself was threatened by PRC border pressures and a PRC-supported communist insurgency; by large Kuomintang armies within its territory, supported by the CIA, Taiwan, and opium; and by several longstanding ethnic-minority insurrections. To Ne Win, it seemed clear that only exclusion of foreigners and a rigidly neutralist foreign policy would safeguard Burma from suffering its neighbors’ fate. The policy has not solved all of Burma’s security problems (far from it) but it has certainly insured that the scale of political killing in Burma over the last twenty-five years has been dwarfed by those in Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, East Timor, and even the Philippines. One might add that the “medieval” Ne Win regime has executed no more than a handful of its enemies (military officers attempting a coup), and has provided pensions and national honors, after periods of untortured imprisonment, for its best-known civilian opponents, such as U Nu, Kyaw Nyein, and Thakin Soe, even when they had been in armed rebellion. How many First, Second, or Third World regimes would do the same?

Buruma’s account of contemporary Burma is no less deceptive. He notes that foreign tourists are allowed only seven days in Burma, but claims that “most” Rangoon intellectuals reject the regime’s ideology (forgetting that he opened his article with the statement that the regime has “systematically erased” the “City,” i.e., Learning). Our non–Burmese-speaking tourist must have had a busy intellectual week. He jeers that before the British arrived “Rangoon was little more than a fishing village.” This claim is purloined from Pye (p. 92), who was too lazy to read any standard British history of Burma. In fact, Rangoon was the new name given by the dynast Alaungpaya in 1755 to the old trading port of Dagon (from which the Shwedagon shrine gets its title); and in the century prior to the British conquest of Lower Burma (1852), it became one of the Burmese empire’s largest revenue-earning seaports. Then, from across the Bay of Bengal, Lord Dalhousie decreed a massive “urban renewal” on imperial Victorian lines, sweeping the old city off into Buruma’s squalid margins.

Buruma goes on to claim that “until a few years ago the English language was banned in Burmese education.” The reader would not guess that today the teaching of English begins in kindergarten, and English is the language of instruction in many subjects at the university level; nor that the Burmanization of education after 1962 was intended, quite reasonably, to let Burmese children be taught in their own language—like the children of Indonesia, France, Vietnam, or the UK. A final glaring falsehood is Buruma’s claim that “the military has taken over from the universities as the breeding ground of the new elite.” In fact, a sizeable portion of the officer corps is recruited from the university student body, creating a factional line within the military between “academy” and “university” types.

Really, the Burmese, and the Review‘s readers, deserve better than Buruma.

Benedict R. Anderson

Cornell University

Ithaca, New York

To the Editors:

Ian Buruma’s facile “The Road from Mandalay” is woefully ill-informed, narrowly arrogant and a disservice to your readers. Buruma would be well advised to check his sources before writing about things he does not understand. Errors abound. In his parody of Burma’s history, Buruma does not only have his facts wrong, but has followed interpretations which bear little relationship to the findings of serious scholars of Burma’s past. To then link the alleged “irrationality” of “the traditional Burmese system” of monarchical times, pace the unfounded claims of Lucien Pye, with the behaviour of Burma Socialist Programme Party Chairman Ne Win is neither enlightening nor, useful. Without evidence, Buruma says that Ne Win practices “merciless punishment of the slightest hint of disloyalty.” How does he justify such a view against the fact that in 1980 Ne Win issued amnesties to all his political opponents and gave them state pensions and awards? Was this the act of a ruthless and irrational man or of an adept politician seeking to establish social unity?

Buruma’s understanding of ethnicity and the historical and economic bases of the secessionist and smuggling movements which persist along Burma’s borders with China, Laos and Thailand is equally deficient. It is a highly complicated subject, but the fundamental issue stems not from the alleged fact that the majority of the population are “Burman” and wish to suppress minority cultures. Rather, it stems from a variety of factors including (1) the lucrativeness of opium and other illegal smuggling; (2) a desire on the part of some minority political leaders to retain personal authority of a semi-“feudal” or personal kind over their former subjects; and (3) of the nature of the modern state with its imperatives to control the national economy and ecology as well as to maintain national security and prevent foreign intervention. In any case, the insurgents, including the Burma Communist Party, control far less than “half the country” however calculated.

In his allegations about the anti-modern or anti-city attitude of the government, Buruma is plain silly. There has never been a conscious policy “to seek to destroy books, especially books containing foreign learning.” The government did after 1962 break the hold of English on higher learning. Would we say that the Japanese are against “foreign learning” because they conduct their classes in Japanese? English was reintroduced widely into the school curriculum in 1980 but it was never banned. In the meantime, Burma has developed one of the most effective literacy programmes in Asia and Africa, winning UNESCO awards on several occasions. Today the country has largely regained the high standard of male literacy that it had before colonial rule. But unlike in the precolonial period, literacy is nearly as high now for women.

On the subject of the black market, Buruma is similarly misinformed. No one denies that there exists a black market but to say that it “dominates life in Rangoon” is exaggeration beyond literary license. So what if teen-agers wear T-shirts with foreign words on them in Rangoon as in London or Bangkok. If Buruma had walked up Ko Min Ko Chin road, he would have come to one of the shops where these “black market” T-shirts are being produced and displayed. Though there is a sizeable portion of trade and other economic activities which have been nationalized, the private sector still dominates the economy. The shortage of foreign-made goods and the resultant premium placed upon them is a consequence of many things, not least the difficulty Burma has in earning hard currency. With the international price of rice, teak and other primary exports severely depressed, the state has to direct scarce resources into productive activities rather than in conspicuous consumption of foreign luxuries. Because Burma has not opted for the road toward development which permits large-scale investment by multinational corporations, domestic resources have had in the main to be relied upon for economic development.

What Buruma fails to appreciate is the historical development of Burma during this century and the underlying causes for direction government policies have taken. All successful Burmese politicians have been socialists and have based their beliefs not solely on the Buddhist-derived epistemology of the System of Correlation of Man and His Environment but upon the experience of the bulk of the population, the peasantry, during the colonial period. Far from “the brink of becoming farmers” in 1942, the peasantry were in the midst of a severe economic crisis which had its roots in capitalist agriculture as developed under the auspices of foreign rule. By the end of the 1930s, more than half of the best rice producing land in the country was in the hands of landlords, more than half of whom were alien. Tenant families had little security of income or residence. Since 1948, and especially after 1963, the government has alleviated this condition by abolishing tenancy and rent payment. Investment and development policies have been deliberately skewed in the direction of rural areas with the intention of spreading employment and wealth throughout the country. Thus, Burma does not suffer from the existence of a parasitic bloated capital city living off the labour of the peasantry.

One of the more baffling aspects of Buruma’s opinions is his discussion of nationalism. What can “antigovernment nationalism” mean in the context of a discussion of the possible political alliance of students and the urban middle class with the peasantry against the post-colonial state? Once the British departed, nationalism could only be turned against the state’s power holders if they were willing to sell the state to foreign bidders. For a variety of reasons, Burma’s leaders have refused to do that and this explains much of what Buruma didn’t appreciate in Rangoon.

Buruma did not like what he saw in Burma; that is his prerogative. But he does have an obligation to your readers to present what he saw fairly and to admit that there is a great deal he does not understand. The Burmese road to socialism does not organize society’s production and consumption in a pattern that Buruma approves. Perhaps he could have been asked to reflect on the reasons for this. It is true that much of the rest of the world has chosen not to follow the pattern of modern Burma’s political and economic development. That Burma’s leaders have attempted to run against the tide of post–World War II Western “common sense” has meant that within Burma there may be lessons to be drawn by the rest of the world. Sneering does not illuminate or educate. An attempt to appreciate and understand does.

Robert H. Taylor

University of London

London, England

Ian Buruma replies:

In his grand indignation over a heretic, nonacademic view of one of the world’s last unknown socialist utopias, Benedict R. Anderson appears to have completely missed the main point of my piece. This, in brief, was a description of the systematic destruction of a cosmopolitan urban elite by a nativist, quasi-socialist, military dictatorship. Although I am the last person to deny the usefulness of knowing foreign languages, one does not need to speak Burmese to get this point.

It is interesting to know that the monarch who consumed an elixir made of six thousand human hearts was Arakanese and seduced into the atrocity by an Alcoranic and devilish adviser, but hardly pertinent to the central issue of the article. Some might also wish to know, as we are picking nits anyway, that according to D.G.E. Hall, a scholar recommended by Anderson, Dagon, later renamed Rangoon, was indeed a fishing village, named after the famous temple, not the other way around, as Anderson claims.

It is equally fascinating to hear that Ne Win was Army Chief of Staff during the 1950s, that the CIA was up to no good in Indonesia, that Chinese soldiers grew opium in the border areas of Burma, and that Vietnam was in a mess, but again this knowledge adds or subtracts nothing from the theme of my article. Or are these facts simply meant as excuses for a grim regime? And this from a man who has made a career of attacking a neighboring government (Indonesia), which is far from perfect, but in many ways more successful than Ne Win’s dictatorship. If Anderson is saying that the possibility of violence justifies the expulsion of ethnic minorities (as happened to the Indians in Burma), he will find some strange allies: verkrampte Afrikaners and proponents of a white Australia. Incidentally, the idea that only xenophobic isolationism saved Burma from mass killings is absurd. Thailand never excluded foreigners. Why was there no mass murder there? They had—still have—border problems, ethnic minorities, and communist insurgents, too.

Still, let us stick to the issue at hand: the atavistic nature of the Burmese regime. Professor Anderson objects to Lucian Pye and E. Sarkisyanz and assumes that I have lazily neglected other sources, so let me turn to an authority he approves of, Josef Silverstein. In his book, Burma: Military Rule and the Politics of Stagnation (Cornell University Press, 1977), Silverstein had this to say about Ne Win’s military regime: “Their direct seizure of power, elimination of rivals, and separation of government from the people all were consistent with the precolonial style of government.” He concludes that “Buddhist values and attitudes toward government, personal responsibility, and improvements in their existence are still the major influences on the thought of rural and the less Westernized urban Burmese.” And it is of course precisely the Westernized urban Burmese that the regime saw as a major threat.

Anderson’s peculiar insinuations notwithstanding, I never claimed urban intellectuals were wholly wiped out (even Pol Pot never managed to get rid of all Francophone Cambodian intellectuals through genocide, so why should Ne Win have succeeded through less murderous means?). Starved as Rangoon intellectuals are of foreign contact, it is easy for any “political tourist” to hear what they have to say, even in one week, even without speaking Burmese. What they say bears little relation to Anderson’s views of the Burmese regime. Anderson’s indulgence toward Ne Win might be explained by the common fallacy that a government that calls itself socialist must represent, however vaguely, similar ideals to those espoused by woolly Western intellectuals, that such a government is “for the People,” as in People’s Republic. A Burmese intellectual once explained how he came to loathe the word “People.” “Whenever I see that word,” he said, “I know it has nothing to do with the common people and everything with a small, dictatorial elite.”

About the English language Anderson informs us that “today the teaching of English begins in kindergarten.” He also says the “Burmanization of education after 1962” was a good thing. Both statements may be correct. But they do not contradict my claim that English was widely banned before.

Finally, in answer to the last “glaring falsehood” Anderson found, let us turn to yet another specialist, uncontaminated by Pye or Sarkisyanz. In his book Burma: A Socialist Nation of Southeast Asia (Westview Press, 1982), David I. Steinberg describes in detail how the military “changed the role of education as an entrée into elite status.” He concludes that “the new elites of Burma will likely be primarily recruited from the military, and insofar as they are civilian, determined by the military.”

Robert H. Taylor is as eager as his colleague to spring to the defense of the Burmese regime, and his reasoning is equally blinded by ideological pilgrimage. He claims that Ne Win’s punishment of the slightest hint of disloyalty is “without evidence.” I do not wish to bore readers with the long list of people Ne Win pushed into oblivion—punishment need not necessarily mean torture or death—for the simple reason that they were contenders for political power. Let me simply mention the case of General Aung Gyi, former army chief of staff, dismissed in 1963 for stating in public (in Japan) that Burma’s military government would eventually make way for a civilian administration. The fact that Ne Win lets former opponents who have been completely stripped of political influence live in peace, is the lamest excuse for dictatorship that I have ever heard.

Taylor’s enthusiasm for military authoritarianism (as long as it calls itself socialist) is such that he blames the insurgencies by non-Burman ethnic groups on their “semi-‘feudal,’ ” opium-smuggling leaders. Before the military coup in 1962, U Nu came close to solving the minorities problem by talking to the various minority leaders. After the coup, Ne Win’s solution to national unity was to throw the leaders in jail. Apparently, I am not the only one lacking “understanding of ethnicity.” According to Josef Silverstein, the present structure “fails to satisfy the desires and hopes of the ethnic minorities who have been in revolt against Burmanization and the total integration of their historic territory into a single political unit.”

As for the silliness of my remarks on the “destruction of books,” Taylor appears to miss the point entirely. What I meant is best expressed in the following news item that appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review of October 3, 1985: “For the first time since Ne Win came to power in Burma in 1962, a consignment of 900 foreign books (mostly on medicine and computer science) recently arrived in Rangoon—and more are on the way. Donated by a private US foundation, the books are said to fill a vital academic need. In all of Burma’s libraries, there is a pitifully small collection of 30,000 English books, most of which are pre-1962 and therefore obsolete.”

It is difficult to see how the black market could fail to dominate life in Rangoon when it is estimated to be up to 50 percent the size of the official economy. Taylor is right to say that the “private sector still dominates the economy.” Unfortunately, much of this private sector is “black.” Indeed, without smuggled goods there would not be many consumer goods available in Rangoon’s markets, not to mention such necessities as medicines. Taylor might consider these to be “foreign luxuries”; as a diligent political tourist I can report that the Burmese I spoke to were not of this opinion.

At least Taylor agrees with me on one point: “Investment and development policies have been deliberately skewed in the direction of rural areas…. Thus, Burma does not suffer from the existence of a parasitic bloated capital city living off the labour of the peasantry.” The shrill jargon is of course a giveaway. Taylor thinks the destruction of the City is a splendid thing and a sine qua non for prosperity in the countryside, while I have my doubts. Not that it matters one bit whether I “like” what I saw in Burma. The question addressed in my article is whether many educated people in Rangoon like it. And I have my doubts about that. Taylor shares his “back to the country” dream with such disparate figures as Mao Zedong, Tojo Hideki, and Pol Pot. Perhaps because the London professor never had to suffer the consequences of such dreams, he is in a distinct minority these days. Even the communist Chinese now see the merit of urban development and investment by the dreaded multinationals. Are there “lessons to be drawn by the rest of the world” from one of the most stagnant and oppressive countries of Southeast Asia, as Taylor thinks? I doubt that too. Of course, many professors, some of whom spoke excellent Chinese, used to draw lessons from the Maoist utopia, just as some Cambodia specialists saw merit in Pol Pot’s experiments. Such dreams have had a fatal attraction for committed academics who prefer to justify their reveries by quoting government statistics and UNESCO awards instead of listening to the refugees and common citizens who know precisely what it means when these dreams turn to nightmares.

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