Daily Archives: 27 May 2006

Burma: Once Wealthy, Now Wasteland. Why?

While I was in Katha I went to visit a woman who is the guardian of one of Burma’s many secret histories…. ‘We historians must keep our mouths tightly shut,’ she said as she bolted the door and motioned me to a seat…. Tin Tin Lay used to work as a history professor in Rangoon University,… She now sat down opposite me and asked, ‘What is it you want to know?’

Before the Second World War, Burma was one of the richest countries in the region. Any economist comparing it with other countries in Asia would have thought it safe to wager that it would develop one of the region’s most successful economies. Since then, civil wars have raged across Burma’s border areas, taking an infinite toll on lives and natural resources, and the military regime has outlasted almost all other dictatorships around the world. How, I wanted to know, had the fertile ground of Burmese Days evolved so quickly into the wasteland of Nineteen Eighty-Four?

Tin Tin Lay blames all Burma’s woes on a streak of authoritarianism that she believes runs through Burmese society. Before the British arrived in Burma the country was ruled by an absolute monarchy. ‘We Burmese spent eight centuries living under these all-powerful monarchs,’ she said. ‘A Burmese king could kill you or destroy you or arrest you whenever he wanted.’ As a result, she argued, the Burmese have become conditioned to authoritarian rule. ‘We are trained to listen to our elders, she said. ‘We are trained to obey.’ In other words, the Burmese have a psychological receptiveness to authoritarian government.

I had heard this controversial theory before. It was set out in a famous essay published in the early 1960s by the late Maung Maung Gyi, who had a doctorate from Yale University. He wrote about the despotic nature of Burmese kings, who were traditionally extolled as Thet-oo Hsanbaing Mintayagyi, which means ‘The Great Owner of Life, Head and Hair of His Subjects’, or a more succinct title could be used: Bawa-Shin Min-Taya, meaning ‘The Arbiter of Existence’. Because there was no consistent law of primogeniture, the history of Burmese kingdoms is drenched in bloodshed…. The large number of rivals and challenges to the throne led to brutal massacres not only of the challengers themselves, but also of their families. The people lived at the whim of these great Arbiters of Existence; whole villages could be turned into slave markets, or be burned to cinders for harbouring dissenters. The result, wrote Maung Maung Gyi, can be seen in a Burmese proverb that says there are four things in life which cannot be trusted: a thief, the bough of a tree, a woman and a ruler. The Burmese thought-pattern had become adapted to the idea of a government as something oppressive and evil. The Burmese came to believe that misrule was an inevitability of governance. This psychological legacy has taught them that it is futile to stand up against a bad ruler, no matter how bad things get.

It is a theory that Tin Tin Lay would never be able to discuss in public, unless she wanted to provoke the ire of the military junta (not to mention the many Burmese who would disagree with her). ‘The views are unpopular – I know they are,’ she told me. ‘But there is a truth to them. Look at us. Here we are, suffering. Suffering under our own people. Year after year we are made poorer. Year after year we become more downtrodden. The government runs free, robbing, looting and raping us. Why?’ She repeated her question, more sharply: ‘Why?’

I suggested a more accepted explanation of how authoritarianism was able to take root in Burma: it was the fault of the British. When the British took over Burma, they destroyed all the country’s traditional institutions of government – the monarchy, the monkhood, the central administration. They deported the king, who was the linchpin of the country’s administration and religious systems, keeping him until his death under careful guard in exile in India. And they practiced a system of divide and rule among the ethnic minorities. This system was unsustainable without the British, and, when it crumpled in on itself after they left, the Burmese army stepped in to quell the ensuing chaos.

Tin Tin Lay looked at me with absolute disdain…. ‘The British,’ she said, brought us democracy. It was the first time we had tasted it. We had never even heard of it before the British came, and we were not ready for it. I am ashamed of the Burmese people. I am ashamed of Burma and I am sad for the Burmese. We are very, very ignorant. We are always looking for someone to blame, so we blame the British.’

SOURCE: Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, by Emma Larkin (John Murray, 2005), pp. 203-205

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