Category Archives: Burma

Burma’s Own Trouser People

From The Trouser People: A Story of Burma in the Shadow of the Empire, by Andrew Marshall (Counterpoint, 2003), pp. 78-79:

At the far end of the carriage sat the soldiers: armed, sleek, hostile. I guessed that some were recent graduates of Maymyo’s military academy. Earlier I had watched them on the platform. Some had stood alone, while others had grouped into silent conspiracies of khaki; none of them had mixed with the civilians. I wondered what the academy had taught them. ‘They spend four years getting brainwashed, and when they come out they expect all civilians to behave like soldiers,’ a Burmese dissident told me later. ‘But of course we don’t want to behave like soldiers. That’s why we chose to remain civilians. But they think they are the greatest people in Burma. They think they know what’s best for the rest of us. They don’t.’ Casual visitors to Burma are unaware of the visceral hatred most people have for the military, particularly among ethnic minorities. The same dissident told me how a group of Kachin farmers stood by and watched as six young Burmese soldiers writhed in agony in the wreckage of a crashed army truck. When the dissident’s sister, who had witnessed the crash, pleaded with the farmers to do something, one of them chillingly replied, ‘Why should we? They will only live to make our lives worse. It is better to let them die.’

As far as I could work out, the military seemed utterly unaware of its unpopularity, although its guardians were alert to any potential blots on its escutcheon. I had heard, for example, that Burmese cartoonists working for newspapers or magazines were forbidden to draw men in trousers. This was because the only Burmese men who worse trousers were soldiers, and soldiers could not possibly be allowed to appear in such an undignified and dangerously satirical art form.

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Football Comes to Burma, 1878

From The Trouser People: A Story of Burma in the Shadow of the Empire, by Andrew Marshall (Counterpoint, 2003), pp. 28-30:

Even before the Football Association was established in England in 1863, wherever the Brits went in the world the beautiful game went with them. British railway engineers took the sport to Argentina; Scottish textile workers taught the Swedes; the Russians learned it from English cotton-mill managers. And one day in 1878 George Scott strode on to the bumpy games field next to St. John’s College with his curious students, punted a football through a blue afternoon sky, and the Burmese game was born.

The first organized football match ever played in Burma took place at St. John’s College around 1879. Scott captained the St. John’s team, whose opponents were a scratch eleven from the southern port town of Moulmein….

Matches were soon drawing large crowds, not only in Rangoon but across British-occupied Lower Burma. There was some concern at the passion the game aroused among the natives, but also relief that Association rules had been adopted. ‘To think of hot-headed Burmans engaged in the rough-and-tumble of Rugby excites lurid imaginings,’ shuddered one colonial official. For the British, football was a way of communicating ideas of fair play and respect for authority. For the Burmese it was something else: a rare opportunity to thrash their colonial masters at their own game.

The Burmese were no slouches with their feet. They had grown up with chinlon, a kind of volleyball played only with the feet and the head, and using a rock-hard rattan ball which could split a man’s eyebrow clean open if headed wrongly. Hard-fought contests between British and Burmese footballers became regular affairs during the cool season. The Burmese team was called The Putsoes, a putso being a longyi that has been tucked neatly up around the thighs like a large, decorative nappy. The British team was called The Trousers.

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Burmese Junta’s Policies toward Minorities

From Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, by Thant Myint-U (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), Kindle Loc. 1569-1581:

In a way, the Burmese army’s policies towards their opponents were the direct opposite of the policy of Western governments towards the ruling junta. Western governments had employed economic embargoes and diplomatic isolation, hoping that by shunning the Burmese generals, the generals would eventually come around. They didn’t. The Burmese army employed very different tactics. They fêted their erstwhile foes, calling them ‘leaders of the national races’. They took them to the big cities, created new desires and allowed them to enrich themselves. Business links, even illicit ones, were actively promoted. They did this knowing that it would sap the insurgents’ strength as fighting organizations. By 2010 the Burmese army was in a far stronger position than when the ceasefires were first agreed.

Under the new constitution, some power would be devolved to local governments, each with their own semi-elected legislatures. It would be far from a federal system and the real authority of the local governments would be heavily circumscribed. But it was a small concession to ethnic minority leaders who had been fighting for genuine self-determination.

The Burmese military leadership also offered the ex-insurgent armies a deal on their future armed status: reorganize your men into a ‘Border Guard Force’, that will partly be officered by us and that will ultimately come under our authority. It meant a partial but not complete integration with the Burmese army. Acceptance would mean sweet business deals and a place for former rebel leaders in the new order. Some of the smaller militias accepted. The rest have not, so far.

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How Yunnan Became Chinese, and Muslim

From Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, by Thant Myint-U (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), Kindle Loc. 2475-2501:

Seven hundred years before the present wave of tourists was an altogether different wave, of Mongols, Turks and Islam. The Mongol conquest of Yunnan in the thirteenth century brought this hitherto independent kingdom for the first time under Beijing’s control and began a process of integration into ‘China proper’ that has continued to today. The Mongol conquest also brought an astonishingly diverse influx of mainly Muslim peoples, from across their Eurasian domains.

Though the invasion forces were ultimately under Mongol command, many of the officers and most of the soldiers were Turks or people from further west. The force that invaded Burma for example is said to have included no fewer than 14,000 men of the erstwhile Persian Khwarezmid empire, under their own commander Yalu Beg. Others came to garrison the new possession. They included Turks from Samarkand, Bokhara, Merv and Nishpur. They also included tribal peoples like the Kipchaks and even Bulgars from the lower Volga. Yunnan itself had been conquered by the Mongol Prince Uriyangkadai who had also conquered Baghdad, and his forces most likely included captive soldiers from the Abbasid caliphate as well as southern Russia and the Ukraine.

There were even more exotic immigrants. They included the Alans–a Sarmatian tribe today known as the Ossetians–who had submitted to the Mongols and had provided a thousand warriors for the personal body guard of the Great Khan. A son of the Alan chief, Nicholas, took part in the conquest of Yunnan, and men from the North Caucasus were posted along the Burmese borderland.

A member of the Mongol imperial clan, Prince Hugeshi, was appointed ‘prince of Yunnan’ whilst the old ruling family, the Duans, were allowed to stay in Dali and keep the title of ‘maharaja’. The Muslim newcomers, based at Dali, became extremely powerful and the most powerful of them all was a native of Bokhara named Sayyid Ajall Shams al-Din Omar. He claimed descent from the emir of Bokhara (though some say his family were originally from Cairo) and by the late 1250s he was a rising star in the Mongol establishment. He served in Baghdad and in China and was appointed as the top administrator in Yunnan in the 1270s. Today the Muslims of Yunnan regard him as the founder of their community, a wise and benevolent ruler who ‘pacified and comforted’ the peoples of Yunnan.

Sayyid Ajall was officially the Director of Political Affairs of the Regional Secretariat of Yunnan, about as bureaucratic a title as one can imagine in medieval times. According to Chinese records, he introduced new agricultural technologies, constructed irrigation systems, and tried to raise living standards. Though a Muslim, he built or rebuilt Confucian temples and created a Confucian education system. His contemporary, He Hongzuo, the Regional Superintendent of Confucian Studies, wrote that through his efforts ‘the orang-utans and butcherbirds became unicorns and phoenixes and their felts and furs were exchanged for gowns and caps’. There were many other civilizing missions on China’s periphery but only in Yunnan was one conducted under Muslim (and essentially Turkish Muslim) leadership.

In this way, Yunnan became known to the Islamic world. When Sayyid Ajall died in 1279 he was succeeded by his son Nasir al-Din who governed for five years and led the invasion of Burma. His younger brother became the Transport Commissioner and the entire family entrenched their influence. There were still very few Han Chinese in Yunnan and the growing Muslim community began to excel as long-distance traders as well. In the early fourteenth century, the great Persian Jewish historian Rashid al-Din Hamadani stated that the Dali region had become exclusively Muslim.

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Filed under Burma, Central Asia, China, Islam, migration, Mongolia, Turkey

What the River Kwai Meant to Thais

From In Buddha’s Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War, by Richard A. Ruth (U. Hawaii Press, 2011), pp. 42-44:

Behind the confident statements issued by Thai and US leaders throughout the first half of 1967, the battle readiness of the regiment was uncertain. American military personnel who had come to train the Thai [Queen’s Cobra] regiment were unimpressed by the volunteers’ level of preparedness. From early June, in the ten weeks that remained before embarkation, the American advisers guided the Thai unit through field exercises and training missions in Lopburi, Chonburi, and Kanchanaburi. The Americans had designed “an intense training” program that “drilled the Thai [troops] in the exact tactics and methods of operation employed by the Viet Cong.” They hoped that this crash course would help the Thais counter the guerrilla warfare methods being used by the Vietnamese guerrillas. All of the American instructors came from experienced combat units in South Vietnam and were eager to impart the lessons they had acquired. They attempted to simulate the conditions that the Thais would face in South Vietnam, but despite the physical similarities between Thailand’s and South Vietnam’s landscapes, the Americans found it difficult to impose a sense of urgency or even realism on the regiment that had hitherto been regarded as a domestic symbol. In Kanchanaburi the Americans led the Thai troops in field training exercises that crisscrossed the jungles along the Khwae (or Kwai) River, not far from the site of the bridge built by forced labor for the Japanese Imperial Army’s “Death Railway” during World War II. The fictionalized retelling of the bridge’s construction, as presented in Pierre Boulle’s 1954 novel and its 1957 film adaptation, was on the minds of the Americans as they trained the Thai troops. The hint of cinematic make-believe suggested by the Khwae River location may have contributed to the growing unease among the American instructors. It was as if their appreciation of the book and film undermined their own attempts at simulating realism in the jungles there. The Americans’ effort to impose realistic conditions on the exercises were compromised by the feeling that they had been dropped into a movie set on which a familiar, unrealistic film had been made. While the Thai troops were certainly aware of the cinematic resonance that the Khwae River setting elicited, the region offered them another set of specifically Thai symbols born from a different semifictional source: Thailand’s nationalist history.

The area used in the training exercises was not far from several sites important to the historical imagination shared by most Thai soldiers in this era. Kanchanaburi’s location below the Three Pagoda Pass put it on a major route traditionally used by the Burmese and Siamese armies while invading and raiding each other’s kingdoms. In the nationalist version of Thailand’s history prevalent in 1967, a retelling of events that was particularly popular with members of the Thai military, the Burmese of old were always portrayed as the Thai people’s archenemy. The natural corridor created by the mountains to the west and the Chaophraya floodplain to the east was the site of several celebrated (and historically embellished) clashes between these occasionally bitter rival kingdoms.

The battle of Nong Sarai was certainly on the minds of the Thai volunteer soldiers as they trained for their South Vietnam mission. It had occurred during a phase of Ayutthaya‘s history when the kingdom’s Thai rulers were struggling to retain their sovereignty after several decades of Burmese military occupation. At this site in January 1593, King Naresuan the Great, the most revered figure in this nationalist history, won Siam’s greatest military victory. With his forces pressed to the breaking point, Naresuan was said to have called out the Burmese crown prince to challenge him to a duel on war elephants. After a few minutes of fierce combat, Naresuan got the better of his Burmese rival and killed him with a well-aimed slash of his sword. The Burmese forces panicked and fled south-southwest toward Burma. Naresuan’s army pursued them through Kanchanaburi, decimating their scattered lines.

The Thai soldiers preparing to fight in South Vietnam relished their proximity to the site of Naresuan’s victory. Joseph Callaway described his Thai trainees talking about a centuries-old victory over the Burmese “as though it took place only a few years before.” They cherished the historical memory of the warrior king and asked his spirit to bless their upcoming adventure. The men prayed in an ubosot (Buddhist ordination hall) said to have been visited by Naresuan while he was fighting in the area. Many recalled dreaming of Naresuan while training in Kanchanaburi and fighting in South Vietnam….

In the midst of this atmosphere of competing cultural and historical symbolism, the Thai troops added one realistic detail to their training procedure that may have trumped even the Americans’ passion for realism. The Thai troops carried live ammunition along with the simulated rounds used in their training because they felt they required protection against the dangerous forces that inhabited the Thailand-Burma frontier, everything from cobras and tigers to opium smugglers. Although the American trainers felt that the Thais did not fully comprehend the danger posed by the Viet Cong guerrillas, they were flabbergasted to discover how anxious this apparently sleepy western province made the volunteers.

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Filed under Burma, nationalism, Thailand, U.S., Vietnam, war

Flickr’s Fractured Greetings: Korean

Is anyone else as annoyed as I am by Flickr’s cutesy attempts to improve international understanding (or whatever) by telling you how to say some equivalent of Hello in a randomly chosen language whenever you refresh your Flickr homepage? The one that set me off most recently is Korean Bangawoyo ‘Pleased (to meet you)’, which corresponds in usage to Japanese Hajimemashite, French Enchanté, or Romanian Îmi pare bine (or Frenchified Încântat), and so on. None of those equivalents are on Flickr’s list of greetings. For Korean, I would have expected something like Annyeong (안녕), which is a good match for Arabic Salaam or Hebrew Shalom.

Do Flickr’s intrepid researchers just ask random speakers of random languages for greetings and then accept whatever they’re told? Have they never heard of Omniglot? Can someone tell me what Mingalaba really means in Burmese? ‘Come eat!’ perhaps?

UPDATE: Of course, “Haro! Haro!” was by far the most common greeting directed at Westerners when I was a kid, but was somewhat less common when the Outliers visited in 1985, and much, much rarer during our sabbaticals there in 2005-2006, even when we were pretty far off the usual foreigner circuits. Being greeted as if I were a talking parrot used to irritate me a lot as a kid, as did constantly being stared at, or having my skin or hair stroked or cheeks pinched by little old ladies when I was a child. When a bunch of junior high school boys tried out their “Haro!” on me in the gardens of Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion) in 1985, I responded in Japanese with “Haroharo tte ningen no kotoba desu ka?” (‘Is “haroharo” a human word?’). That seemed to silence them for a few moments.


Filed under Burma, Japan, Korea, language

Foreign Policy on Indonesia vs. Burma

In Foreign Policy‘s Shadow Government, Dan Twining compares recent positive developments in Indonesia with negative developments in Burma.

Indonesia’s political revolution was also spurred by a regional wave of democratization that spread from the Philippines in 1986 to South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Mongolia, and beyond over the following decade. After free parliamentary elections, Indonesia held its first direct elections for president in 2004, followed by those which have just given President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono a decisive mandate for a second term.

The popular and performance legitimacy required by a system of democratic accountability has led SBY, as he is popularly known, to aspire to lead Indonesia to new heights. With the country’s respected former central bank governor as his new vice president, the leadership team has set a target of matching China’s economic growth rate and attacking entrenched corruption, a corrosive legacy of Suharto‘s clientelistic rule. Democratic Indonesia is finally beginning to punch its weight geopolitically: international newspaper headlines celebrate “Indonesia Rising” and suggest Indonesia as “Another ‘I’ in the BRIC Story.” The U.S. National Intelligence Council predicts that Indonesia will have an economy larger than those of most European nations by the 2020s. Leading Indonesian public intellectuals like Rizal Sukma ambitiously propose “a post-ASEAN foreign policy” of “strategic partnerships with global powers” grounded in Indonesia’s values as a democracy. Yudhoyono speaks proudly of Indonesia’s democracy as a source of soft power in the world and wants to leverage it to expand respect for human dignity and government accountability as sources of regional security, including through new institutions like the Bali Democracy Forum.

Burma is a different story. Its widespread poverty and brutal autocracy are a cancer in the heart of ASEAN, the club led by Asia’s “tiger” economies that inducted Burma in 1997 in the hope that doing so would spur the kind of opening of Burma’s economic and political system that has transformed the fortunes of its neighbors. It hasn’t. Leaders in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and elsewhere are embarrassed by the Burmese junta’s misrule and have been increasingly outspoken in saying so — including during the debate over ASEAN’s new charter, which creates a regional human rights body and is grounded in a framework of political and economic modernity that is anathema to the generals in Naypyidaw (Burma’s new capital, built deep in the jungle and featuring plush underground bunkers for the country’s paranoid leadership).

Since the junta rejected the results of the country’s last elections in 1990, Burma’s people have grown poorer as its ruling elite have grown richer from trade in gems, timber, narcotics, and other commodities, as well as the development of offshore natural gas fields that will deliver billions of dollars in revenues to Burma’s governing elite over the coming decade. Civil conflict stemming from the junta’s rule has produced millions of internally displaced people and refugees. Forced and child labor are rampant. The regime’s security forces fired on peacefully demonstrating monks and rounded up large numbers of innocent civilians following non-violent protests in 2007. The country’s political opposition has been eviscerated. The junta may be cooperating with North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.

In short, the pathologies that afflict Burma’s failing state, all either derived or exacerbated by political misrule, make its regime a threat to its people, its neighbors, and the wider world. Burma’s descent is in many respects a mirror-image of the success of Indonesia’s vibrant democracy next door.

via Oxblog

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Filed under Burma, democracy, economics, Indonesia