Category Archives: Burma

The Race for Burma’s Natural Gas

The February issue of HIMAL SOUTHASIAN reports on the competition for Burma’s huge deposits of natural gas and what it means for human rights in one of the most oppressive regimes in Asia.

Even as Southasia’s energy-strapped, fast-growing economies have led many to wonder whether antagonistic neighbours may be pushed together into forced cooperation, on the eastern edge of the region a less optimistic dynamic is playing out. Indeed, the huge natural-gas reserves of Burma have caused many Asian governments to turn a blind eye to Rangoon’s continued oppressive and non-democratic tactics.

Burma stands on the world’s tenth largest natural-gas reserves, estimated at more than 90 trillion cubic feet (tcf) in 19 on-shore and three major offshore fields. As the economies of South, Southeast and East Asia have soared upwards in recent years, the Shwe ‘gas block’ in western Burma’s Arakan state has instigated intense competition between India, China, South Korea, Thailand, Japan and Singapore. South Korea’s Daewoo International estimates that just two blocks from the Shwe gas field together have a reserve of about 20 tcf, equivalent to about 3.5 billion barrels of oil. There are currently four stakeholders in the Shwe Gas Project – Daewoo (which controls 60 percent), KOGAS of South Korea, and two Indian interests, the Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) and the Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL)….

Burma remains one of the most repressive countries in Asia, despite promises for political reform and national reconciliation by its government, which continues to spend 40 percent of the country’s national budget on defence, and just five to ten percent on health and education. Burma’s military, the Tatmadaw, is Southeast Asia’s second largest conventional force, estimated at over 400,000 troops. The junta stands to profit by up to USD 17 billion dollars from the Shwe Gas Project over its lifespan, which could become the government’s single largest source of revenue – up to USD 825 million per year….

Meanwhile, in early January 2007, just days after China and Russia jointly blocked a proposal before the United Nations Security Council to censure Rangoon’s continued human-rights abuses, the Chinese government landed a new deal to further explore Burma’s petroleum resources. Negotiations between India and Burma over gas pricing are continuing, with an agreement expected by the middle of the year. Such is the desperation for Burmese natural gas in India, and such a fear of growing Chinese influence on Burma, that human-rights issues will cut much ice in New Delhi – particularly if the Indian civil society continues to keep mum.

via The Marmot

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Finding Burmese Speakers During WW2

On Language Log, Mark Liberman has been excerpting passages from J Milton Cowan‘s brief memoir, “American Linguistics in Peace and at War.”

It is difficult today to visualize some of the obstacles we had to overcome. To illustrate I will tell the Burmese story because it has multiple punch lines. In the lottery of languages William S. Cornyn drew the Burmese straw. This frightened him a bit but Leonard Bloomfield promised to hold his hand. Nobody knew where to find any native speakers of Burmese and the files of the Alien Registration Act were classified. The Department of Immigration and Naturalization said there were no Burmese legally in the country at the time. There were supposed to be some sailors who’d jumped ship in New York and San Francisco but they hadn’t caught up with them yet.

Mortimer sent me to the Pentagon to see a young fellow in G-2 (Military Intelligence), Major Dean Rusk, a name not so well-known in those days, but known to Mortimer. I described the non-existence of known Burmans and why we wanted some. He volunteered to see what could be done with the roster of Alien Registration. He phoned our offices the same afternoon, saying tht he had over a hundred names and he’d call back as soon as he could have them decoded. Next morning he phoned to say there was something funny, there were Abernathys, Browns, Davenports, Fitzgeralds and so on down through the Youngs. It turned out that the Roster listed those foreigners residing in the U.S. who had been born in Burma, regardless of their current nationality. These were the names of children born to business people and missionaries while living in Burma. There were only two names that sounded exotic enough to be possible Burmans.

Read the rest at Language Log

When I was a missionary kid in elementary school in Kyoto, I remember reading a biography of Adoniram Judson, a pioneering Christian missionary in Burma at a time when converts risked death sentences for changing their religion. Judson was no slouch as a linguist, either.

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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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Animal Farm in Burma

Animal Farm was unpopular in Burma when it was first published there in the 1950s. Many of the leading intellectuals at the time had leftist leanings and read it as a criticism of the socialism they admired. When the US Embassy printed excerpts as anti-Communist propaganda, the book’s fate was sealed. The society which had sponsored the translation had to give away remaindered copies. But years later, when people began to reread it, they saw similarities to their own history. I met one university lecturer who told me she had tried to put Animal Farm on the syllabus for English-literature students, but the authorities had warned her off: the text was just too similar to what was going on in Burma. A few years ago Animal Farm was serialized on the BBC’s Burmese radio service. For weeks afterwards, Tun Lin told me, Mandalay tea shops were abuzz with attempts to match the animal characters to Burma’s own leaders. Could you compare ‘the Lady’, as democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is known, to the exiled porcine revolutionary Snowball? And which pig was General Ne Win? Was he Major, the imperious old pig with a vision who died so suddenly? (Hopefully.) Or was he Napoleon, the grotesque ruler who grew stronger and more deranged each day? (Probably.)

Ne Win was perhaps a bit of both. He was a famously reclusive leader, known for his foul mouth, many marriages and obsessive superstition. It was his dabblings with numerology that had the most dramatic consequences for Burma. In 1987 Ne Win demonetized certain banknotes, replacing them with new notes with denominations of 45 kyat and 90 kyat – each value neatly divisible by nine (an astrologically auspicious number, and the general’s favourite). People’s already paltry savings were wiped out overnight and, with little to lose, a year later they took to the streets in the 1988 uprising.

SOURCE: Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, by Emma Larkin (John Murray, 2005), pp. 89-90

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Military vs. Monks in Burma Now

In Burma, there is no escape from politics – not even at the pagoda. Many Buddhist monks joined the protests of 1988, and hundreds were shot and killed by soldiers. Two years later, some 7,000 monks walked silently through the streets of Mandalay with their begging bowls, to collect alms in memory of those who had died in 1988. The peaceful remembrance ended in bloodshed as soldiers shot into the crowd, killing and wounding a number of monks. Afterwards, the sangha, or holy Buddhist order, launched a nationwide religious boycott of the regime by refusing to accept alms from military families or to oversee their weddings and funerals. The action is known as pattam nikkujana kamma – ‘the overturning of the alms bowl’. This passive protest reportedly upset members of the army, as it robbed them of any control over their spiritual destiny: at Buddhist funerals, monks are necessary to guide a person’s vulnerable soul into the next life. Soldiers raided over 100 monasteries, arresting more than 3,000 monks and novices. The sangha now operates under strict government control. All monks must be checked by the government before ordination, even those who take holy orders for only a few weeks or months, as many Buddhist men do. Traditional ceremonies require prior permission from local authorities. And informers, dressed in the brick-red robes of a Burmese monk, are rife within the sangha itself. Senior monks are coerced into toeing the party line with threats and bribes. Abbots, who often have influential moral power within the village, are ordered to keep villagers in check.

SOURCE: Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, by Emma Larkin (John Murray, 2005), p. 84


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Root Causes of the Burmese Crime Wave of 1924?

Orwell’s first year on the beat was a catastrophic one for the British police force in Burma. Retired civil servant J. K. Stanford wrote in his memoirs of that time, ‘Everyone had realized what an astounding assortment of malefactors – murderers, dacoits, thieves, robbers, house-breakers, forgers, coiners, blackmailers, and so on – each district possessed. They seemed to spring up like dragon’s teeth. Violent crime in Burma had risen at an alarming rate. Dacoity – defined as crime committed by roving gangs of more than five hooligans – had doubled in the last ten years, as had murder rates, giving Burma the dubious distinction of being the most violent corner of the Indian Empire. As one police report put it: ‘Murder stalks through the land with impunity.’ The sheer brutality of the crimes astounded British administrators. Dacoits raped women and girls as young as eleven, afterwards covering their victims in kerosene-soaked blankets and setting fire to them. There were descriptions of a dacoit king famous for crucifying his victims. The dead body of an Indian was found in a well with a bamboo stick forced up his anus. A monk was lured out of his dwellings to have his throat slit. A fisherman was hacked to death for his daily catch. ‘This year,’ said the police report for 1924, with considerable understatement, ‘has been a very difficult one for the Police.’

Burma’s unprecedented crime wave sent the police force into turmoil, and Orwell found himself right in the deep end. ‘Crime season,’ as the police called it, was between January and June, when the demands of agricultural labor were low. And this was exactly when Orwell began his first posting out in the field. The British police authorities set up countless committees to investigate the root causes of what one report called the ‘bestial savagery’ and to find out how best to deal with it. All police leave during crime season was revoked. Ninety British officers and 13,000 Burmese policemen had to oversee a land of some 13 million people. The Burmese policemen were underpaid and undertrained. Corruption was rampant among magistrates, and criminals were seldom convicted. It was a potentially disastrous situation.

The British authorities desperately searched for solutions. One committee denounced alcohol as a catalyst for murder. The ever present dani [nipa palm], which lined the rivers I had sailed through, could be distilled into a lethal brew, and toddy was attainable from any palm tree. The committee recommended total prohibition for Burmans. Another pointed to the demoralizing influence of the imported adventure movies – mostly violent depictions of America’s Wild West – that were doing the rounds on travelling cinematographs. One officer blamed the high rates of violence on the Delta’s infernal mosquitoes. And there were some, much more disturbing, diagnoses which referred to ‘the innate criminality of the Burmese character’. Only one report ventured to look at the impact of British intervention on Burmese culture: the way in which the British government had removed respected headmen and replaced them with its own bureaucratic counterparts. A Burmese police officer added ‘a minute of dissent’ to one report, pointing out that young Burmese boys now had to attend schools styled on the British educational system and were no longer able to go to the pongyi kyaung, or traditional monastic schools. He felt the government should have had the foresight to see that disabling the country’s centuries-old religious education system would lead to disaster. There is, he wrote, ‘no reason to assume it has come to such a stage that the Burmese people are less moral than any other nation’.

SOURCE: Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, by Emma Larkin (John Murray, 2005), pp. 71-72

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Anti-imperialist Orwell "Bred for Empire"?

In 1923, Orwell came [to Maymyo] for a week’s holiday with Roger Beadon, a fellow probationary assistant district superintendent undergoing police training in Mandalay. Beadon was later one of the few old Burma hands able to remember much about the writer’s time in Burma. It was in Maymyo that Beadon realized that Orwell was not a typical empire builder. He recalled that, though they both enjoyed the trip, Orwell remained aloof the whole time and limited his conversation to what Beadon termed commonplace remarks. ‘I realized that he and I had very little in common, I presumably being an extrovert, he an introvert, living in a world of his own: a rather shy, retiring intellectual.’

Everything in Orwell’s background, however, indicated that he was, almost literally, bred for the Empire. He came from a long line of colonial families. His father’s ancestors had owned Jamaican sugar plantations. His grandfather had been ordained as a deacon in Calcutta, later serving as a priest in Tasmania. And his father spent his entire career in the colonial service in India, overseeing the production of government opium crops. On his mother’s side, Orwell’s family had lived and worked as shipbuilders and teak-traders for three generations in Lower Burma. Orwell himself was born in Motihari, a small town in northern India, and first moved to England, with his mother, shortly before his second birthday. Yet, in Mandalay, Orwell acquired a reputation as someone who didn’t fit in. According to Beadon, Orwell was thought not to be ‘a good mixer’. Beadon described him as a man who was ‘sallow-faced, tall, thin, and gangling, whose clothes, no matter how well-cut, seemed to hang on him’. Beadon spent his time living it up at the Upper Burma Club, playing snooker and dancing, but Orwell ‘cared little for games, and seemed to be bored with the social and Club life’. He preferred to stay behind in his room at the mess, reading, spending most of his time alone – much like John Flory, who, in Burmese Days, ‘took to reading voraciously, and learned to live in books when life was tiresome’.

The social life of Mandalay and Maymyo, it seems, was too hedonistic for the young Orwell.

SOURCE: Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, by Emma Larkin (John Murray, 2005), pp. 42-43

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Trusting Only Old Books in Burma

Hla Htut sat reading a collection of Tolstoy’s short stories in a faded deckchair. I gave him my letter of introduction, from a mutual friend in Rangoon. He read it carefully, folded it up, and handed it back to me. With great solemnity he pulled a plastic stool from behind some boxes and offered me a seat. Then he leaned back in his chair, lit a slender cheroot, and confessed that he hates books.

Hla Htut is in his early thirties. He has placid, sculpted features and an easy, slow manner. Since his schooling was disrupted by the government’s frequent and haphazard closure of Burma’s universities, he never finished the bachelor’s degree he started in English literature. Instead, he began dealing in books. It isn’t that he hates all books, he clarified: he just hates Burmese books. In fact, Hla Htut has no time for any contemporary Burmese writing, be it novels, newspapers or magazines. ‘I don’t trust them. They always lie,’ he said….

Burma has always had a high literacy rate, thanks to a strong tradition of education instilled by the country’s Buddhist monasteries, and reading for pleasure became a widespread pastime under the British. After a few generations under the colonial education system and with the introduction of printing presses, Burmese writers began to write more for the masses rather than for the palace elite. An adventure story inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo was published in 1904 and is considered the first example of the novel in Burma. It was an instant hit, and a few years later novels and short stories written by Burmese writers were everywhere.

The Burmese, explained Hla Htut, had always been primed to love stories. All Burmese children were weaned on the Jataka stories, a collection of some 550 moral tales which described the many reincarnations of Prince Siddhartha before he achieved enlightenment as the Buddha. Prince Siddhartha appears in human and animal form wandering through the Buddhist cosmological landscape – a wonderland of celestial beings and forests filled with mythical beasts. Among other early favorites were H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle (the translator of the latter transformed Sherlock Holmes into the longyi-clad Sone Dauk Maung San Sha, or Detective Maung San Sha, and the sleuth’s famous Baker Street address became Bogalay Zay Street in Rangoon). A hundred years later, both Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle are still big sellers. Hla Htut puts it down to the oppressive political environment in which people live. ‘We Burmese, we need to escape. We don’t want to read non-fiction. We want only fiction and fantasy. We want to read about heroes – strong men, clever men.’

SOURCE: Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, by Emma Larkin (John Murray, 2005), pp. 26-28 (reviewed here and here)

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Burma’s Sir Paw Tun in Exile in Simla, 1940s

In the Himalayan foothills near the Solan beer factory [Burma’s ex-prime minister] Sir Paw Tun, the last pre-war prime minister wrote the obituary of the old order in a long, rambling series of letters to [Burma’s ex-governor] Dorman-Smith, part combative, part self-pitying. He wrote as an Arakanese who had imbibed some at least of Britain’s imperial ideas and had tried to reconcile them with Buddhism and his deep sense of Arakanese and Buddhist Burmese identity. He recalled during his school days in a Christian convent he had read Samuel Smiles’s essay on ‘character’. He had prayed daily for his governor, his king and his country. ‘My mother taught me to be absolutely loyal to the British crown’, he wrote. But this was difficult when many British officials acted with arrogance and racial pride. It was natural for well-brought up Burmans to bow before superiors. But more than once he had ‘straightened up from my bending posture to show that he [the British official] no longer deserved respect because he was bullying me’. Mortal man, he said, was liable to be blinded by greed, passion and ignorance. This was particularly true of the old British administration in Burma which knew little of the people or their religion. The British, of course, were not as corrupt as the Burmese ministers such as Ba Maw and U Saw. They were less tempted by money as such, but they still fell victim to ‘other attractions – in some cases women, and in other cases, flattery, platitudes and kow-towing’.

Paw Tun loathed British racism and arrogance, but he believed the Thakins were beneath contempt, merely low-class upstarts. What worried him was the way in which the Thakins and Japanese had rallied the monkhood and the faithful in his ‘priest-ridden country’. He noted how the Japanese were giving liberal donations to the Shwedagon Pagoda and how their commanders had liberally fed the monks and taken part in Burmese religious ceremonies. Despairing of the British, because Dorman-Smith seemed intent on bringing back the new plebeian Buddhism of the Thakins, Paw Tun slowly came to see that he had no future. It was this that lay behind his increasingly erratic behaviour and protacted bouts of illness.

SOURCE: Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire & the War with Japan, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Penguin, 2004), p. 354

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Vengeful Attacks on Burmese Buddhists, 1943

The negative consequence of the first Arakan campaign [on Burma’s border with Assam] was further to envenom relations between the Arakanese Buddhists and the local Muslim population. Zainuddin, a Muslim civil officer posted to the areas which the British temporarily reconquered in Arakan, wrote a confidential account of the hostility between the communities. The British Baluch troops in the area treated the local Buddhist population very badly, he recorded, telling them that the Muslims who had suffered at their hands during the Japanese invasion of the previous year ‘would take full revenge on the Arakanese “Mugs”‘. The coolies and other camp followers who flooded into the region in the wake of the British stole large numbers of local boats and brutalized the people. Zainuddin compared the British treatment of the civilian population very unfavourably with that of the Japanese. Indeed, [Viceroy of India] Wavell himself was worried by rumours that British troops had shot out of hand village headmen in Japanese-occupied areas. All in all, these events seem to reverse the usual stereotypes of Japanese brutality and British solicitude for the civilian population. They were also part of a pattern common to the whole crescent [of British colonies in Southeast Asia]: inter-community conflict became endemic in the wake of the fighting and would persist for at least a generation. Finally, Zainuddin delivered his most savage observation. On the appearance of the Japanese the indifferent and lethargic British troops ‘began to run as no deer had ever run when chased by a tiger’.

SOURCE: Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire & the War with Japan, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Penguin, 2004), pp. 275-276

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