Here and There – Myanmar

I have been to several countries where I have not been able to speak the local language.  With smiles, and the fact that English is so universal, I have usually managed to get along just fine.  There is only one country which I visited where I felt a little uncomfortable:  not just because of language, although it was a challenge, but because it didn’t seem particularly welcoming.  At the time I thought the problem was largely of my own making:  looking back I can see it was my misunderstanding.  In many ways, Myanmar has had a sad history, especially in the past 300 years, and current circumstances are worse.

I had wanted to visit Myanmar for years.  Who wouldn’t.  It is the largest country by area in mainland Southeast Asia, with a population around 55m.  Centrally located, it is bordered by Bangladesh and India to the northwest, China to  the northeast, and Laos and Thailand to the southeast.  It has an extraordinary past.  There is evidence cultures existed in Burma as early as 11,000 BCE.   By about 1500 BCE, people in the region were turning copper into bronze, growing rice, and domesticating chickens and pigs; they were among the first people in the world to do so.  By 500 BCE, iron-working settlements began in the south, and rice growing settlements traded with China between 500 BCE and 200 CE.  Today, Myanmar is a member of ASEAN, although it is not a member of the UK’s Commonwealth despite once being part of the British Empire.   The country is rich in natural resources, including jade, gemstones, oil, natural gas, timber (especially teak) and other minerals.  However, despite all this, it has a long history of instability, factional violence, corruption, poor infrastructure, as well as colonial exploitation.  It  ranks 147 out of 189 countries in terms of human development.

The political history of Myanmar is complex.  The Pyu entered the Irrawaddy valley from present-day Yunnan, around the 2nd century BCE, and went on to found city-states throughout the Irrawaddy valley. They were the earliest inhabitants of Burma for whom records exist.  During this period, Burma was part of an overland trade route from China to India, which brought  Buddhism to the country.  Eighth-century Chinese records identify 18 Pyu states throughout the Irrawaddy valley, describing the Pyu as a humane and peaceful people with little evidence of warfare and who wore silk cotton instead of actually silk so that they would not have to kill silkworms.  The Pyu created a civilisation that lasted nearly a millennium to the early 9th century, when a group of ‘swift horsemen’ from the north, the Bamars, entered the upper Irrawaddy valley. In the early 9th century, the Pyu city-states of Upper Burma came under constant attacks, and by the mid-to-late 9th century, Pagan was founded as a fortified settlement along a strategic location on the Irrawaddy.

By the early 12th century, Pagan had emerged as a major power alongside the Khmer Empire in Southeast Asia, recognised by Song China, and the Chola dynasty of India. Well into the mid-13th century, most of mainland Southeast Asia was under some degree of control of either the Pagan Empire or the Khmer Empire.  The kingdom went into decline in the 13th century as the continuous growth of tax-free religious wealth ate into revenues:  by the 1280s, two-thirds of Upper Burma’s cultivable land had been alienated to religious purposes, limiting the emperor’s ability to retain the loyalty of courtiers and military servicemen. This ushered in a vicious cycle of internal disorders and external challenges by Mons, Mongols and Shans.  It was a period of constant change which lasted for nearly six centuries.

All that changed in the early years of the 19th Century.  Can you guess who turned up?  Raids by the British from British India led to the first of several wars.  The British, alarmed by the consolidation of French Indochina, annexed the country in stages, and sent the last Burmese king and his family into exile.  Britain made Burma an Indian province, with its capital at Rangoon. Traditional Burmese society was drastically altered with the end of the monarchy and the separation of religion and state.  While the Burmese economy grew, most of the power and wealth remained in the hands of several British firms:  oh dear, that wasn’t good.  Inevitably, around the start of the 20th century a nationalist movement began to take shape.

This accelerated when some Burmese nationalists saw the outbreak of World War II as an opportunity to extort concessions from the British in exchange for support in the war effort.  Other Burmese opposed Burma’s participation in the war under any circumstances.  When the Japanese occupied Bangkok in December 1941, Aung San announced the formation of the Burma Independence Army (BIA) in anticipation of the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942.   The BIA formed a provisional government in some areas of the country in the spring of 1942, During the war in 1942, the BIA grew rapidly, even recruiting  criminals .  It was reorganised as the Burma Defence Army (BDA) under the Japanese but still headed by Aung San.  When the Japanese declared Burma independent in 1943, it soon became apparent that Japanese promises of independence were merely a sham.  As the war turned against the Japanese, they declared Burma a fully sovereign state on 1 August 1943, but it was just another lie.  Under Japanese occupation, it’s estimated some 170,000 to 250,000 civilians died.

After the war ended, the restored British government put in place a program that focused on physical reconstruction of the country, but delayed discussion of independence.  However, in 1947 Thakin Nu, the Socialist leader, was asked to form a new cabinet, and he pushed through the declaration of independence for Burma in January 1948.  The desire to get rid of the British was so strong that the Burmese opted not to join the UK’s Commonwealth of Nations, unlike India or Pakistan.  Instability continued, as I’ll explore a little later, but to give a sense of its continuing challenges, since 2021 more than 600,000 people have been displaced across Myanmar due to the surge in violence following a military coup, with more than 3 million people in dire need of humanitarian assistance.  A deeply troubled country.

My initial appreciation and interest in Burma were the result of studying social anthropology.  As an undergraduate, one of the books that had a massive impact on my understanding of countries, cultures and change was The Political Systems of Highland Burma, by Edmund Leach.  He had been a (mature) student at the London School of Economics, his supervisor Raymond Firth, who had played a major role in rescuing social anthropology from the physical anthropologists and was a proponent of ethnographic studies where the researcher was embedded with the people he wanted to study. After some other, smaller studies, in 1939, Leach set off to study the people of the Kachin Hills of Burma.  The timing was a disaster.  World War II began, and Leach joined the Burma Army,  He was to remain with the military from the Autumn of 1939 through to the summer 1945.

It wasn’t quite the ethnographic field study he had anticipated.  Working most of the time with guerrilla forces, often behind enemy lines, the social anthropologist became an army  Major.   During his time in Burma, Leach acquired extensive knowledge of Northern Burma and its many hill tribes. In particular, he grew very familiar with the Kachin people, even serving as commander of the Kachin irregular forces.  Through what were often demanding and dangerous situations, he kept notes on the hill people, in the belief he would eventually get back to London and complete his research.  Did I say demanding?  At one point he lost all his notes to that point, but he persevered.   Once he retired from the Army in 1946, he returned to the LSE to complete his dissertation.  That was to provide the basis for The Political Systems of Highland Burma.  As for his military adventures, I haven’t yet found anything he wrote about that side of his six years in Burma during the war.

I studied social anthropology as an undergraduate, and my supervisor was Edmund Leach.  However, my involvement in social anthropology came to an end some fifty years ago, and anything other than a very brief overview of this key book would be both misleading and out of touch with more recent thinking.  Sufficient to say, ‘Political Systems’ is concerned with the Kachin and Shan population of North-East Burma.  There had been previous research studies in the region, and Edmund Leach didn’t claim that he had uncovered new or detailed data about these hill tribes.  However, he took a rather different approach, and suggested that what he saw was an “an oscillation between the Kachin ‘republican’ political system (gumlao) and the Shan ‘aristocratic’ system (gumsha)”.  In this, he drew on the indigenous concepts of territorial division, kinship, ownership, the supernatural and authority, showing how a group could and did reconceptualise itself as Kachin at one point, and Shan at another.  By and large, the Kachin saw themselves as hill-dwelling, and the Shan as the occupants of the valleys, but oscillation, or reimagining, was the key factor he analysed.

To say I was delighted when I had an opportunity to visit Myanmar would be an understatement.  Burma as the country’s official name had ended in 1989.  The name change was the result of unrest over economic mismanagement and political oppression by the government, which had led to widespread pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the country in 1988, known as the 8888 Uprising.   Security forces killed thousands of demonstrators, and General Saw Maung staged a coup d’état and formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).  The role was as ominous as the title suggests.  In 1989, SLORC declared martial law after widespread protests. The military government finalised plans for People’s Assembly elections on 31 May 1989.  SLORC changed the country’s official English name from the ‘Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma’ to the ‘Union of Myanmar’ on 18 June 1989 by enacting the adoption of its ‘expression law’.

Despite this, my timing was fortuitous.  In May 1990, the government held free multiparty elections for the first time in almost 30 years, and the National League for Democracy, the NLD, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, won the election, with 392 of the 492 seats.  It seemed change was in the air.  On 23 June 1997, Myanmar was admitted into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.  However, the military junta refused to cede power, and continued to rule the nation, first as SLORC and, from 1997, as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) until its dissolution in March 2011.   In November 2005, the military junta, announced it would move the national capital from Yangon (Rangoon) to a site near Pyinmana.  On 27 March 2006, the new capital was officially named Naypyidaw, ‘city of the kings’.  But almost all of that was in the future, and I arrived in Yangon in what seemed like a time of thawing.  Visitors were encouraged, and hotels were welcoming.

I was in Yangon for business.  A colleague was providing support for a local businessman, whose major source of income came from bottling and selling whisky, as well as other drinks.  As I recall, the businessman was seeking two levels of assistance.  On the one hand, he wanted advice on business development, and building links with other countries in SE Asia.  On that I had little to offer, but my colleague, leading this exercise, had a key role to play there.  On the other hand, he wanted to develop the business acumen of his board and senior staff, in large part because most of them had limited exposure to business practice overseas, let alone to being entrepreneurial and innovative.  Business in Myanmar had been sheltered by the government and its regulations, and development was under the watchful eyes of the military leadership.  This is where I could offer some help.

When I arrived in Myanmar, if one thing was striking it was the comparison between Yangon in the late 1990s and Malaysia in the 1970s.  In terms of infrastructure, they seemed remarkably similar.  Vehicles were old, often belching exhaust fumes.  Roads were poor, many (most) unsealed, with potholes and few signs, warning or directional.  Most buildings looked old, with the typical Asian pattern of numerous air conditioners poking out of walls, accompanied by steadily dripping water.  The public transport system was impenetrable to visitors, who used taxis.  Fortunately, most taxi drivers spoke at least some English.

However, the people were different.  At one level there was the same overall range of behaviours on display, from hard-working businesspeople through to largely indolent onlookers.  That wasn’t surprising.  What was distinctive was the role of the monks.  They were very visible, and, strangely, reminded me of my time in Eire where the monks there were involved in everyday life, rather than restricted to religious precincts and ceremonial activities.  Like an outsider in any country, I had little sense of their role in society, nor did I know about divisions and schisms.  Now we know the monks were divided, some in radical groups opposed to the military government, others its supporters.  At the time, I lacked the sensitivity and experience to pick up the signs that differentiated one from the other.

One curious yet symbolic event came with changing money.  The places where it was possible to use credit cards/charge cards were limited, and currency exchange was tricky.  Knowing I would want to change some money, I had brought US dollars with me.  They were new, almost untouched by hand, but the bank examined with a great deal of displeasure.  Only virgin  notes were acceptable.  Mine only just met scrutiny.

Our business meetings were encouraging.  The Yangon arm of the business was the manufacturer for both soft drinks and whisky.  The CEO was an entrepreneur, operating in other part of SE Asia, and with links to major international companies.  He was well aware that he could see needs and opportunities that most of his staff couldn’t imagine.  I think he believed we could set up a staff development program, possibly in Yangon, or in Thailand or even Singapore, and these would develop the skills and understanding needed by his key staff.  At the time we were meeting, he was carrying most of the business himself, and desperately need to grow a strong team to support him.  The discussions were positive, and we began to develop a plan for implementation over the next year or so.  It never happened.

We all know history and expectations can trick you.  When I was in Yangon, I assumed that the country was slowly developing, and the new, elected government was gently moving the  nation forward.  Could I have sensed another crackdown was about to take place?  I thought the plans for a new capital in Naypyidaw were indicative that Myanmar was going to eliminate associations with the past.  Visitors were welcome, there’d been elections.  It was easy to gloss over the fact that for most of time since independence, the country had been engulfed in widespread ethnic strife, and there had been, in effect, an ongoing civil war, as the military sought to constrain or even eliminate ethnic groups away from the major cities.

In fact, I’d been a visitor during a brief interlude, at a time when Myanmar seemed to be progressing.  In 1991 Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and advocated a non-violent path for change in Myanmar.  It must have been like a red rag to a bull.  Despite her efforts, democracy was fragile, and when her party won a clear majority in both houses in the 2020 elections, the military seized absolute power once again.  A coup d’état saw Aung San Suu Kyi imprisoned.  The country’s military dictatorship continues its policy of  ethnic genocide, and the hopes of the early 1990’s are entirely dashed.  I’ll never go back there.