Yangon Central station

Burmese days: for good and ill

There was much naivety in depicting the Anglo-Burmese engagement as one of mutual enlightenment


This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Travelling through newly independent Burma in 1952, Norman Lewis concluded that the country:

has freed itself from Western domination almost with the ease of removing an unwanted garment. As a result, no trace of bitterness remains, and a Westerner can travel with at least as much safety as a Burmese from one end of the country to the other, meeting, as I did, with nothing but the most genial and touching hospitality.

The great travel writer was beguiled by the charm of the Burmese. He believed they had a promising future so long as they stayed true to their strengths and traditions and didn’t try to replicate Western consumerism.

These hopes were half-realised, albeit not as Lewis envisaged. In the ensuing decades of ethnic revolts, communist insurgencies, brutal military dictatorship and grotesque human rights abuse, the Burmese Road to Socialism indeed isolated its people from Western influence, causing unimaginable suffering in the process. 

It was a response to the pre-independence introduction of modern infrastructure, finance, commerce, mass Indian immigration and the industrialised exploration of natural resources which had collided with the country’s pious, highly localised and disparate agrarian societies. Colonial Burma’s more thoughtful Britons struggled to reconcile self-justification for being there — bringing modernity to an ostensibly medieval land — with an appreciation that there was nevertheless something mystical and admirable in what they took to be the stasis of Burmese civilisation.

Maymyo Days: Forgotten Lives of a Burma Hill Station, Stephen Simmons (River Books, £30)

This contradiction runs through Stephen Simmons’ Maymyo Days, a richly illustrated and rewarding collection of vignettes of colonial-era characters who lived in or passed through the hill station of Maymyo. Between 1900 and 1948 this town was the Anglo-Burmese version of Simla, serving as the summer capital in the months when the heat of Rangoon (modern-day Yangon) became too enervating. 

Named after a siege of Lucknow veteran, Colonel James May, Maymyo (literally May Town, now Pyin Oo Lwin) is perched above 3,000 feet in the Shan highlands, 40 miles east of Mandalay. Occupying bungalows and Stockbroker Tudor villas with names such as Camberley, Lovedale and Candacraig (now in varying degrees of upkeep), its residents enjoyed cooling elevation above the dacoity, humidity and hardships that enveloped the forests and paddy fields below. 

Even George Orwell, recalling his brief posting there, praised Maymyo’s “cool sweet air that might be that of England, and all round you are green grass, bracken, fir-trees and hill-women with pink cheeks selling baskets of strawberries”. This Weybridge Shangri-La was, as another of its dwellers assured, “conspicuously un-oriental, more like a corner of Surrey than Burma”. Simmons largely ignores the comings and goings of the governors to their summer capital. His focus is on the artists, photographers, writers, map-makers and foresters who spent time in the hill station. He assembles a beguiling cast, most (but not all) British. 

The governor’s house at Maymyo (now Pyin Oo Lwin)

Amongst them are Charlotte Wheeler-Cuffe, who helped establish the impressive, still blooming, botanic gardens, and her horticultural collaborator, Rodway Swinhoe, an energetic lawyer, watercolourist and innovator in what would now be called microfinance lending. It was Swinhoe who organised the Burma Pavilion at the 1924 Empire Exhibition bringing the country’s traditional arts, crafts, goods and dance routines to 27 million visitors during an 18-month run at Wembley. 

But not all was rosy. There were jealousies, suicide and the seemingly motiveless and unsolved murder in 1931 of the surveyor Henry Morshead, who had accompanied George Mallory on the 1921 and 1922 Everest expeditions. There was also considerable scope for boredom. The romantic novelist, Beth Ellis, described the social scene in the first years of Maymyo’s development: 

At the foot of the club house stands a tiny, one-roomed mat hut, the most unpretentious building I ever beheld, universally known by the imposing title of “The Ladies’ Club”. Here, two or more ladies of the station nightly assemble for an hour before dinner to read the two-month-old-magazines, to search vainly through the shelves of the “library” for a book they have not read more than three times, and discuss the iniquities of the native cook and to pass votes of censure on the male sex for condemning them to such an insignificant building.

Ellis’ guileless account, An English Girl’s First Impressions of Burmah (1899), depicted a contented, carefree Burmese culture coexisting with the pompous yet well-intentioned British settlers. There was much naivety in depicting the Anglo-Burmese engagement as one of mutual enlightenment, but many Britons who gave their lives in the development of “the golden land” imagined it to be so and, as Simmons shows, were keenly interested in the culture into which they intruded. 

Burma Sahib, Paul Theroux (Hamish Hamilton, £20)

This is a useful corrective, given that the popular perception of British rule in the land of pagodas has been so firmly shaped by George Orwell’s Burmese Days. Orwell maintained the drunk racists and club bores of his 1934 novel were drawn from the parasites of the Imperial mission he came to despise.

Readers seeking to weigh the fragmentary evidence from Orwell’s five years as a colonial policeman in 1920s Burma need look no further than D.J. Taylor’s outstanding biography, Orwell, The New Life. But for those seeking a plausible reimagining of how Burma turned Eric Blair into George Orwell there is Paul Theroux’s latest novel, Burma Sahib.

Burma offered the 19-year-old Etonian the freedom to become whoever he wanted to be, which he came to realise was certainly not an enforcer of colonial order. In one telling scene, Theroux has an exasperated major lecturing the hapless young police officer because he has not only failed to apprehend a local madman from fouling a pagoda but, worse, has done so in front of an unimpressed crowd of villagers: 

What is the greatest threat to order in Burma? It is the natives seeing us as ineffectual, a British policeman looking a fool. And why? Because they will take advantage. 

Whether Orwell’s 1936 essay “Shooting an Elephant” was an entirely faithful account is unclear, but his admission that “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool” finds echoes in Theroux’s imaginative explanation of how Burma shaped Orwell’s subsequent antipathy to the exercise of authoritarian power.

Theroux witnessed the remnants of Burma’s colonial legacy and the grim regime that replaced it in his celebrated 1975 book The Great Railway Bazaar. Certainly, there is an expectation that travel writers find romance in the railways, particularly older ones. On the Shadow Tracks is therefore something new: a book about railways that evinces no love for trains. 

On The Shadow Tracks: A Journey through Occupied Myanmar, Clare Hammond (Allen Lane, £25)

Its author, Clare Hammond, formerly a journalist based in Myanmar (as Burma was renamed by its military junta in 1989) has explored as deeply into the country as it is safe to go. She interprets the expansion of its rail network under the dictatorship of General Than Shwe (1992 — 2011) as the government’s preferred method of crushing regional identities and rights.

Those of us who lived in Myanmar and boarded trains  to get around should check the impulse to believe the locals were happier when their horizons were limited to an ox-cart’s plod. It is like Norman Lewis’ aspirations that the Burmese might better enjoy their past as he packed his bags to leave for the aerodrome. Yet this is an important book. Hammond has uncovered horrifying evidence of how Myanmar’s military junta has systematically used railway construction as a tool of oppression.

Rather than desperately-needed investment in health and education, Than Shwe prioritised driving railway tracks into difficult terrain primarily as a means of bringing Myanmar’s ethnic regions under his jackboot. The regions derived no economic benefit: their stolen resources funded the generals’ lifestyles. Indeed, Hammond is told that “Myanma Railways is a retirement home for veterans”

In some cases, line operation is leased to armed drug racketeers. Elsewhere, lines appear to have no economic rationale beyond appropriating land along the route and getting soldiers to the frontline. Remarkably, international aid money, including the UN Development Programme, helped fund these ventures in theft and brutality. As Hammond points out, “UN officials were so accustomed to seeing development as a solution to conflict, rather than its cause, that they failed to interrogate who exactly the beneficiaries would be or the harms it might cause.” 

Hammond travelled south into Tanintharyi where in the 1990s the line was constructed with forced labour. Rounded up at gunpoint, the villagers had to bring their own tools, were not paid (Hammond avoids the emotive word “slaves” but effectively that’s what they were) and thousands died or were never seen again — a “Second Death Railway” to succeed the one the Imperial Japanese Army infamously drove through the same region 50 years earlier.

At least that wartime atrocity is now remembered. Hammond’s book provides harrowing testimony that, hidden from our attention, Myanmar’s junta continues to leave its peoples’ blood on the tracks. 

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