Burmese Days

by Maniza Naqvi

“… How does our affair progress? I hope that, as dear Mr. Macgregor would say—U Po Kyin broke into English—eet ees making perceptible progress?”

Burmese-Days-3Burmese Days by George Orwell remains relentlessly relevant and a touchstone for cynics eight decades after it was written. The novel opens with U Po Kyin at age 56 thinking of his achievements with satisfaction—and plotting intrigue to further his interests. He thinks back to his first memory of the British troops with their weapons entering victoriously into Mandalay in 1885. “To fight on the side of the British, to become a parasite upon them, had been his ruling ambition even as a child. He does this by playing one side against the other, planting intrigues and solving them, always putting himself in the position of the problem solver, the loyalist to all—taking bribes and ruthlessly controlling everyone.” U Po Kyin's memory of British troops marching into town is set in the moment in which the oil company Burmah Oil is born in 1886 and when Burma became a province of Imperial India. (here, and here and here.)

George Orwell was in Burma in the Indian Imperial Police from 1922-1927 Eric Arthur Blair or George Orwell was born in India, on June 3, 1903 in Motihari Bihar (here). Orwell’s novel follows the trajectories of the ambitions and the psyches of Imperial administrators, their military officers, wives, concubines, their merchants and those who served them. The title of “U” has been bestowed on U Po Kyin for his services enroute his own trajectory from a lowly clerk to a minor official to a Sub divisional magistrate, through planting seditious activities and creating rebellions and quelling them himself so that he can demonstrate his loyalties to the Imperial masters by jailing adversaries while havig his fingers in every pot in his subdivision for personal gain and pleasure.

His good works of building Pagodas will ensure his next life. But in this life his most ardent desire is to be a member of the British Club:

“There was an English cemetery within a white wall half way down the hill, and nearby a tiny tin-roofed church. Beyond that was the European Club, and when one look at the Club—a dumpy one storey wooden building—one looked at the real centre of the town. In any town in India the European Club is the spiritual citadel, the real seat of the British power and the Nirvana for which native official and millionaires pine in vain. It was doubly so in this case, for it was the proud boast of Kyauktada Club that, almost alone of Clubs in Burma, it had never admitted an Oriental to its membership. Beyond the Club, the Irrawaddy flowed huge and ochreous, glittering like diamonds in the patches that caught the sun; and beyond the river stretched great wastes of paddy fields, ending at the horizon in a range of blackish hills.”

“How does our affair progress?” Eet ees making perceptible progress?” U Po Kyin asks a minion this question about the intrigue he has planted of sedition—against a British officer in a local newspaper. He does this to destroy his rival a Burmese doctor favored for the membership at the club. Only one native, if any, can be chosen to join. He will create a situation, quell it himself and then be a hero to the British and demonstrate his worthiness and loyalty to be a member of the club. He wants to prove the doctor’s disloyalty to the British. He is questioned on the impossibility of this eventuality by his co-conspirator. “Nonsense, nonsense, said U Po Kyin comfortably “No European cares anything about proofs. When a man has a black face, suspicion is proof.”

The much loved, adulated, embraced, respected, accepted Oxford educated Daw Aung San Suu Kyi who was confined for twenty years in her lake side family home in Rangoon, by the ruling military Junta which had confined Burma from the rest of the world—was released by the Junta in late 2010. She is the daughter of the late Major General Aung San who led the Guerrilla fight against the Japanese occupation and is considered the father of the Burmese Army. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s release was followed by visits to Myanmar by Mrs. Clinton on November 30, 2011 at the heels of the visit by the British International Development Minister on November 15, 2011. The UK Foreign Secretary William Hague was there after Mrs. Clinton on January 2012.

Since then, she has spoken eloquently in many forums abroad and at home. She visited Thailand in May 2012 (here). In June Ms Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to much applause and fanfare to International forums in Europe. She addressed both houses of the British Parliament on June 21, 2012 (speech video) in Oslo she accepted her Nobel Peace Prize on June 16, 2012(speech video) and she sent a message to the World Economic Forum in Davos (message here). She is to visit the US in September 2012 (here).

The US has in July 2012 lifted the embargo on US companies mainly Oil and Gas to make investments in Burma. “Today, the United States is easing restrictions to allow U.S. companies to responsibly do business in Burma.” The announcement came hours after Derek Mitchell, the first U.S. ambassador to Myanmar in 22 years, presented his credentials in the Asian nation’s remote capital. Washington has normalized diplomatic relations, the culmination of a three-year push to help Myanmar out of international isolation and lessen its reliance on its chief but distrusted ally, China.” The Washington Post reported this on July 11, 2011 (here.). The newspaper commented that “the statement credited reformist President Thein Sein and democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi for continued progress toward democracy but also voiced deep concern over the murky investment environment.” President Thein Sein who was a Lt. General in the Burmese military was appointed as interim Prime Minister in 2007 and was sworn in as President in March 2011. (Here)

In Burmese Days, Orwell writes in, a detail which, becomes even more vivid now and stands out in the July of 2012, as the US ends the embargo on US business investments in oil and gas, Aung San Suu Kyi emerges as a member in the establishment and the violence against the Rohingya erupts. The Orwellian detail is right there in his second paragraph of the novel Burmese Days written in the 1920s: U Po Kyin a 56 year old Subdivisional Magistrate of the fictional Kyauktada in Upper Burma (most probably Katha in the now Sagaing Division) wears an Arkanese longyi. “It is a vivid Arkanese longyi with green and magenta checks which the Burmese wear on informal occasions.”

The name of Rakhine state was Arakan, whose ancient name was Rohang from which the word Rohingya is derived. There are two communities in this State: the Rohingyas who are Muslims and the Rakhines who are Buddhists. The State’s name was changed to Rakhine state. There is an important detail that needs to be mentioned here, the Rohingya happen to have oil beneath their homeland. (Arakan Oil Watch: Youtube documentary in Burmese Part I and Part II)

In Burmese Days, U Po Kyin achieves the Club membership, through much tragedy caused to others and is finally promoted to a Deputy Assistant Commissioner and is decorated by the Raj for his services. At the award cermony the commendation which is read out appreciates: “To U Po Kyin, Deputy Assistant Commissioner, retired, for long and loyal service and especially his timely aid in crushing “a most dangerous rebellion in Kyauktada district.”

Hillary Clinton, after much hugging and kissing of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and photographs with the human rights icon and cause célèbre during the visit in November 2011 later told reporters in April 2012 that she had told Aung San Suu Kyi that Aung San was moving from being an icon to a politician (here). There is, of course the Hollywood film, The Lady, about Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi which was released in April 2012 (trailer here) and Secretary Clinton made this remark to reporters at the premier for the movie.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi won a by-election for a seat in Parliament in April 2012 and joined the Parliament as an MP in early July 2012. In June this year the violence began anew against the Rohingyas who have faced systematic discrimination and what can be termed as acts of ethnic cleansing by the State. (here, here, here).

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi lauded by the world for her twenty year confinement to her home, is in her homeland, confining her thoughts and remaining silent about the systematic ethnic cleansing, statelessness and homelessness of her countrymen, the Rohingyas.

“How does our affair progress?”

Other Writings by Maniza Naqvi (here):