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The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma, страница 1


The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma

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The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma




  To my son, Thurayn-Harri

  Table of Contents

  Title Page





















  About the Author



  Just a few months after graduating from university in 1988, I found myself living uncomfortably but contentedly in a Burmese rebel base camp, a sometimes dusty and sometimes muddy sprawl of bamboo and thatch huts, the misty malarial rain forests of the Tennasserim hills in the near distance and young, determined-looking men and women in emerald-green uniforms milling all around.

  The late morning hikes to lecture through the New England snow and slush, the long conversations over starchy dining hall meals, the spring garden parties, my friends off to medical school or their first jobs on Wall Street all seemed many worlds away. But at least for a little while I felt a sense of purpose, a sense that I was at the right place doing the right thing. Everything seemed exciting, the atmosphere always vibrant.

  In August and September of that year, waves of antigovernment demonstrations had rocked Burma’s military dictatorship to its very foundations. When the uprising was finally and violently crushed, thousands of university students, from Rangoon and elsewhere, trekked over the mountains to the jungles near the border with Thailand, attempting not to flee but to regroup and restart their abortive revolution. They hoped for American support and American arms. There were rumors that American Special Forces were on their way. Some said an American battleship was already anchored offshore in the balmy waters of the Andaman Sea.

  Though I had largely grown up outside Burma, I wanted as much as anyone to see real and immediate change in a country that had been sealed off by an army dictatorship since before I was born, and I was happy to team up with others of similar conviction. But I was always against violent change, not so much on principle but because I didn’t think it could work, and soon fell out with those keen on an armed revolt. I spent nearly a year in Bangkok, trying to help Burmese refugees, and then moved to Washington, where I worked with Human Rights Watch and lobbied for more effective U.S. action. I believed that maximum pressure would yield results and advocated economic sanctions.

  But then I had my doubts. I came to believe that using sanctions and boycotts to isolate further an already isolated government and society was counterproductive. I was no longer sure what the most appropriate answer was. And so I stopped lobbying, removed myself from the Burma scene, and began a career with the United Nations, then in its post–cold war heyday. I served for a few years in peacekeeping operations, first in Phnom Penh and then in Sarajevo, places even worse off than Burma but where the international community would eventually take (at least in my mind) an altogether more complex and determined approach.

  From Sarajevo I went back to university, this time for graduate work in modern history. I had always been interested in Burmese history, and I chose as my thesis topic the middle decades of Burma’s nineteenth century, when the ancient kingdom teetered for a while on its last legs before being vanquished by the vigorous men of Victorian England. I was fascinated by this troubled period in Burma’s past, when a Burmese government had tried to reform and failed, and by how this had helped determine the course of colonialism in the country. I began to think more about the ways in which Burma’s past influenced the present.

  This book is my account of Burma’s past. It focuses on the recent past and includes stories from my own family. Though the book is roughly chronological, we start somewhere near the middle, in the autumn of 1885, when the last king at Mandalay sat nervously on the throne, when the London press relayed accounts of palace atrocities, demanding that something be done, and when British politicians plotted and planned how best to remedy, once and for all, the “Burma problem.” It’s not meant as a book for experts or primarily as a commentary on today’s problems but as a guide to the Burmese past, an introduction to a country whose current problems are increasingly known but whose colorful and vibrant history is almost entirely forgotten.

  Since 1988, Burma has emerged from the shadows to assume an unenviable place in the international community, as a pariah to the West and as a concern to almost everyone else. Once known, if at all, as an exotic Buddhist land with few of the worries of the twentieth century, it’s now become a poster child for more nightmarish twenty-first-century ills, a failed or failing state, repressive and unable to cope with looming humanitarian challenges, a place whose long-enduring government seems mysteriously unwilling to cede power.

  But I don’t think this is the only way to think about Burma.

  Burma has always stood along the highways of Asia, connecting China, India, Tibet, and the many and varied civilizations of Southeast Asia. Her history links to the history of all these lands and beyond. Who remembers that envoys from Rome’s eastern provinces traveled through Burma to discover the markets of Han China? That in the sixteenth century Portuguese pirates, Japanese renegade samurai, and Persian princes jockeyed for power at the court of Arakan? Or the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824–26, when the rockets and steamships of the East India Company battled the elephants and musketeers of the king of Ava?

  And closer to today, when thinking of Burma, who remembers the legacies of a century of British colonialism, the devastations of the Second World War, the bloody civil war of the late 1940s, or the Chinese invasions of the early 1950s?

  I wrote this book also with an eye to what the past might say about the present. Since the 1988 uprising, Burma has been the object of myriad good-faith efforts, by the United Nations, dozens of governments, hundreds of NGOs, and thousands of activists, all trying to promote democratic reform. But the net result has been disappointing at best and may very well have had the unintended consequence of further entrenching the status quo and holding back positive change. And, given that result, I think it is no coincidence that analysis of Burma has been singularly ahistorical, with few besides scholars of the country bothering to consider the actual origins of today’s predicament. We fail to consider history at our peril, not only, I suspect, in the case of Burma, but in that of many other “crisis countries” around the world.



  The divinity most worshiped in Burma is precedence.

  —Captain Henry Yule, Mission to the Court of Ava1


  He was anxious for the health of his wife and their unborn child. More than a few of the old courtiers had already advised him to flee to the villages of his ancestors. Others told him to give in. But his generals, severe in their lacquered helmets and green and magenta velvet coats, promised they would do their best to hold back the advance of the enemy; some even voiced confidence of final victory. They reminded him of the imposing fortifications that had been built up and down the valley, and of the royal steamships
and smaller boats that would soon be scuttled to make the passage upriver as difficult as possible. Even the underwater explosives his young engineers had been busy developing would soon be ready for use. Too many soldiers were tied down fighting renegade princes in the eastern hills, but there were still enough men to put up a good fight.

  The high crenellated walls of the royal city of Mandalay had been built in the days of his father for exactly this situation. The vermilion ramparts formed a perfect square and were each over a mile long, backed by massive earthworks and preceded by a wide and deep moat. If the invading army could be drawn into a long siege, he could direct a guerrilla operation from beyond the forests to the north.

  The rains had just ended, and in the brilliant sunshine he could see his cavalry practicing in the muddy fields not far from the palace. But whatever his generals said, in his heart he knew that in the last analysis his little army was no match for the force assembling just three hundred miles to the south. But what was the alternative? Surrender? His more worldly ministers, men who had traveled to the West, told him to compromise, stall for time, open negotiations. He should avoid a military conflict at all costs and agree to all their demands if necessary. But did he trust them? There were rumors that the enemy would bring his elder half brother, now eight years in exile, and place him on the throne. The kingdom would become a protectorate. Perhaps this is what his noble advisers wanted.

  His wife told him to stand firm and prepare for war.


  General Sir Harry North Dalrymple Prendergast was born in India in 1834 to an Anglo-Irish family long familiar with service on the subcontinent. His father, Thomas Prendergast, had been a magistrate in Madras and after a long spell in India had retired to Cheltenham, gone blind, and then made a small fortune writing a series of trend-setting handbooks entitled The Mastery of Languages or the Art of Speaking Foreign Tongues Idiomatically.

  Harry Prendergast himself was a distinguished soldier. During the Indian Mutiny he had fought with the Malwa Field Force. Ten years later he had taken part in the putative invasion of Abyssinia and was present when Lord Napier and his combined British and Indian army stormed and then destroyed Emperor Theodore’s mountain fortress of Magdala. More recently he had become obsessed with the idea of himself commanding an invasion of Burma, personally leading reconnaissance runs near the long frontier. And now, after years of planning and bureaucratic scheming, his dream was coming true.

  His Burma Field Force consisted of ten thousand troops. It included three infantry brigades, one from the Bengal Army, one from the Madras Army, and a third brigade under the command of fellow Irishman Brigadier George Stuart White.2 Sailing from Rangoon, Prendergast arrived

  in Madras toward the end of October, just as the various parts of his new army were busy getting ready along the glacis of Fort St. George. It was to be a textbook operation. Plans and preparations would follow the latest thinking in military science, and nothing was to be left to chance. Torrential rains swept across the docks, and hundreds of Indian coolies labored to load big wooden crates, each neatly packed with supplies for any eventuality, onto the tall ships moored off the Coromandel coast. On 2 November, as an enormous thunderstorm broke over the south Indian city, the governor of the Madras Presidency, the Honorable Grant Duff, hosted Prendergast and his senior officers to a lavish dinner in honor of the coming campaign. Everything was set.

  Within days, Prendergast’s fleet was gliding swiftly over the bluegreen waters of the Bay of Bengal, past the mangrove swamps and jungle hamlets of the Irrawaddy Delta, reaching the frontiers of the inland kingdom on 6 November. Anchored and waiting along the banks of the river, the flotilla stretched nearly five miles long. Forty shiny new Maxim guns, the world’s first machine guns, were lifted onto the steamship Kathleen. A few years ago their inventor, Hiram Maxim (later Sir Hiram), visited the Paris Electrical Exhibition and was told by a man he met there: “If you want to make a lot of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility.” He relocated to London and went to work, proudly unveiling his product earlier that year.3 The Maxim guns had a belt that could continually feed ammunition. They could fire five hundred rounds a minute. This was their debut. Not yet on the battlefields of Flanders but to be first tried and tested on the road to Mandalay.

  On 13 November a steamer belonging to the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company crossed the border from Burmese territory with news that eight thousand of the king’s troops were massing at the Minhla fort just to the north. The same afternoon Prendergast received a telegram from the India Office in London: The Burmese reply to a British ultimatum had been unsatisfactory. Prendergast was ordered to invade at once.


  Burma’s watershed year, 1885, separating its past from its modern age,

  was also a year of considerable change and ferment around the world. For the first time in a long while, Great Britain was facing increasing competition overseas from other imperial and rising powers: the Germans, the French, the Russians, and even the Americans. The United States, then under the bachelor president Grover Cleveland, had yet to acquire many territories overseas, but was well on the way toward unparalleled economic power. By 1885 American railways stretched westward to the beaches of California, and the relentless demand for steel and oil were creating fortunes for the Rockefellers and the Carnegies. It was in 1885 that the phonograph was invented, American Telephone and Telegraph welcomed its first customers, and all nine stories of the world’s first skyscraper were built in Chicago. It was also the year that the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York, together with tens of thousands of the country’s first immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe.

  In February 1885 the Congress of Berlin formally parceled out the continent of Africa among half a dozen European powers in a sort of gala opening to an imperialist age that would lead to a fifth of the world’s landmass falling under colonial rule over the next thirty years. But this moment of uninhibited expansionist frenzy also contained within it the first seeds of imperialism’s eventual demise. In Bombay in the last few weeks of the year, seventy or so Indian lawyers, educators, and journalists came together to set up the Indian National Congress, the organization that one day, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru, would help take Burma, as well as India, on the path to independence.

  For England, 1885 started off quite badly. For months, the slowmotion fall of Khartoum had been reported graphically over the tabloids, and the death of General Charles “Chinese” Gordon in February had set off a wave of anger, much of it directed at the Liberal government of the country’s long-standing prime minister, William Gladstone. General Gordon had won renown in the 1860s in China, where he led the multinational “Ever-Victorious Army” on behalf of the emperor against the Taiping rebels. And in 1884, having had no clear policy on the growing mess in the Sudan, the Gladstone government sent General Gordon, hoping that he could deal single-handedly with the Mahdist rebellion or at least find a way to withdraw the besieged Anglo-Egyptian garrison.

  But inasmuch as distant imperial wars grabbed the headlines, the real story for many was the increasingly polarized debate over Irish home rule. Both the Liberals and the opposition Conservatives were genuinely split on the question of Ireland’s future, and recent violent unrest on the island led to new coercive measures. Charles Stewart Parnell, a politician and Protestant landowner, had become the undisputed leader of the Irish nationalist movement. And because the 1884 Reform Act had extended the vote to millions of new people, including agricultural workers in Ireland, Parnell was now a major force in Westminster politics, holding the balance of power between the two main parties. When the Liberal government fell over budget issues in June 1885, it was through the combined vote of the Conservatives and Parnell’s Irish members of Parliament. A new Conservative ministry, under the earl of Salisbury, was to govern until general elections could be held. And in this n
ew Conservative “caretaker” ministry the man who would direct India policy, and thus Burma policy as well, was Lord Randolph Churchill.

  Churchill was the third son of the seventh duke of Marlborough and the father of Winston Churchill (then eleven years old). He had been educated at Eton and Merton College, Oxford, where he had been a prizewinning pugilist, and was a rising star in the Conservative Party. For the past five years he had been an important member of Parliament, targeting not only the Liberal government of Gladstone but also his own Conservative front bench. By 1885 Churchill saw himself championing his own brand of “progressive conservatism,” declaring his support for popular reforms and seeking to challenge the Liberals for the votes of the newly enfranchised working class. He also worked hard to win over Parnell. When Gladstone’s government was defeated, many in his party credited Churchill as the “organizer of victory.” As a reward, the new prime minister made him the secretary of state for India. He was thirty-six years old.

  Over the summer, with elections several months away, Churchill decided to contest the radical stronghold of Birmingham. The early 1880s had seen bad economic times in many parts of Europe, and there was a growing awareness of how poor England’s poor really were, in places like Birmingham, the smog-choked industrial cities of the north, and in London’s own East End, where Jack the Ripper would soon enjoy his fiendish murders. Churchill needed an issue. Something that would appeal to businessmen worried about shrinking profits and workers fearful of losing their jobs. Something that would promise better times and a return to prosperity.

  Earlier that year the Scottish–South African explorer Archibald Colquhoun had made himself a household name. He had traversed through the unknown lands of western China and scampered along the jungle-covered middle stretches of the Mekong River. When he returned to London, he lectured widely and wrote two best-selling books: one was English Policy in the Far East, and the other was Burma and the Burmans: Or, “The Best Unopened Market in the World.”4 He had one message: All that stood in the way of a revival of British commerce and industry, all that kept the working people of Birmingham and Leeds from a better future, was the despotic king of Burma. Remove the king, and Burma would become Britain’s best friend. And from Burma, the riches of China, and all that meant for British commerce and industry, would be there for the asking. One of those impressed was Randolph Churchill.

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