History and Her Story: The White Umbrella

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When an elderly man close to political circles saw me with this book, he was not shy to express his disapproval, “That book is so distorted.”  He served in the military for years and seemed to hold contrasting views with me on just about every major issue I could think of.  That’s when I knew this book had to be a gem.  Published 17 years ago, this book deserves a lot more publicity than what it has now.

Throughout my public school years, I did not learn history, only propaganda.

For instance, students are familiar with the national holiday celebrated on February 12th.  When I was in middle school, I remember entering state-sponsored, city-wide essay contests in honor of this Union Day. An official version of the store places Bogyoke Aung San at the center of this event, whereas this memoir presents this event as originating from a discussion among Tai princes of Shan states on how to best prepare for their autonomy upon the British departure.  Aung San was invited as a guest to the Pang Long Conference on Union Day, not its organizer, at the suggestion of student groups in Taungyi.

Yet, the diverse ethnic voices and details of the agreement were never highlighted in my classes.

If you grew up in the nineties in Myanmar, you are also familiar with the Myanmar government’s narrative of “a national unity.”  In the mainstream narrative that centers the majority “Burman” over a diverse multitude of cultures, only unity is a core value, when in fact it is only recently that the country as a whole is ruled with the power concentrating on Rangoon and later Naypyitaw. The British colonialism has been blamed for its “divide and conquer” style, and yet most of the Shan States long enjoyed their own autonomous ways and freedoms, before the British was ever in the picture.

Knowing is a process.  I guess I was sort of always aware of all this, but did not give much thought to this bias until recently, as embarrassing as it is to admit this now.  Only when you travel to Chin, Karen, and Shan States and notice how the local identity is held differently and how they do not buy into the official history, and only when you read books like this, that you painfully realize how the faulty versions of events have been drummed into your head from early on.

This book is perhaps one of my favorites I have come across on the history of Myanmar, which is usually told from the majority Burman assumptions.  This book gives an important perspective to meditate on.  Moreover, Sao has lived a remarkable, badass life!  She was born a Tai princess, became a First Lady of the first modern President of Burma, and later a member of the Myanmar Parliament, a rare feat for a woman in 1950s.  On top of all this, after her husband and  youngest son were killed, Sao went underground and became a leader of Shan State Army in sixties.  Such a strong, feisty woman!

Highly recommended. For more alternate histories of Myanmar / Burma, check out this reading list at GoodReads.

Here, Sao describes her visit to Rangoon under the British rule before Japanese came in.  Yangon / Rangoon is full of remarkable tales.

Sao also occasionally accompanied her husband to Rangoon.  There was a good unsurfaced road to the capital now, though they preferred to travel by train.  It took two days, a slower journey but less dusty and cramped.  When they arrived their schedule typically included state dinners and meetings at Government House, the official residence of the Governor of Burma.  It was a palatial three storey Victorian mansion set in a beautifully tended garden on an ample square of land that stretched all the way from Ahlone Road to the corner of Windsor and Prome.  Alighting from a chauffeured limousine at the mansion’s grand doors, they were greeted by a nine-gun salute, an honor prescribed in the prince’s Writ of Authority.

Government House was not the only building of note.  Under the colonialists, Rangoon had become Southeast Asia’s foremost city.  The new buildings south of the railway station were highly elegant: the Court House, the Port Commissioner’s Building, Grindlay’s Bank, the Bank of Hong Kong and Shanghai, and the Bank of India.  Colonnaded and corniced, the gleaming white facade of the Strand Hotel faced the Rangoon River, where steamers crowded the jetties.  From here, the country’s major exports made their way down the river to the sea.  Burma was the world’s foremost rice exporter.  There was oil, too, carried by pipeline 376 miles from the Yengangyuang fields of north-central Burma, Britain’s largest far eastern oil discovery.

In contrast to the edifices of bureaucracy and finance, the country’s parliament building was a small two-storey building with an unadorned pyramid-shaped tile roof, as plain looking as an army mess hall.  Nearly invisible from Maha Bandoola Street, it sat within the Quadrangle, a square of land surrounded by three wings of the massive Secretariat Building.

Within the Secretariat’s endless corridors, Britain’s Chief Secretary presided over ten Secretaries, three Joint Secretaries, five Deputy Secretaries, nine Under-Secretaries, five Assistant Secretaries, seven Registrars, and a host of support staff of the Indian Civil Service.  They lived by the Secretariat Code, a huge volume crammed with correction slips and addendums.  Their windows overlooked the tiny parliament building, a fitting architectural arrangement.  The Secretariat was the source of the country’s true governance, not parliament.

Not far from the Secretariat was City Hall and Sule Pagoda.  Squat and bulbous, the pagoda sat at the hub of the several busy streets, the widest being Sule Pagoda Road.  From morning till past sunset, the spicy-sweet smell of Indian curries and the garlicky steam of Chinese noodles drifted onto the road.  The restaurants defined Rangoon’s cosmopolitan nature for, above all, this was a city of immigrants: 250,000 Indians and 40,000 Chinese outnumbered the 160,000 Burmese, who were mostly landless laborers.

The British influence skirted Sule Pagoda and traveled like a vein north, following the flame trees of Prome Road past the Governor’s mansion, the Good Shepherd Convent and Girl’s School, the exclusive Pegu Club.  Haunts of the wealthy clustered around the city’s two picturesque lakes – the swimming and boating club on Royal Lake, and the yacht club on Victoria Lake, which the locals knew as Inya Lake.  Between the lakes lay Golden Valley, a suburb of well-built mansions and bungalows.  Just east of Golden Valley, imported thoroughbreds thundered around the Race Course’s grass oval.  In a satellite town beyond the city’s northern limit was Mingaladon International, one of the most modern airports in Asia.

Rangoon was impressive but Sao didn’t enjoy her visits.  She hated the city’s heat; even the water tasted too warm.  At get-togethers, conversation was limited to a bewildering tangle of political gossip; the Burmese parliament had become a nest of corruption, intrigue and racial tension.  Trying to follow all the charges and counter-charges in the newspaper made her head ache.

Today in Myanmar’s history 

A recent sign at a tea shop in downtown Falam, Chin State, forbidding patrons from discussing politics within the premise…and an excellent yet natural facial expression of this person in a blue sweater

This is the kind of morning you will remember.

Countdown: three more months till elections in Myanmar.  Today’s headlines will sell papers for weeks to come, and books for years to come, with repercussions in our lives, direct or otherwise.  Already, this has impacted my life by forcing me to fly out to another town in short notice for a meeting and cancelling a dinner, which is now five plus weeks outstanding.

But of course this is nothing compared to the degree of political, social and economical implications caused by the forced departure of the Speaker of the House, of the incumbent party.  Seen as a punishment of defying party lines and being too chummy with the opposition leader, the ousting of U Thura Shwe Mann is significant, not only because of its happenstance – we all know there will be news before the election – but also because of the way in which he is forced to leave, complete with colorful images of security forces surrounding a building and all.

The way people talk about this news … sudden whispers, shut doors …reminds me of another event eleven years ago – the fall of Myanmar’s Military Intelligence, headed by all powerful U Khin Nyunt, some of whose close advisors just recently came out of their scattered prisons as recent as nine months ago.

This morning shows who’s in charge, who has power and how far Myanmar has and has not gotten.

At the end of a day like this, confusion and uncertainty cloud people’s minds. Are foreigners getting deported?  What’s going to happen?  Will we go back in time?

One wonders.

This-Is-Not-A-Book-Review Review: A Burmese Heart

I met Vanessa at one of those Yangon’s networking sessions accompanying a report launch back in late 2013.

Though I could instantly tell her sharp mind from our very first meeting at the crowded British Club bar, I had no idea then that Vanessa had been working on a manuscript the entire time.  After three years of interview sessions, tape transcribes, writers blocks, and many frustrated evenings of staying in to Skype with her editor through flimsy Myanmar Internet, Vanessa has finally made her manuscript available to public on Amazon earlier this month.

This newly published book A Burmese Heart recounts a personal journey of one woman – Vanessa’s grand mother – born and married into a political family during turbulent times in modern Myanmar history. Raised as the daughter of Myanmar’s first modern Prime Minister and wife of one of the Thirty Comrades, Tinsa Maw Naing shares her stories of adventuring in Rangoon as a child, exiling to Cambodia as a new mother and befriending socialite inmates in the infamous Ye Kyi Aing prison as a devoted wife linked to an underground movement.

Too often, history is viewed through men’s eyes both domestically and internationally.  It is often too easy to overlook the personal and political experience of women such as Ma Tinsa Maw Naing as mere props in historical accounts.  It takes agency to share stories and speak up in this fashion.

Vanessa did a reading of a few chapters from her work at TS1 Gallery last year, at an event full of personal memories, nostalgia and transitions.  I have yet to lay my hands on a copy of this book, but judging from this reading event, I would totally read this book.

Again, I make ZERO commission on this book – Become a Facebook fan of A Burmese Heart here, and download it to your Kindle here.  Myanmar Book Center will distribute the book locally soon.  Enjoy an excerpt below.

“There is a fable going back before the time of the Buddha, when the first kings ruled this country. We were a poor people then and there were other kings desiring to fight us for our land, so the Burmese prayed to the gods for a favor. They answered our prayers and granted us not swords, but the hearts of gods to conquer our enemies. The young king who ruled during that time decided to use his power in his first battle, his heart beating so loudly and fiercely that the earth split and mountains shattered, trapping the invading armies. He continued to conquer his wars but he also grew weaker each time, his young man’s body no match for the strength of a god’s heart. The king collapsed on the eve of his most important battle, not dying from an enemy’s blade but from exhaustion and misunderstanding his own power. Now what do you think this phrase means, a Burmese heart?”

“That the hearts of gods are not meant for mortals,” I whispered.

“Right. It also means that we as a people, and especially you, are blessed and cursed with great strength. You must be sure to use it wisely and sparingly, ” May May cautioned. She left me alone with this knowledge, the room silent except for my jumping pulse.

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Final Cover copy

An Exiled Woman’s Mansion

As if the death of her late husband was not enough, this woman had to flee her home in Mandalay to escape the wrath of his other wife and children.  She moved to a city 500 miles away from home, away from her “family” who wanted her head, and built her sanctuary, this beautiful teak and brick mansion overlooking Salween River in Mawlamyine / Moulmein, then capital city of British Burma. Somewhere circa 1866.

I do not blame her for wanting to escape palace dramas, probably rife with petty politics and incompetence. The mansion life seems like a much finer choice. One can only imagine the grandeur of the structure which has seen better days.

This is the state of Queen Sein Don’s private mansion today, being used as a monastery.  Don’t you just love the gleeful Anglo angels in a Buddhist compound?

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Jonathan
Han