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.