This is a fascinating country in all sorts of ways and seems to be most popular with European and Japanese tourists, some Australians of course, but they are everywhere.
Since childhood Burma has been a romantic and exotic place for me. It was impossible to grow up in the Australia of the 1950’s and not be familiar with that great Australian bass-baritone Peter Dawson’s rendition of Rudyard Kipling’s 'On the Road to Mandalay' recorded two decades or so earlier:
Come you back to Mandalay
Where the old flotilla lay
Can't you hear their paddles chunking
From Rangoon to Mandalay
On the road to Mandalay
Where the flying fishes play
And the Dawn comes up like thunder
out of China 'cross the bay
The song went Worldwide in 1958 when Frank Sinatra covered it with a jazz orchestration, and ‘a Burma girl’ got changed to ‘a Burma broad’; ‘a man’ to ‘a cat’; and ‘temple bells’ to ‘crazy bells’.
Rangoon, like Bombay and Madras and Calcutta, has gone to be replaced by Yangon. Why do we do this? We still call Florence, Paris and Rome by their historical English names. Is it some sort of post-colonial cringe?
It would be nice if we tried to see history as past and dead, the unalterable inheritance of all mankind, not a political weapon to use against the future or something we have to ‘correct’. What can that possibly mean?
As I have said, time and again on this website, history is what put us here, exactly as it happened. Without it happening exactly as it did until the day I was born I would not exist to write this. And the same goes for you.
Australia’s history is interwoven with that of Burma. When I was a boy the Australian Governor General, Sir William Slim, had previously been the General credited with winning the Burma Campaign against the Japanese, the first to turn the war against them. He is regarded as the greatest British General of WW2 and among the greatest British military commanders of all time. Without his impact on the war I would not have been born, my parents would not have migrated to Australia and my children, specifically, would not exist. Nor for that matter would anyone born in Australia, or elsewhere, since the war.
A little bit of background
For seventy years after full British occupation in the late 19th century Burma was administered as a part of British India. Then, following local demands for independence, it was granted independent statehood in 1937, based on a Westminster system of democracy, as we have in Australia, with a Premier/PM and a locally elected Legislative Assembly and a Senate that was half appointed by the British Governor and half by the Assembly.
It seems like a good transitional model to the full independence of Australia, New Zealand or Canada. But it was no more popular with the radical independence movement than the similar Westminster Parliament in India.
Burma's High Court building in Yangon (Rangoon) from the colonial period
Burma was occupied by the Japanese for three years during WW2 (see more below). After the war Britain no longer had the resources, or the heart, to hold on those parts of empire that were unwilling. And Gandhi, Nehru and Jenner had done their work well in India. So in 1947 India was partitioned into India and Pakistan; and Burma became independent too.
Millions were immediately killed in inter-religious conflicts.
After Independence Burma suffered interminable intertribal/interregional squabbling, mostly seeking regional autonomy. But it is clear from their advanced infrastructure and the style of buildings in Yangon and Mandalay that at one stage Burma was highly developed compared to its neighbours.
In the midst of ongoing civil unrest, a communist inspired military coup seized power in 1962 and imposed martial law. Thus another domino in US President Eisenhower’s ‘domino theory’ fell. All major industries were nationalised along with many private businesses owned by foreigners and their decedents. The Indian and British families that had not left with Burmese independence and Indian Partition in 1947 now did so. Foreign travel to Burma was heavily restricted.
This repressive situation lasted for almost 30 years, longer than most Burmese have lived.
The outcome was an almost immediate destruction of the commercial class followed by economic collapse and steady decline in standard of living, together with the reported exploitation of the vulnerable as slave labour. Along with this went what seems to be inevitable when people do not own or feel personal responsibility for property, a decaying built environment.
In the old business district - look at the roofing
Increasingly violent protests resulted in the military junta agreeing to free elections in 1990. But when Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD party, won 80% of the seats the Junta declared the result invalid, outlawed the party and locked her up.
Another 20 years passed. Another election, this time widely thought to have been rigged, Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house arrest. On to 2012 and by-elections. This time Aung San Suu Kyi has been released and the NLD has been allowed to participate. The world shouts hooray! And tourists and smart money start flooding in.
The next General Election is in 2015. Standby for trouble.