Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Lighting up a Blind Spot in the East

Most South Indian middle-class families have a Burma connection. One that goes back a gneration of two when the country was an attractive destination for young men seeking employment, and for traders trying to make their fortunes.

Perhaps the first time I heard about the country was at the home of a family friend in Hyderabad in the mid 1970s. This gentleman had a large, framed picture of the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda in his drawing room, as well as intricately woven baskets made of bamboo, mementos from his frequent visits to Rangoon.

Then there were books that told you about the country's past - Amitav Ghosh's "The Glass Palace" and the Ibis Trilogy. Short stories by George Orwell, references to the World War in books by Japanese authors, Michio Takeyama and Haruki Murakami.

What about Burma after it became Mynamar? The whole country seems to have slipped into some kind of blind-spot with hardly any news coming in directly. Nothing much except for the occasional news-stories from Western magazines about of Aung Sang Suu Kyi,  and the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis. It was a big blind spot waiting to be filled and I was pleased to get hold of a book by Burmese born author and diplomat, Thant Myint-U.

Myint-U's book "Where China Meets India" is bit like walking across the street to visit a reticent neighbour, and realising that you own house looks so different from the other side! You are reminded that parts of your own house belonged to them not so long ago, and vice versa. The Burmans once ruled over the Assam valley, and kings of tiny Manipur once invaded and subjugated the rulers of Mandalay.

China too looks like a completely different country when viewed through the eyes of a neighbour.  I learnt, for instance, that Yunnan, the Chinese province bordering Myanmar is as ethnically diverse, with a per-capital GDP which is among the lowest in China. Over the past few decades, China's Western Development Strategy seeks to remedy this disparity by connecting its poorest, land-locked provinces to the sea, through Myanmar.

Getting all the local tribes and communities - most of them mutually hostile - was certainly not easy. The process of assimilating non-Han Chinese has been a work-in-progress for the past 1000 years or more. The Yao were brought to heel in the 1450s in a war in which the Chinese killed 7300 and took as many, or more, PoWs; The Miao lost out in the Battle of Mount Leigong in 1726 where more than 10,000 Miao had their heads chopped off  and 400,000 starved to death; Ditto for the Buyu in 1797. And then there are groups like the Naxi who owe their musical skills to a band left behind by the Mongol invader, Kublai Khan. Another community which has managed to keep its traditions is the Musuo people living north of Lijiang. Among the matrilineal Musuo,  women are strong and dominant, engaging in 'walking marriages', very similar to the "Sambandham" system practiced by Nairs of Kerala.

A lot of water has flowed down the Irrawaddy since then. Burma is now Myanmar, its capital has moved from Mandalay and Rangoon to a newly purpose-built capital city of Naypyidaw. After years of international sanctions trade is on the upswing, and the country is trying to lower its dependence on China.

Perhaps the day is not far off when we too can drive across from Guwahati to Mandalay, or just take a ferry from Kolkata to Yangon/Rangoon.


* Myint-U, Thant (2011): WHERE CHINA MEETS INDIA - Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, Faber and Faber, 2012 URL - https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/12151572-where-china-meets-india

* Literature - Japanese connection - https://www.mmtimes.com/news/literary-sun-rising-over-golden-land.html

* Wiki - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myanmar


* Myint-U, Thant (2011): WHERE CHINA MEETS INDIA - Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, Faber and Faber, 2012


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