Wearing the Pants in Burma

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 3, 2003 | Destinations: Myanmar / Yangon

If there is one thing that books about contemporary Burma have in common, it is probably this: they are not funny. Only occasionally do they contain a scrap of Burmese black humor. For example, some Burmese jokesters have suggested that the country should be renamed "electricity-water-shortage" because in Burmese this phrase ends in sia, like Malaysia or Indonesia. That's funny. Shortages of water and electricity are not. But Bangkok-based journalist Andrew Marshall has managed to write a book about Burma, The Trouser People, that is not only very funny but also very critical of the country's military regime. Marshall accuses this regime of genocide among many other things, including the failure, forty years after its takeover, to provide dependable supplies of electricity and water. As Marshall points out, Burma makes virtually nothing except barbed wire. Indeed it makes so much barbed wire that it has become an exporter.

The Trouser People draws its title from the Burmese term for Europeans, as traditional Burmese dress is not the trouser but the longyi. The unifying subject of the book is Sir George Scott, a British administrator in Burma who "pacified" the Shan States and vicinity. ("Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air," wrote George Orwell, "the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.") But Scott also wrote two definitive studies of Burma and its people: The Burman: His Life and Notions and Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States, the latter an exhaustive opus of five volumes. Marshall sets out to visit those places with which Scott was most familiar; in the process he learns that much of what Scott wrote then is still true now, but that in some ways the Burmese government's "pacification" of its ethnic minorities is far worse than anything ever contemplated by Scott. Part biography, part travelogue, part rant against the regime, the book can be somewhat incoherent at times. But the obligation to expose the conditions of modern Burma is difficult to resist.

One of the most humiliating aspects of colonization was that the Europeans came to know, or at least came to record, more about their subjects than their subjects could. Scott's Gazetteer (which Marshall terms the Gazza, after a famous footballer by that name) was rather like a Domesday Book of Burma, a compendium of facts intended to aid the country's administration. Scott seems to have been particularly fascinated by the Wa, a tribe of former headhunters whose United Wa State Army has been described, according to Marshall, "as the best-equipped insurgent force in Asia outside of Afghanistan." An uncleanly, ferocious, intensely independent people, the Wa are forging a homeland inside Burma using profits earned from the production and sale of heroin, and, more recently, amphetamine. But Marshall's approach to the Wa is surprisingly light-hearted; he focuses on their seeming inability to conduct logical, linear conversations. Talking to Wa, he says, "was like throwing porridge at a ceiling fan."

As that simile demonstrates, Marshall's wit is finely honed. Describing one of Southeast Asia's notoriously eccentric and even vulgar monks, Marshall writes that "most monks were not fanatical fans of the heavy-metal group The Scorpions." (Many, however, use ATMs, cell phones, and public transport.) He says that most members of the Shan State Army, one of the few insurgent groups still defiant of Rangoon, "looked like heavily armed Boy Scouts." And in confirmation of Orwell's Burmese Days, Marshall writes that one of the principal "social diversions" in colonial Rangoon was "to go stark raving mad", from heat, boredom, and the insolence of the local population.

But Marshall is at his best when he describes the stealth with which sake (to which Southeast Asian rice wines are related) can get you plastered: "One minute you're sitting at a table, discussing Yamazaki's thesis on the spread of samurai values after the Meiji restoration, and the next minute you're under it, gibbering about your childhood and telling everyone within hugging distance that you love them." Throughout the book Marhsall takes a rather forgiving, Falstaffian stance toward overindulgence in the demon drink - for which the Wa have (and Scott had) an especially high tolerance. After all, it's easier to raze a village and kill all of its inhabitants (as Scott did on one occasion) when you've had a few too many toddies.

Which raises a question: in writing so admiringly of Scott, is Marshall apologizing for the British Empire - upon which, as the joke goes, the "blood never dried"? True, even some Burmese are nostalgic about colonial times, especially the ethnic minorities who were some of Britain's best allies. In this connection, Marshall quotes one Burmese as saying, "Perhaps we were lucky. Look at Vietnam today. Or Cambodia. The French were worse." This conclusion strikes me as frightfully unsound. Surely the Vietnam War had far more to do with the ruination of Indochina than did French rule. And besides, does this Burmese actually believe that Burma is better off than Vietnam or Cambodia? At least Cambodia has a semblance of democracy, and no charges of genocide have been leveled against Vietnam. But Marshall lets this self-serving comment pass.

Yes, there were many things to admire about Sir George. He introduced football to Burma. He spoke a gazillion languages. He was genuinely interested in things Burmese, and he defied British custom by smoking cheroots and wearing native dress. Marshall does not know whether Scott dallied with native women, but Scott was full of the usual praise for the debatable randiness of the natives. Marshall refers to the ethnic minorities' "free-and-easy attitude toward sex," thereby seconding Scott's contention that an "aborigine woman...is as full of sex impulse as those who write novels for a certain type of reader." Presumably by this tautology Scott means erotic novels. Of course attributing carefree sexual habits to a certain segment of humanity carries a danger of making them seem closer to animals, which in turn helps to justify their pacification. And it's interesting that many Asians believe Westerners to be the most sexually carefree of all, and thus barbaric. The tactic is universal.

Recently some Western leaders have argued that the West has a responsibility to oust unseemly tyrants wherever they are found: witness the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. But this is nothing new. King Thibaw of Burma, for example, was deposed by the British in part because he was a ruthless despot and, so the rumor goes, a drunk. Marshall writes that his poison was said to be gin; I have heard that it was brandy or wine; and the contrary theories suggest that maybe it was nothing. There's no doubt that Burmese leaders had an exaggerated sense of their own power and that they could be cruel and incompetent. But these were only rationalizations for the advance of British commercial interests.

Marshall himself perpetuates a rumor that might be seen as evidence for the depravity of the current regime, that "Secretary One" General Khin Nyunt, Burma's head of state and chief of military intelligence, is a closet homosexual. Maybe he is. But so what? The man is a mass murderer. It hardly matters that he might also be queer. A critic from the Kirkus Reviews has written that The Trouser people "will make readers want to hop on the next plane to Rangoon to help overthrow the generals' corrupt, narcodollar-fed regime." But those of us who know where the narcodollars are coming from (hint: it's not Burma), and which country most benefited from narcodollars as a consequence of the Opium Wars (hint: it's not Burma), are liable to stay off the plane to Rangoon. Instead we should put some thought to why so many dollars are paid for narcotics, and by whom.

Sir George Scott believed what Orwell called the colonial lie, that the British Empire was a civilizing force rather than (or as well as) an organized and subtle system of plunder. The Trouser People suggests, as one critic for Foreign Affairs put it, "that life in Burma today may be no better than it was 100 years ago," which is to say that the plunder has simply ended up in Burmese rather than British hands. And here's the unpalatable corollary: the Burmese may be no better equipped to govern themselves than they were 100 years ago. Or even 40 years ago, when its fledgling democracy was swept away by Ne Win and his clique. Colonialism only helped to make the Burmese people more compliant - tenderizing them, as it were, to make for smoother digestion by the voracious generals.

It's a refreshing change to read a book about Burma that can put a few smiles on our faces rather than storm clouds over our heads. But both kinds of book evade the central question, asked by everyone for whom Marshall's Burma is all-too-familiar. The question is how the Burmese can get the generals out and make them stay out. And the answer may come only when the paradox of post-war geopolitics is resolved. All peoples have a right to self-determination, but national sovereignty must be respected. The Wa have a right to a state, and Burma has the right to obliterate it. Until one of these principles gives way, the future of Burma and indeed all multiethnic states will be nothing to laugh about.

- The End -

Review of Andrew Marshall's The Trouser People, Penguin Books, 2003.

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