Double treat of Myanmar history

pinao tuner

Two good books about Myanmar to cap the month of March. The first was The Pagoda War written by A.T.Q. Stewart. The book was a collection of events from the journals and memoirs of various people who took part in the decision to start the third Anglo-Burmese war and the dethroning of King Thibaw (the last king of the Kingdom of Ava). As a throwback, the first Anglo-Burmese war started with the conquest of Arakan (now Rakhine state), along the border with India, with what is now the country of Bangladesh. The second Anglo-Burmese war was the capture of Yangon and the rest of Lower Burma. It would take some time to decide on the third Anglo-Burmese war that culminated with the capture of the Mandalay, the capital of the Kingdom of Ava.

The book can be considered an eyewitness account with the author having able to assemble the pieces from various sources, in the end giving the British perspective of the event. Foremost among the issues featured were the justification for the war and the annexation of Mandalay and all of Upper Burma. The British initially have no real plan to annex Upper Burma. British India, the seat of the British power in Asia at that time was adamant to annex because of the cost of maintaining Upper Burma. They were happy with what they earned from trading in Rangoon and thought that the idea of opening a trade route with China through Bhamo will require more pacification and longer period to develop. However, they were wary of the French activities and increasing influence in Indo China (now Cambodia and Vietnam).

Since most of the sources are personal memoirs, Intrigues and power play among the key leaders of the British were included that made the book an exciting read. Politics at home extended and affected those in the field, showing the ebbing of the tides for some and promotions and honor to the others. The chaos that happened after the dethroning clearly showed the incapacity of the British to control beyond the walls of the Mandalay palace.

The sources were all unanimous in their impressions of the locals as opportunists. Description of how the palace was looted by the slaves, the mad rush to strip the palace of anything valuable was pinned on the locals. Queen Supayalat was even quoted saying how her 300 hundred maids disappeared as the British soldiers entered the palace. Court officials were described as opportunists who immediately left, and those who served the British were pictured as only after the pay they will get. Impressions on King Thibaw as an egoistic, power-hungry monarch were expunged as they met a decent and suave king. With the king sent to exile in India, resistance to the British rule was mild, although increase in the activities of the dacoits (criminal elements roaming the countryside) was observed.

The second book was The Piano Tuner, a novel juxtaposed with the pacification of the Shan areas. It was a complex story of politics, passion and pacification. The period was set after the fall of the Kingdom of Ava and the British were now poised to conquer the Shan, the areas east of the Mandalay along the Chinese border. The Shan plateau was home to various principalities that were not conquered by the king in Mandalay. Some paid tribute to the king but most of the princes were independent and considered themselves separate states in their own right. After they have taken Mandalay, the British were contemplating how to deal with the Shan princes.

The book written by Daniel Mason was about a piano tuner named Edgar Drake who was contracted by the British War Office and sent to Burma to repair and tune a piano in one of the frontier outposts in the Shan hills. The piano was owned by a doctor who works as the British agent dealing with the Shan princes. The doctor was effective in dealing with the princes that his requests were provided by the British government however trivial or unusual.

Edgar Drake was a naive guy living his simple life with his wife in England. The ordinariness of his life pushed him to accept the offer, and he found himself enchanted upon reaching Burma. He was mesmerized by the myths about the doctor, fell in love with lady, and forgot time and his reason for coming to Burma. Like the Than Lwin River, he just floated and let the current brought him to places unknown. He was caught in the whirlpool of politics and personal interests and from a spectator he became an active participant. In the end, he paid dearly for his decisions, or shall we say indecision.

Good read for those who viewed Myanmar with romanticism. The lure and the passion are still there.

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