On January 4th this year, Myanmar (formerly Burma) celebrated 70 years of independence from the British Empire. The streets of Yangon (formerly Rangoon) and other cities were the scenes of jubilant capers and games as the people celebrated like it was 1948.
Burma and Great Britain share an entwined and fraught history. The editorials in Burmese newspapers around Independence Day each year remind readers of the horrors of colonialism, and lay the root cause of many of the country’s current ills at the door of the British.
The colonial years are commonly regarded as an era of national embarrassment in Myanmar. And yet, if a Brit is to reveal their country of origin in the back of a Yangon taxi (something they are likely to be asked to do fairly promptly) the driver is far more likely to opine on the quality of Wayne Rooney in comparison to Steven Gerrard, than bring up the East India Company or Lord Dufferin.
The best guides to british travellers - and the best british travellers - will be sensitive around the topic of colonialism. And yet, it is in the romantic veil of a former colony that Myanmar has for a long time (albeit, not so much in recent months) been cast. So often in travel brochures Burma has been rose-tinted with the romantic filter of the ‘cleaner, greener land’ that Kipling, the ‘Bard of the British Empire’, created through his poem ‘Mandalay’, published in 1892 after less than three days travelling in the country. Rudyard’s legacy in Myanmar is a prodigious smattering of ‘Kipling’s Bar’s in hotels throughout the country.
Myanmar is much more than something exotic and oriental and many of the famous Brits who have built a connection with the country had a very different perspective of the country.
Here then, we offer five Brits more interesting than Kipling and with them five more reasons to visit Myanmar.
Samuel "Siamese" White
A rambunctious privateer, White is one of the most dastardly Brits of Burma. Initially a merchant with the East India Company, White was later described by his former associates as a ‘very ill man and a great Interloper and a great Enemy of this Kingdom in general.’ White had caused the wrath of the Honourable Company by beating them at their own game. Silver-tongued, he became a favourite at the Siamese Court and was appointed ‘King of the Haven’ of Mergen, modern-day Myeik. After his luck ran out playing the Kingdom and the Company off of one another, he left Myeik in the ashen aftermath of a massacre and returned to Britain a wealthy man.
Where to Visit
Though still charming, not much of White’s Mergen remains in Myeik. The last known vestige of the White years was the grave of his wife, now believed to be located underneath a nondescript betel nut stand.
Sir George Scott
Sir George Scott was a British officer who possessed both a receptive ear to the lilting intricacies of the local languages and a strong arm ready to crush those who opposed imperialism. Scott arrived in Rangoon as a budding journalist in the 1870s. He later became headmaster at St John’s College, where he introduced the Burmese to football. After the fall of Mandalay, he was commissioned to pacify the ‘geographical nowhere’ on the border of the Eastern Shan States and China. Scott charmed, cajoled, and coerced the vast majority of the people to fly the British flag in exchange for partial self-rule and therefore more than any other man is responsible for bringing the Shan States, a landmass larger than England and Wales combined, into the British Empire. He emerged from the jungle, as he was to later put it in a letter to his mother, ‘utterly fagged.’
Where to Visit
It is safe to say that Orwell did not enjoy his time in Burma working as a colonial police officer in the 1920s. His novel Burmese Days rails against the boozers and bores of the British Club and ‘the dirty work of Empire.’ In her travelogue ‘Finding George Orwell in Burma’, Emma Larkin writes that even after he left the country, Orwell was haunted by the faces of the Burmese he had abused, effecting much of his later political thought. In Myanmar today, he is called ‘the profit’ as his subsequent novels Animal Farm and 1984 reflect the Burmese military coup of 1962 and the police state which ensued.
Where to Visit
When the Japanese invaded Burma in 1942, Major Seagrim was given the task of going underground and co-ordinating the Karen guerrilla forces. Seagrim, who spoke Karen and had a deep love for the people, lived amongst his fellow combatants and reassured them of the return of the British, for the Karen loathed the prospect of Burmese rule as much as that of Japanese. Seagrim led his men in a successful campaign of sabotage until, after a concentrated manhunt, his forces were almost completely wiped out. To prevent the ensuing torture of prisoners, Seagrim surrendered. Taken captive not in British uniform but in Karen dress, there was no question of the sentence. Seagrim was shot as a spy in 1944.
Where to Visit
The Commonwealth Rangoon Cemetery, where Seagrim is buried; Holy Trinity Church Yangon, where a commemorative plaque for Seagrim was unveiled on Remembrance Day 2017.
Michael Aris never lived for a prolonged period in Burma, but spent time on and off here as the husband of Aung San Suu Kyi, long-time campaigner for democracy, and now the country’s de facto leader. Barred from entering the country for many years while she was under house arrest, Aris not only accepted her decision to put her country before her family, but spent vast amounts of his time drumming up support for her cause amongst the international community. As her biographer Peter Popham writes, ‘if Suu was born to do what she found herself doing in Burma, Michael was born to be her perfect other half.’ In 1999 Aris was diagnosed with cancer. Despite pleas for mercy from the international community, the military junta denied Aris a visa hoping that Suu Kyi would leave to be with him on her own accord allowing them to bar her return. Suu Kyi stayed put and Aris died on 27th March, less than three months after the diagnosis.
Where to Visit
University Avenue Road, where Suu Kyi spent years under house arrest.