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Alex Bescoby has spent the last decade living on and off in Myanmar. His ardent belief that visitors to this country should have an appreciation of the history before they arrive led him to make the film We Were Kings (2017) about the fall of the last royal family. This was followed by Forgotten Allies (2019), telling the story of Myanmar veterans from the Second World War.
In 2019 he embarked upon The Last Overland, recreating in reverse a journey by Land Rover between London and Singapore. In January 2021 he was in lockdown in London – “boring, depressing, cold and wet” – and writing a book about his journey.
Bertie Alexander Lawson, Sampan`s CEO, spoke to Alex in preparation for a podcast called The Teashop Tapes. Due to the turbulence in Myanmar since 1 February, that project has been put on hold. But here we have published an abridged version of that conversation.
Bertie started by asking Alex about his first experience of Burma when he was sent to Thailand on a scholarship studying Southeast Asian history …
I spent a couple of months going up and down the Thai-Burma border. This was 2008 and the border was dominated by those who were leaving Burma – the massive populations of particularly Karen refugees. Studying the border was essentially studying the impact of Burma overflowing into Thailand – the problems inside Burma being felt in Thailand.
Thailand at the time was this hugely electric place. It was the time of [former Thai Prime Minister] Thaksin Shinawatra and his red shirt / yellow shirt protests. The city was being shut down, the place was chaos. But it was a democracy of sorts …
And then across the border you had a country that was in some sense very much closed. High-end tourism was going on but it was difficult to get visas. The internet was incredibly limited, phones were incredibly limited.
My first experience of Burma was at the [Thai] town of Mae Sot, getting a 24-hour visa into Myawaddy. It was like stepping back 20-30 years. Because I had been reading loads of Burmese history I had all these conceptions of the classic stereotypes of Burma as a closed dictatorship set in the 1950s. So I went in with a lot of this baggage from the stuff I had read. I found my diary from that time recently and I was that starry-eyed politics student stepping into the other world behind the bamboo curtain …! Because of the baggage I had in my head I probably saw the place and thought, “Gosh, feels like I`m going into North Korea.”
The 10 years after that I spent slowly trying to unpick and unravel that feeling and trying to get a more nuanced, a more mature understanding of the country than that cartoon version. Thailand was a massive culture shock. But Burma just felt like there was so much more going on and so much more to understand.
As I was preparing to go [to Myanmar] the Saffron Revolution was happening and then when I went Nargis had just happened. I remember being gripped by the footage from Saffron and then the news being dominated by Nargis and what was going on on the other side. I remember a friend of mine, Aung Sithu, telling me only about 3 years ago his story. I was sitting in Mae Sot and watching the news and to think my dear friend was probably just a few hundred miles away paddling on a canoe through the Ayeyarwady delta region. He had taken sacks of rice from his local township in Yangon and was trying to find survivors. It all feels unreal when you are watching it on the news.
It felt like something was changing – an earthquake was happening politically. Nargis changed the historical direction of Myanmar and Saffron brought it into the world`s public imagination.
What actually gripped me most apart from the current affairs was a book called The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh which did the most amazing job in stitching Burma into world history. It was my first encounter with the story of Burma in WW2 and the pivotal role it played as a battlefield between the Allies and the Japanese. It also introduced me to British colonialism in that corner of the world – something of which I had no prior knowledge. It introduced me to the story of Thibaw Min [the last king of Burma] and the fall of the royal family.
That book changed my life. From that point I was completely gripped because I had never realized what an impact my country had had on this country on the other side of the planet. I felt a certain sense of guilt through ignorance. We had such as fundamental role in shaping this country`s history – for the worst in many ways – yet people in our country had never really heard about it except as place to go on holiday and perhaps take some photos of temples. That’s a travesty.
When I went home after that visit I became obsessed with modern Burmese history. I ended up doing my dissertation on the development of federalism in Burma. This idea of how a country like Burma – and I think this is the central question – with such ethnic and religious differences finds a political system that is deemed fair and has the buy-in of people from all over the country. It is hugely complicated. It is not a problem that is unique to Burma, but Burma is uniquely complicated. I felt it has this strain running through it of a great trauma which was the annexation and the dethroning of the royal family. It was the way in which the British colonial government decided to tear up the fabric of a thousand years of monarchy in Burma and try to start again.
It’s lazy just to say it`s all Britain`s fault. But to understand why Burma is the way it is today you need to understand the late 19th century trauma that Burma went through.
I moved to Burma in 2013 and ended up working for the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business which is run by Vicky Bowman, the former [UK] ambassador. Their job was to act as a go-between to promote responsible natural resource investment in Myanmar. I was working to help the government and civil society prepare themselves for an influx of oil, gas and mining companies who often come and take the mickey to huge economic, social and environmental damage. It was a really satisfying period of my life trying to set the standards for Myanmar for responsible oil, gas and mining. For years in the country oil, gas and mining have been at best environmentally and socially damaging and at worst a direct driver of civil war and corruption. It was the worst of everything. I felt like I was doing my bit.
But all along my heart lay in the history and the politics of the place. I was writing a lot and was going to write a book about the late imperial period of Burma for any business or tourist – particularly from Britain – for them to read before they come and marvel at this place as if it just popped up onto the map out of space. To understand the impact that our country has had and therefore the sensitivities and the things you need to be aware of.
I will never forget John Bercow, the previous speaker of the House of Commons, coming to give a speech in Yangon about what makes a good parliamentary democracy. He came and sang the praises of the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy and how one day, if Burma behaved well and worked hard, they too could emulate the system of western democracy. Not at one point did he mention that Britain had colonized and ruled Burma and completely torn up and rewritten its political rule book. I was flabbergasted by that.
I was on a bit of a crusade to try and educate in an entertaining way, so people don’t just end up in the country and say, “Isn’t this wonderful!” or “Isn’t this a bit of a mess!” I felt a sense of duty that if you’re going to spend time in the country and going to travel around it and enjoy it you need to understand the historical context. It`s your obligation.
I had this idea to write a book about the influence of British colonialism on present day Myanmar. I knew the story of Thibaw and the annexation and his exile to India and also the dismantling of the system of government. It was the tearing up of the fabric of society that was most damaging. Thibaw was just a symbol of that.
I met U Soe Win who is the great grandson of the last king of Burma. He`s an amazing character. He was the coach of the U19 national football team and a former diplomat. He started telling me his story of his version of events which had been documented fictionally in The Glass Palace: how the royal family came back to Burma after the king died in India and settled in quietly and carried on living, undercover almost.
He introduced me to his family members such as Daw Devi Thant Sin, an incredible environmental activist, and then the two grandchildren of the last king, Hteik Su Phaya Gyi and Taw Phaya, who when I met them were 93 and 94 years old. I was so blown away by this family that I thought these guys would be wasted in one chapter of a book. I had the idea of making a film and called up one of my best mates, Max Jones, and asked if he would mind coming out and filming a few interviews – it needed to be done for historical duty! No one had really told this story before. A lady called Sudha Shah had written the book The King in Exile but no one had put them on film. I was so mesmerized by them and their story and their humility and their welcoming nature to this Brit coming to try and tell their story.
It’s a bit like if Queen Elizabeth was toppled and then you found William and Harry in their 90s living in a council estate just outside of Blackburn. These 93-, 94-year olds were royal. They had royal titles, they had memories of the last queen. People still today bow in front of them and pay respect to them and there is this mystique and undoubtedly a charisma. They can tell first-hand the modern history of Burma. These guys had lived most of it. They were born in the 1910s, they lived through a majority of British colonial period, the Japanese invasion, through the democracy years, the Ne Win`s years, the SLORC years, the USDP years, and through the Aung San Suu Kyi years – they had seen everything. I wanted to tell the modern history of Burma through this family. Still today it is the most rewarding thing that I`ve ever done. It was a huge privilege.
It`s not my job to tell the history of Burma. But I am very proud I played a small part in bringing that story back to prominence. Anyone coming to Burma on a Sampan tour should watch that film before they come.
After we did We Were Kings I felt that I had only told half the story of British involvement in Myanmar history. If you look at that 150-year period there are two shockwave moments: the annexation and WW2. When the Japanese came the country had only been under British rule for 60 years and that structure of British colonial government is smashed overnight. There is horrific fighting all over Burma – the country is a battlefield of two empires fighting and the people of Burma are caught in the middle. They fight on both sides and switch sides. It`s incredibly complex.
Much of what happened since post-war Burma is a country trying to rebuild itself: the contest between communists and authoritarians, different parts of Burma like Karen and Kachin and Rakhine wanting either full independence or autonomy. With Forgotten Allies I wanted to find a way of telling the story of the impact of WW2 on Burma’s political development. A bit like with We Were Kings, I wanted to find a way that wasn’t just a dry history lecture but that took you through the human story.
The story in that case was meeting Help for Forgotten Allies – a bunch of Brits who had taken it upon themselves to track down men from across Burma who had volunteered to fight for Britain when Britain was trying to retake control of Burma. These men signed up voluntarily but after the British withdrew and Burma becomes independent these guys were left to their own devices and many of them live in the poorest corners of Myanmar: in rural Chin, rural Karen … These guys, played their part, signed up, they fought bravely, many of them died and Help for Forgotten Allies were going around the country finding them, thanking them and setting up welfare payments.
[Forgotten Allies] was telling the story of that seismic shock between `42 and `45 and why you need to understand that the ethnic conflict and the civil wars that have happened since are very much a response to the trauma of the war years. If you want to understand what is happening in Northern Rakhine with the Rohingya crisis you have to understand the story of WW2. Arakan [now Rakhine State] was one of the fiercest theatres of war in WW2 and many of the Muslims in the north of Arakan fought for the British and the Arakanese Buddhists sided with the Japanese and that stirred up older problems. A lot of intercommunal killing happened during those war years and those generational scars are reopened every few decades in Northern Rakhine.
Of course. Obviously there`s dangers out there. There is danger here on the streets of London. The world can be a dangerous place. But I generally have a very sunny view of humanity.
My experience in Burma has been a blessing. I`ve had such a wonderful time traveling all over that country. I was always helped out by the kindness of strangers. Once you get past the national politics and the national stereotypes, down to the ground, down to those lesser-travelled places, people generally are very nice.
I will end on this: for those traveling to Burma, think back to the way that you were welcomed in rural Sagaing or in Mawlamyine and how people cooked lunch for you and invited you in to say ‘hi’. Imagine that someone from Mawlamyine turns up at your house in Wimbledon or Manchester and says, “Can I just have a look around? I want to see how you live?” What would you say? You would say, “Who the hell are you? Get off my doorstep!” One day I hope someone does do that. “Can you cook me shepherd’s pie and make me a cup of tea?”
The amount of people who have offered me a place to sleep and fed me to bursting purely because I happen to be wandering past … That is Burma. That is what I miss. And I can`t wait to go back.
This is an abridged version of a conversation with Alex Bescoby in January 2021, before the Myanmar military announced a State of Emergency in February 2021.