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Mainstream, VOL LV No 10 New Delhi February 25, 2017

New Year in Mandalay

Monday 27 February 2017, by Nandita Haksar


We—my husband, Bogyi, our Burmese friend, and I—stood on top of Mandalay Hill with the Irrawaddy River at a distance and watched the sun go down for the last time in 2016.

According to legend, the Buddha himself along with his disciple, Anand, had climbed this hill and prophesied that a great city would be founded below the hill. And the Buddha’s prophecy came true when King Mindon laid the foundation of the new capital on Febrauray 13, 1857. The royal city was officially named Yadanaba, a loan of the Pali name Ratanapûra or the City of Gems.

The city however came to be known as Mandalay after Mandalay Hill. The name is probably a derivative of a Pali word mandala, referring to circular plains below; or Mandara, a mountain from Hindu mythology.


Every morning we see the monks with their bowls going around the streets barefoot asking for alms. Eightynine per cent of the population of Myanmar is Buddhist and there are 500,000 monks and 75,000 women who are nuns but they are not allowed to be fully ordained.

We saw some really colourful processions taking small children to various monasteries where they will live like novice monks for ten days to two months. The children are carried in brightly decorated bullock carts, on horses and occasionally an elephant.

We drove down to Monywa, around five hours drive away from the border town of Moreh in Manipur, to see a temple which has 582,363 images of the Buddha. It is the brightly coloured stupas and black and gold statues inside that are a contrast to the usual white or gold temples. Further down the road and on top of the hill is a 424-feet standing Buddha statue. We can go inside the statue and climb up sixteen floors and on each floor there are temples with golden statues of Buddha. But that is only half-way up.

Next to the standing Buddha is an equally long statute of the Buddha lying down and one can go inside that as well.

Around this area there is forest and we saw statues of Buddha meditating under the trees. It is said there are a thousand of them; and when we drove back down the hill we saw a line of monks in maroon with their bowls and realised they were statues.

I wondered what the Buddha would say when he saw these images of himself? The first images of the Buddha appear 500 years after his death and some historians have argued that he had forbidden any representation of himself; others believe that the first image was made during his lifetime. But how would he react to the 500,000 images of himself?

The Indian Connection

Of course the Burmese remember that Buddhism came from India and many people we met had been to Bodh Gaya where the Buddha got his enlightenment. They fly directly from Yangon to Bodh Gaya and back. Their impression of India is entirely based on the heat, dirt and crowds in that town.

There are many other connections between India and Burma. But perhaps we, Indians, do not realise that most of these links with the past are not remembered with warmth by the Burmese people.

Pascal Khoo Thwe, a student activist, writes in his autobiography, From the land of Green Ghosts (2002), that during a lecture in Mandalay University there was the following exchange between a student and the lecturer:

The lecturer was extolling on the glories of Burma when a student asked: “Why, then, were our ancestors beaten by the British in the last century if they had such fantastic powers?”

The lecturer’s face reddened visibly with embarrassment and anger. “Well, because the British are criminals and colonial invaders— and they used a lot of Indians.”

The criticism many Burmese have against Amitabh Ghosh’s The Glass Palace is that the Indian author is silent on the role of the Indian Army in the arrest and humiliation of the Burmese King and his subjects. The Indian Army was an instrument of British imperialism.

The deep-seated anti-Indian feeling is not only based on past events. It is also because of India’s decision to support the military junta instead of the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi; even though India did award her the Jawaharlal Nehru award for Peace and Understanding and supported the NLD members living in exile in Delhi.

Often the Burmese forget to make a distinction between the Indian people and the Indian state. The people in India had always supported the Lady, even if they found it impossible to pronounce her name. When two Burmese students hijacked a Thai Airlines plane and landed in Kolkata in November 1990 the Bengalis had come to the court with garlands. Thirty Members of Parliament had signed a petition demanding their release and they had been out on bail. Twelve years later I had done the case and the Kolkata courts had acquitted the hijacker of charges. He was now one of the leading journalists based in Yangon editing his English weekly, Mizzima, which he started in Delhi even while he was on bail.

The Freedom Fighters

I wanted to learn more about the connections with Burmese and Indian people in the past; during the colonial times when the revolutio-naries and freedom fighters from our two countries forged alliances and friendships from Subhas Chandra Bose to many Communist leaders.

In search of those old links I decided to visit the Ludu Library. I had read about it but Bogyi and our other Burmese friends who were much younger had not.

We found the library in a quiet neighbourhood of downtown Mandalay and walked through the gates into a well-tended garden. The door was opened by the librarian, Aung Myint Oo. The library has books and manuscripts accumulated over the lifetimes of Myanmar’s most famous literary couple, Ludu U Hla (1910-1982) and his wife Ludu Daw Amar (1915-2008), who founded the Left-leaning Ludu (The People) newspaper in 1945.

Their books survived Army rule, fire, and the annual onslaught of the monsoon. They are now looked after by their daughter, Than Yin Mar, a doctor by profession, who has overseen the library for more than a decade.s

She shows us books written by hand by prisoners. Her parents and brothers had all been to jail. Her father, U Hla was imprisoned for the fifth time in 1978. The same year her mother, Daw Amar, and her youngest son, Nyein Chan, were also in jail. She said she preferred to be a medical doctor and had not been involved in politics.

I asked whether there were any books on India and was led to the shelves full of reference books on India. There are books on North-East India; other history books. Then we sit down around a table where Aung Myint Oo pulls out hidden treasures. There is a small paperback in Burmese which he translates for me. It is a collection of short stories by Indian writers including one by Bhisham Sahni, Bengali, Telugu writers.

Then there is another book by Thein Pe Myint, a Communist who published his Travels in India in 1945. He was a Minister in Gen Aung San’s government and his stories were translated by Usha Narayanan (1923-2008), and published under the title, Sweet and Sour (1999). Usha Narayanan’s Burmese name was Tint Tint and she was married to K.R. Narayanan, the President of India from 1997 to 2002.

There is a pamphlet published by another progressive publisher called Nagani on Struggle for Independence and it has a sketch of Gandhiji on the cover. Gandhi was an inspiration to many Burmese freedom fighters.

I see a pile of theses written by students of Mandalay University. The librarian tells us that in the past students came regularly to the library for research but in 2015 no students opted for history in either Mandalay University or Rangoon University.

We are joined by Kyaw Zan Hla, an elderly Communist writer who writes under the name Nyi Sae Min. He tells us he had been imprisoned twice, once under Gen Ne Win’s regime and then during the military junta. His brother was also in jail and had gone on 53 days hunger-strike and died in the notorious Coco Island jail.

Bogyi and our other friends are all student activists who took part in the 1988 uprising. They had grown up hating communism and socialism because it was associated with Gen Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party. Bogyi’s father was a Communist but he had been disillusioned with the party and had taken refuge in his religion.

The 1988 generation had fought for democracy and human rights but now were disillusioned by the kind of democracy that the National League for Democracy was practising. It had become a party of just one person, the Lady.

They were angry that the NLD went back on its promise to field some members of the 88 generation group in the elections. Ko Ko Gyi, a student leader who was sentenced to 65 years imprisonment but spent around 10 before being released, has already announced he was planning on setting up a political party for the 2020 elections.

The Past is in Front of Us

It is very difficult to describe the depth of the tragedy that Myanmar has suffered under decades of military rule. The pain, the humiliation and oppression of a people living in a massive prison from 1962 when General Ne Win took over power and closed the country. In a way, the story of the Moustache Brothers reflects both the country’s tragedy and the resilience of the people and their determination to challenge the military rulers.

We went to meet 65-year old Lu Maw. He and his brother, Par Par Lay, belong to the community of traditional entertainers or A-Nyeint as they are called. In the past their ancestors travelled from village to village entertaining the people with dance, puppets and comic acts. They were hired for festivals and also for special occasions such as weddings.

But after the 1988 national uprising the two brothers, who called themselves Moustache Brothers, put on shows with more political jokes. Par Par Lay became famous after a performance for the National League for Democracy. Lu Maw has a video of that event and it shows Aung San Suu Kyi giggling at his brother’s jokes.

The military intelligence did not find it funny and they decided to silence even the laughter by arresting Par Par Lay in 1990 who was campaigning for the NLD.

However, the brothers continued to put up their show every evening and in 1996 they went to Aung San Suu Kyi’s home in Yangon to entertain the NLD. When the brothers returned to Mandalay Par Par was again arrested and sent for hard labour.

After a year Par Par was released but the brothers continue to put up their shows and by now they had featured in the Western media and Lonely Planet also recommended their show. In 2007 they again took part in protests and this time Par Par was again in jail. He was released from jail when Hollywood comedians, like Rob Reiner and Bill Maher, wrote to the military junta asking for the release of Par Par Lay. He died in August 2013.

Lu Maw said: “I miss him.” The younger brother continues to do shows every evening. And his wife, a nautch girl, performs also.

Talking to Lu Maw I discover that he knew Sitt Nyein Aye, a Burmese artist who had lived for some time in my Delhi flat. The artist had lived right across the street from the Moustache Brothers; now he was living in the USA.

Bogyi had traced many of the Burmese who had lived in my flat in New Delhi during the years when they were living in exile in India. Many of them came from other towns. Many had returned to their country and settled down but others had acquired citizenship of other countries, Norway, Australia, the USA and Canada.

We were all going to meet at the New Year party organised at the Shwe Yi Mon Hotel; the owner, Ye Thurien, himself had been in jail in Imphal. He had fond memories of India and wanted to take his wife there.

I was interested in what had happened to each of them when they returned home to Myanmar after so many years in exile. The youngest of them was Nyi Htwe. He was now a lawyer and was practising in a small town Monywa. He said he had to face hostility from his fellow lawyers because he had been in India. In any case he could not practice because his mother had a stroke and now he was looking after her.

Another friend was Maung Maung Oo whom I had met in Komalathabi village in Manipur’s Chandel district. He was a member of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF). The organisation was founded on November 1, 1988, after the 8888 protests in Yangon. The students had been recruited into a students’ army trained and funded by Western sources.

Maung Maung had been kidnapped by the Burmese Army from Moreh, the Manipur border town, and was tortured and given two death sentences. He was given amnesty after President Obama’s visit to Myanmar in 2013. I notice he is having difficulty in eating with his left hand. His right hand hangs loose. He notices me looking and he smiles and says: “This is the effect of torture.”

The ABSDF still has an armed wing which had signed a ceasefire agreement with the present regime.

We meet Win Bo. He had played guitar in a band which had played at our wedding. He had returned to Myanmar in 1999 and wanted to study. However he did not get permission to attend classes because he belonged to the ’88 generation and the authorities were afraid he may infect them with rebellion.

Win Bo had studied on his own and got a diploma and a job with a UN agency. He travels extensively in the Naga self-administered Zone created under the 2008 Constitution and includes Layshi, Lahe and Nanyun townships.

Win Bo said the Nagas in Myanmar had no facilities at all; many of them were dying of malaria, TB and even measles. Although they had autonomy, the Naga council in charge was entirely controlled by the Myanmar Army.

I was beginning to understand the Maoris who say the past is in front of us and the future is behind us because we have not yet seen it.

The Tatmadaw and Democracy

In Myanmar the armed forces, Army, Navy and the Air Force are called the Tatmadaw and it has played a political role in the country’s affairs. In accordance with Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, a quarter of parliamentary seats are reserved for military officers.

During the long years of Army rule thousands of acres of land had been taken away from farmers. Now the farmers were trying to get back their land. I met Kyaw Moe Hlang who reminded me that I had taken him out of Imphal jail. Now he was a lawyer and had studied land laws and was helping farmers recover their lands. He said they had challenged the proced-ures by which lands had been confiscated and had succeeded in getting back 100 hectares of land belonging to 60 farmers. Now he was doing research to challenge the illegal taking over of 1000 hectares.

How do you get funds? I asked him and he smiled and said he had to spend money from his own pocket.

Despite all the atrocities the Myanmar Army has committed, it commands respect from many people. The reason is that unlike the origins of the Indian Army which was a tool of the Raj, the Tatmadaw was founded by General Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, during Myanmar’s struggle against British colonial rule. That is why the Lady, the icon of democracy, has repeatedly expressed her “affection” for the Tatmadaw. In an interview to CNN she said she had no hard feelings toward the Generals who kept her in detention for most of the past two decades. “I’ve always got on with people in the army,” she said. “This is why I have a soft spot for them even though I don’t like what they do—that’s different from not liking them.”

For many citizens, especially the Barmar majority, the Tatmadaw has kept the country from disintegrating.

As we enter the famous Mandalay Fortress across the 230 feet wide moat there is massive red banner on which is written in English: “TATMADAW AND THE PEOPLE, CO-OPERATE AND CRUSH ALL THOSE HARMING THE UNION.”

Myanmar has been increasing its annual budget for buying a heavy arms and these are being used to crush the armed insurgencies of the ethnic minority nationalities such as the Kachin, Karen, Arakan and Shan.

On the night of January 9 Bogyi knocked on our hotel room door at night. He said some senior leaders of the All Burma Students Democratic Front, Slai Yaw Aung, Myint Oo and Saw Maung Oo, would like to meet me. They said one of their members had been arrested so they had come to get him out of jail through negotiation with the military since they had signed a ceasefire agreement.

I ask them how the peace process was going and they answer that they were having discussions on democracy and federalism. But they had no vision of what kind of federalism they wanted. It was more about power-sharing between the ethnic minority elites and the Burman (the majority people) elite.

While it was absolutely true that the ethnic minorities were not given their fair share of political power, economic development or cultural autonomy, it was also true that there has developed a kind of vested interest in perpetuating these insurgencies. The European Union had been funding many of these groups. I personally knew of the Euro-Burma group in India had helped when I was representing 36 Arakan and Karens in jail in the Andaman Islands. Without the funds it would have been impossible to carry on the 13-year battle. Even if I was doing the case pro bono, it struck me what the European Union was doing: funding the campaign for the release of members of Arakan Army and Karen National Union?

There is also quite a thriving Peace industry in Myanmar; funds are available for studies on insurgency and conflict resolution but so far no one had found any meaningful resolution to the conflict.

The student activists were now in the fifties. They had lived in the jungles and without access to new ideas. Their lack of political imagination ensured that the peace process would just go on meaninglessly; just as I had seen the peace processes in North-East India.

The ethnic parties had fared badly in the recent elections and people had voted overwhelmingly for the NLD candidates who belonged to the ethnic minorities.

I had been called to give a lecture at the Mandalay University. The Department of International Relations invited me. The military regime had banned all Departments of Political Science. But some of the 1988 activists had studied books and these former political prisoners had started the Yangon School of Political Science.

But the newly elected Members of Parliament had no experience with democratic politics and had been coming to India and inviting foreign academics to give them primary lessons on democratic processes.

A night before I was coming back to India a group of former members of the All Burma Students Democratic Front came to meet me. They wanted advice on a very sensitive matter. One of them told me that in 1991-92, 35 ABSDF members died in custody of their own organisation in Kachin State; 15 of them were beheaded as spies in February 1992, and 20 others tortured to death while undergoing interrogation.

The leader said he was an eye-witness but he could not speak out for so long because of the political situation. However, now that Myanmar had some democracy the matter had got attention in the social media since 2012. It was now clear that the killings were not motivated by internal power struggles but pre-mediated and planned. The murders took place on February 12 which was Union Day, a day to celebrate the union of all the nationalities that made the Union of Burma.

The leader told me he was an eye-witness to the murders and the killings reflected the sharp division between the ethnic minorities and the Burman people; all the student activists who were killed were Burman.

It was chilling story. I asked him what he expected to achieve by bringing out the true facts. He said it would show how deep was the ethnic divide in Myanmar.

Buddhist Nationalism

It is not only the ethnic divide between the Burman people and the minority nationalities. The religious minorities too were resentful of the discrimination sagainst Christians and Muslims.

The Myochit Dhamma Network, a Buddhist network, was just one example of how the Buddhist nationals participated in anti-Muslim protests. The most virulent and well known of the Buddhist national is Ashin Wirathu, the monk from Mandalay who has been against citizenship rights to Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine state.

The West has been critical of Aung San Suu Kyi for not speaking out against the atrocities being committed by the Arakans on Rohingyas and her party, the NLD, did not field even a single Muslim candidate in the election which has brought her to power.

The Burmese media have voiced concern over the impact of Donald Trump’s rhetoric on Islam that has emboldened ultra-nationalist and anti-Muslim sentiment in Myanmar. The widespread anti-Muslim sentiment among the majority of Burmese is posing a great amount of tension in Myanmar, especially in Rakhine state.

In Mandalay University the students asked my opinion on the Rohingya issue. I said it was a complex issue because of the international dimensions; it was true that there was support for the Rohingyas from Islamic organisations based in Malaysia, Bangladesh and even Saudi Arabia. Even the West was using the issue to interfere in Myanmar. However, in order to stop this influence it was essential for the people in Myanmar and the government to address the injustice and violence against the Rohingyas.

The students were struggling with their own prejudices but the discussion was open and animated. I knew each of the students must carry with her the scars of military rule and I could see that they were like the students before them going to guard their freedom.

China Factor

Throughout our stay in Mandalay we were aware of the Chinese. Even as we had come from the airport our friends pointed out huge mansions owned by Chinese businessmen.

We went to visit the famous jade market in Mandalay. The jade trade is controlled by drug lords and former Generals. It generates funds for both sides of the war between the Kachin Independence Organisation and the Central Government. It is also smuggled to China where jade is more prized than anywhere else in the world.

The Chinese border is not far and many Burmese businessmen goto Yunnan to buy goods and sell in Mandalay. We meet one of them who is married to a woman from Yunnan. Bogyi tells me he had forbidden his wife and children to speak Chinese at home because he hated the Chinese so much. However, Bogyi intervened and the man has relented. Now the children go to two schools, Burmese school and a Chinese school.

Our friends are worried that China may have even a greater grip over Myanmar if Donald Trump reduces assistance to Myanmar and even turns a blind eye to the peace process the National League for Democracy-led govern-ment has been committed to promoting. He may not attach as much importance to the US connection with Myanmar as Barack Obama who has lifted most of the economic sanctions against the country.

We are back at the airport waiting for the flight to take us home, to India. Bogyi asks: Aunty, I wish India and Myanmar could have better relations. It could play a positive role. I could not agree with him more.

The author, a noted human rights lawyer, played a leading role in defending the Burmese activists in exile in India fighting for democracy and freedom in their country when it was under military rule. She has just returned after a visit to Mandalay.

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