Magazine article The Spectator

Down the River in Search of the Raj

Magazine article The Spectator

Down the River in Search of the Raj

Article excerpt


IT WOULD be hard to think of a country which has been more `favoured by nature' - as the saintly and beautiful Aung San Suu Kyi puts it in her memoirs - than Burma. Its soil is incredibly rich, yielding three crops of rice a year and growing valuable teak forests; it is also packed with oil, rubies and jade. Some of the great rivers of Asia, like the 1,300-mile-long Irrawaddy, irrigate it and offer limitless cheap hydro-electrics.

Yet Burma remains the poorest country in the area, blessed by geography but cursed by history, as down through the ages rival kings and countless wars kept the Burmese in a state of backward feudalism. As recently as the mid-19th century, when Albert the Good was renovating Windsor, King Mindon was burying alive carefully selected pregnant women beneath the foundations of his new Xanadu in Mandalay to deter evil spirits. Such carry-ons gave the imperial British a sequence of (pretty flimsy) pretexts for moving in. Though it was always a poor relation under the Indian Raj, for the next couple of generations Burma enjoyed a rare period of peace and prosperity.

Then came the second world war and the Japanese. In the terrible retreat of 1942, the British left an efficiently scorched earth behind them, firing oil wells and blowing up bridges. The Japanese repeated the process in 1944-45, while the RAF bombed what remained. `When buffaloes fight', say the Burmese `the grass gets trampled.' The two grisly campaigns cost the British and (mostly) Indian army 74,000 casualties; but nobody has bothered to count the dead Burmese, of whom some 100,000 slave labourers are said to have perished while building the death railway.

When peace came, the one hope for the ravaged country was Suu Kyi's father, Aung San, who was murdered together with all his Cabinet. There followed years of civil war and a special brand of inwardturned socialism which augmented the ruin. Then entered the current nasties, Slorc (it stands for State Law and Order Restoration Council, an unfortunate acronym that might have been invented by the late Ian Fleming), who still keep Suu Kyi virtually penned up and deter many would-be tourists from visiting Burma. (She has in fact urged foreigners not to come, until Slorc mends its horrible ways.)

But last month an irresistible temptation came to us in the shape of an invitation from the remarkable American entrepreneur of the Orient Express, Jim Sherwood, to float down the Irrawaddy on his super-deluxe `Road to Mandalay' river boat. Knowing the Sherwood reputation for perfection in all things, it was hard to resist. We were not disappointed. To watch a blood-red sun sink behind the 2,001 pagodas of ancient Pagan has to be among the experiences of a lifetime.

I just missed being sent to Burma in 1945 (thanks to Hiroshima), but I had a special reason for wanting to see it now. I reckon I was probably conceived there - a matter of some significance to the sibylline Burmese. How do I know? Because my mother was one of those rare creatures of her time, a female foreign correspondent (writing under the name of Auriol Barran), and she published articles in the Sunday Times from Burma exactly nine months before I was born. She kept all her cuttings, and much of what she and my father had seen we saw too - unchanged by the passage of seven decades: teak rafts floating down the vast, glassy river that lollops down from the Himalayas, the timeless villages with their gentle Buddhist tranquillity.

What my mother did see, and we didn't, was, en passant, an itinerant snake-charmer whose 12-foot-long cobra got out of control and ran amok in the crowd, biting a girl `savagely on the arm'. They evidently revived her `by spitting into her ear - a new form of first aid!'

She also met an old lady who had been lady-in-waiting to the last queen, Supyalat, wife of King Thebaw. Deposed by the British in 1886, Thebaw put his brothers and sisters in red velvet sacks and had them `respectfully beaten to death'. …

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