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Review by Derek Brooke-Wavell:
Whispers at the Pagoda is a series of short conversations between American journalist Julie Sell and Burmese people from many walks of life and at many geographical locations, including the USA. At the front of each chapter is a black-and-white photo to illustrate its theme - though the interviewees are not themselves seen.
Whispers at the Pagoda -
Portraits of Modern Burma
by Julie Sell
150 pages - $16.95
UK: Lavis Marketing,
Lime Walk, Oxford, OX3 7AD
Tel: 01865 767575
£12.95 + £1.25 p&p
In her preface, the author points out that there are two very different
popular images of Burma. One is the delightful and alluring land, with
picturesque pagodas and charming people. The other is a darker image -
of military repression and widespread suffering.|
Burma is not the only country to have such a dual image, and western newspapers can produce a duality without meaning to, simply by catering to the demand of their readers. The eye of the newspaper reader is attracted by an interesting holiday destination or a shocking atrocity story, but when it comes to everyday life - evenings out, family life, or grumbles about traffic, bureaucracy etc - readers are more interested in hearing about their own country than somebody else's.
It is a virtue of Whispers at the Pagoda to move away from the more extreme and oft-repeated stereotypes of Burma. We see plenty of real people in their own day-to-day context. We meet a waiter, an 80-year-old grandmother offering tea, a retired soldier, students, Chinese people and minority tribes, and plenty of Burmese children. We visit the Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay for an hour to participate in the morning's prayers. The retired soldier is particularly interesting - he talks at some length about his life. He is a Gurkha, and remembers British days with fondness. He had loved the bugle every morning. Since then he has fought on several fronts, against different insurgents. He has a wife and children. He now thinks the army has degenerated, with officers making money on the side - but he continues to give it his loyalty.
Julie Sell has collected her interviews into groups according to the subject. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi gets a section to herself; other subjects include students and education, publishing and the restrictions on it, and the younger generation. Her faithfulness to the words of her interviewees, together with the detail of her descriptions, give this book freshness and life. However, the book does carry an overall political message. This is evident from her choice of interviewees, a high proportion of whom have suffered under the present government. And it comes through in the potted backgrounds that she provides for each chapter. These accounts are conventional depictions of a government persecuting its citizens, which do not make much attempt at understanding the complexities of the situation.
Whispers at the Pagoda is one of the best books of its type so far, but it makes me hope for the emergence of better books to come. Today's historians have a talent for bringing their sympathetic imagination to almost any situation that has existed, at least in the past. Every historical character, even Atilla the Hun or Jack the Ripper, can be understood if we make the effort; they are the product of certain stimuli within a particular environment, and to understand them makes us wiser and better able to cope with the world. Why cannot we apply the same understanding to the painful two-way interactions between rulers and ruled in Burma to whose pain we ourselves have no doubt contributed in greater or smaller measure, and to whose healing we may yet make a contribution?
It is important not to forget the world's victims, but it seems to me that we should also be
working towards solutions, and for that a cool head may be required.
Brave New World and Back Again -
£5.99 from the author
at 5 Sunley House,
London E1 7RW
MEMBERS' DISCOUNT PRICE: £4.95 (Go to Discounts page.)
Review by Philip W Plumb, who was himself in Rangoon in 1947:|
On 19th July, 1947, gunmen in army uniform rushed past the guards on duty at the Secretariat in central Rangoon, entered the room where Aung San, Deputy Chairman of the Executive Council and effectively Prime Minister, was presiding over a meeting of the cabinet. The gunmen shot and killed Aung San, six members of his cabinet, an official and a bodyguard. They then got back in their lorry and sped away. One of Aung San's political rivals, U Saw, who had been Prime Minister before the Japanese invasion, was tried, with his associates, found guilty and hanged.
Fifty years later, the BBC broadcast a programme Who Really Killed Aung San? which enthusiastically pursued the belief of many Burmese people at the time that Saw had not acted alone and that others were behind the plot. One author, Kin Oung, commented that even today, Burmese power mongers play the game of eliminating rivals to wrest the crown for themselves. Early in 1946 Aung San had confided to Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, former Governor of Burma, that he felt he had only another eighteen months of life because national heroes had too many enemies. Kin Oung's book Who Killed Aung San? put forward various theories in its two editions (1993 and 1996), but the one preferred by the author was that another political rival had hired gunmen the previous year to pose as Aung San's soldiers and make a spurious attempt on U Saw's life, wounding but not killing him, but goading Saw to get revenge on Aung San in due course.
However the BBC chose instead to concentrate on supposed British involvement: specifically that Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, in retirement in England, was the instigator, and that John Stewart Bingley, the British Council representative in Rangoon, was his messenger. Another assassination then took place - of Dorman-Smith's character. His alleged motive was being outsmarted and humiliated by Aung San. Yet surely if Dorman-Smith had wanted revenge, his target should have been the British Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, who had not supported him while in post and finally dismissed him in a humiliating manner.
The author of this 84-page booklet, Gavin Fowells, was intrigued by the various inconsistencies in the official histories of the events and the withholding of documents which might (or might not) have proved embarrassing if made public. He decided to follow some of the trails laid in the programme and this publication is the result of some wide research in both published and unpublished records. Written in breathless style, the book is in places rather difficult to follow. Mr Fowells, however, has cast his net widely and turned up many interesting references and not a few inconsistencies in official and private accounts of the events. He feels that because no British witnesses were examined at the trial of U Saw and his associates they did not receive a fair hearing. Fowells considers which government, factions and individuals might have reasons for wishing Aung San dead and speculates that almost every country with a commercial interest in the area could have been involved. This is perhaps casting the net too wide!
Bingley was brought into the picture because U Nu and other prominent Burmese politicians thought that the British Council was an intelligence organisation. He was described as being a close friend of U Saw, had visited his house and was therefore under suspicion. He was also said to have been heard on leaving the house saying to Saw in a loud voice "We are all prepared to help you fully". Fowells, from British Council files, shows that Bingley also had such similarly good contacts with other Burmese politicians of all persuasions - so much so that the CID were dogging him and had to be called off .
That is gratifying information to me personally. In the early part of 1947 I often had Sunday lunch at the British Council residence in University Avenue with Bingley and his journalist friend, F.W. Benton, in return for designing and organising the Council's Library and training his locally recruited staff. Bingley even offered me the salaried post of librarian after demob. It is as well that I refused the offer.
Gavin Fowells' booklet offers no certainties but asks many questions and points to many unexplained matters. There is no thesis or agenda but he offers questions, Isn't it strange that...? and ruminations It is possible that... which form a basis for others to follow up. There is no index but references and notes are printed alongside the main text. By his research he has identified many sources that might prove useful to others seeking the truth about this tragic episode in Burmese and British history. If Aung San had lived would there be democracy in Burma today? We cannot know the answer.
Review by Evelyn Broughton-Smart:
At a convent school, run by Italian nuns, set high in the Shan mountains, four-and-a-half-thousand feet above sea level, a young girl looks out at the pine forests and perhaps wonders about her future. She is the Shan Princess, Sao Hearn Hkam, attractive and intelligent, who has led a very sheltered life and will probably continue to do so. What does the future hold for her?
The White Umbrella
by Patricia Elliott
With a prologue by Bertil Lintner
Post Books, 6th Floor,
Bangkok Post Bldg,
136 Na Ranong Road,
Fax 662-671 9698
£7.55 / US$12.00
(£5.66 / $9.00 for Society members)
all plus postage of £5.66 / $9.00
Order online from
In those childhood days she wondered if there would be an arranged
marriage for her into another princely family, as was the custom. Well,
that was to be her destiny - but she can hardly have dreamed of the
other things her life was to hold.|
There would be triumphs and tragedies, highs and lows, meetings with world leaders and British royalty. She would be caught up in wars, both international and civil, and have near brushes with death. She once said "You have one existence but many lives." So she had - her titles were to include Princess Hearn Kham (Golden House); Mahadevi (Chief Queen) of Yaunghwe State, First Lady (wife of the first President of independent Burma), Member of Parliament and leader of an independent army.
All this the Princess would take in her stride.
Patricia Elliott, a Canadian journalist, tells the Princess's story in a
very readable style and with many of her photos, revealing much about a
little-known corner of the world. She has stirred up the memories of an
old lady (well into her eighties) who now lives quietly in Canada, cared
for by her devoted family.
to Britain-Burma Society members.