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Book Reviews
  • Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts
  • Rangoon 1941
  • Abhaya: Burma's fearlessness
  • Myanmar: Burma in Style
  • 30 heritage buildings of Yangon
  • Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads
  • Where China meets India
  • Exodus Burma
  • The Lady and the Peacock
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  • State of Vaccination
  • The Road to Wanting
  • What Everyone Needs to Know
  • Under Running Laughter
  • Burmese Painting
  • The State in Myanmar
  • Almost Englishmen
  • Return to the Irrawaddy
  • The Pa-O: Rebels and Refugees
  • Kinwun Min-Gyi's Diary
  • Last of the Guardians
  • Great Tey to Rangoon
  • White Butterflies
  • Burma: The Forgotten War
  • Textiles from Burma
  • Kelly's Burma Campaign
  • Trilogy on Anglo-Burmese Wars
  • Curse of Independence
  • Chinthe Women
  • Economic Development
  • Epilogue in Burma, 1945-48
  • Visions from the Golden Land
  • Among Insurgents
  • The Glass Palace
  • Through the Jungle of Death
  • Whispers at the Pagoda
  • Burma '47
  • The White Umbrella
  • Burma: ... Politics of Ethnicity
  • The Art of Burma - New Studies
  • Burma 1942: Invasion
  • Campaign Memorial Library
  • Under the Dragon
  • Road to Mandalay
  • Challenge of Change
  • Burma Bride
  • Vanishing Tribes
  • The Voice of Hope
  • Letters from Burma
  • A World Overturned
  • Dark Ruby
  • Latest reviews are listed at top left.
    Reviewers include Gerry Abbott, Maureen Baird-Murray, Colleen Beresford, Professor Anne Booth, Derek Brooke-Wavell, Evelyn Broughton-Smart, Dr Michael Charney, Patricia Herbert, Noel Holmes, Wendy Law-Yone, John McEnery, Diana Millington, Martin Morland, Philip W Plumb, Lewis Shaw, Dr Thant Myint-U and John Wall.

    Actors on the Burmese Stage:
    A Trilogy of the Anglo-Burmese Wars

    by Terence R. Blackburn
    1. The British Lion and the Burmese Tiger:
      Campbell and Maha Bandula

      ISBN 81 7648 338 9 (volume 1) pp 71
    2. A Sadistic Scholar: Captain Latter's War
      ISBN 81 7648 361 3 (volume 2) pp 109
    3. An Ill-Conditioned Cad: Mr Moylan of The Times
      ISBN 81 7648 362 1 (volume 3) pp 75
    Price: Rupees 500 per volume in India.
    Combined price: £30.00 ($50.00)
    Published 2002 by S.B. Nangia,
    A.P.H. Publishing Corporation,
    5 Ansari Road,
    Darya Ganj,
    New Delhi 110 0002.
    Review by Patricia Herbert, formerly of the British Library:
    There have been many books about Britain's three 19th century wars with Burma which resulted in the overthrow of the Burmese monarchy and the country's becoming part of the British Raj. Blackburn remarks that western and Burmese accounts of events differ so strikingly that he was inspired to seek a middle and impartial ground when writing his first history of the period, The British Humiliation of Burma (Bangkok: Orchid Press, 2000). Although some may feel that the somewhat judgemental title belies the author's impartial aims, Blackburn has a particular forte for recreating a historical period and its characters and his trilogy (which reworks much of the material from his The British Humiliation of Burma) demonstrates this well. In three slim volumes, each catchily titled, the author focuses on extraordinary personalities associated with the three Anglo-Burmese Wars (of 1824-26, 1852-53 and 1885) and endeavours to solve some outstanding mysteries as well as to provide a fresh assessment of military and naval strategy.
    Volume One, The British Lion and the Burmese Tiger: Campbell and Maha Bandula appraises the events of the First Anglo-Burmese War and its two opposing commanders, of whom Blackburn writes: "It is difficult to decide who was the most inept." In this war the British lost more troops - some 15,000 - from bad planning and tropical diseases than from enemy action, while the Burmese who had three times as many men as the British "failed to understand the difference between a well armed, disciplined force and the native armies they had previously fought and invariably beaten". Blackburn draws on both Burmese and British sources to provide a most full and lively narrative of the long drawn out campaign.

    Volume Two, A Sadistic Scholar: Captain Latter's War examines the career of Thomas Latter (murdered in December 1853 at the age of 37 when he was Deputy Commissioner of Prome). Blackburn holds Latter, in his role of interpreter, as responsible for the failure of negotiations in January 1852 between Commodore Lambert's mission and the Governor (myo-wun) of Rangoon. Blackburn examines in particular events of January 6 1852 when a British delegation entered the courtyard of the Myo-wun's residence bearing letters from Governor-General Lord Dalhousie, and was told that the Myo-wun was asleep and could not be disturbed. After waiting for a short time, the delegation left. Upon hearing their report, Lambert, the "combustible commodore" (as he was later dubbed by Dalhousie) took unauthorised action, provoking hostilities by seizing a royal vessel and blockading Rangoon port. In February 1852 an ultimatum was sent to the King and upon receiving no reply by the ultimatum's date of expiry (April 1 1852) the Second Anglo-Burmese War officially commenced. It ended in June 1853 with the declaration of a cease fire and Britain's unilateral annexation of Lower Burma (Pegu Province). Historians agree that the Governor of Rangoon's "nap" was a turning point and Blackburn believes that Latter misrepresented the incident as a "deep insult" and that the other interpetor, Edwards, would not have felt able to disagree with his superior. Blackburn seems unaware of the presence of another fluent Burmese speaker, an American parson, Reverend Kincaird, who must share some of the blame as he joined Latter in choosing to regard the Governor's conduct as "insolence". A full account of the incident in the Governor's compound and of subsequent events is provided by an American adventurer, John Williamson Palmer, who was (unqualified) ship's surgeon aboard the East India Company's steamship, Phlegethon . Published anonymously (by "An American") under the title, The Golden Dagon: or, Up and Down the Irrawaddi (New York: Dix, Edwards, 1856), the importance of this source has been highlighted by Hugh MacDougall (in an unpublished [?] paper The Myowun's nap presented at the 1994 Burma Studies Colloquium) who also draws attention to the Burmese belief that a sleeper must not be awakened suddenly lest his butterfly spirit (leik-bya) escapes.

    As in volume one, Blackburn excels in chronicling another mismanaged campaign, headed on the British side by elderly commanders and beset by military and naval antipathy and prejudices. Contemporary newspaper reports were scathing in their criticism of the conduct of the war: The Times(October 5th, 1852) called it "an absurdity" and commented: "...mail after mail tells the same invariable story, a large British force under General Godwin, in the best possible position, with an abundance of material, with the largest fleet of steamers ever collected in that hemisphere, with the native population not merely unresisting, but conspiring and assisting, yet that force is doing nothing at all."

    Volume Three, An Ill-Conditioned Cad: Mr Moylan of The Times is devoted, not as one might expect to a leading figure in the events of the Third Anglo-Burmese War such as General Prendergast or Colonel Sladen, but to Edward Kryan Moylan, a barrister and special correspondent of the Times whose entire career was based, in Blackburn's words, "on an edifice of lies and deceit". This volume is in some ways less satisfactory than the previous two since it is more a biography of Moylan than an account of the onset and conduct of the war and the different characters involved. Nonetheless, Moylan's role as a special correspondent and his conduct during the Upper Burma campaign and subsequent events occupies from chapter 4 onwards, while an account of the prelude to war is given in Appendix 2 (appendix 1 being on the Ashanti War of 1873) and of the conduct of the war and its outcome in Appendix 3.

    In these three volumes, readers are introduced to a most colourful array of characters whose role in the three act drama that turned the once proud kingdom of Burma into a province of British India is narrated with verve. The author draws on an impressive range of source materials that includes Burmese language sources, contemporary newspaper reports, official records and military memoirs. He is able to give much more weight to the Burmese side of affairs than most historical accounts of this period and the trilogy is greatly enhanced by a well chosen range of colour and black and white illustrations (that include contemporary prints and portraits, Burmese manuscripts and maps). Blackburn has not been well served by his editors whose misuse of possessive apostrophes and plurals is particularly irritating. The citations can be unsatisfactory too, especially in volume 1 when the reader will find an author mentioned in the text, while in the footnote only a title of a work is given, leaving the reader to link the two to locate the source in the bibliography. Also, readers need to be given some setting for the sources as contemporary observations and accounts are not always clearly distinguished in the text from later interpretations and analyses, and citations for some quotes are lacking.
    Patricia Herbert, 2003

    Review by Philip Plumb (Chairman of the Judges panel for the reference awards bestowed by CILIP):
    Many thousands of British, Indian, African, Gurkha and Chinese servicemen fought the Japanese in Burma during the Second World War.

    Oct 2001
    Burma - the Curse
    of Independence
    by Shelby Tucker

    Published by Pluto Press,
    ISBN 07453 1541 and
    07453 1546 1
    £40 HB
    £13.99 PB
    Thousands were prisoners kept in inhumane conditions. Many lost their lives and are buried in that remote country. The most poignant impressions I have from a visit to Burma in November 1992 were the epitaphs on the memorial stones in the beautifully tended Htaukkyant War Cemetery some 21 miles north-east of Rangoon where lie for ever over 27,000 war dead.. Those who survived from both sides of the savage war and the relatives of those who didn't, must wonder now why it was fought and what has happened to that attractive country and its likeable people. They may wonder why the British effort and sacrifice is downplayed in many modern guidebooks, even those published in Britain such as the Insight Guide to Burma. Other well-regarded and established reference books such as The World Guide, which has achieved many editions, declare that it was the Burma National Army which drove the Japanese out of Burma 'with some assistance from the 14th Army'. It is important that we try to understand the country and its recent history and consider what ways there are of helping it to achieve normality.

    Shelby Tucker, the author of the much acclaimed Among Insurgents - Walking through Burma, assists us in this task with a concise, informative and very readable exposition of the complex events leading up to Burma's independence and the troubles it has endured since. As an American, he can take a stance untainted by the post-colonial guilt of so many British academics and media pundits. (As long ago as 1885, WS Gilbert included idiots who praised every country but their own on Ko-Ko's list of those who would not be missed; he would today include Foreign Secretaries). Tucker can criticise those American scholars who treat works by British writers as axiomatically partisan, and he can draw attention to the anti-British bias and unreliable assertions of some American histories of Burma.

    Nor is he afraid to look critically at Aung San's motives and actions (heresy in some circles). He casts great doubt on the conduct of the trial of U Saw for the assassination of Aung San and his cabinet colleagues and on its verdict. And he points out the propaganda coup handed to the Burmese military government by the BBC's television programme, categorised by Tucker as meretricious, Who Really Killed Aung San (suggesting that British interests were behind the murders), and by articles written by its presenter and published in The Guardian and elsewhere. Ironically, the programme is used by the Burmese government to discredit Aung San Suu Kyi for having married one of the kalas who 'murdered her father'.

    Possibly the most useful section of the book is the chapter titled Whither Burma, in which Tucker examines the predictions of various scholars, including Martin Smith, Mikael Gravers, David Steinberg, Josef Silverstein ('the doyen of Burma scholars living today'), Mary Callahan, Andrew Selth, Robert Taylor, Morden Pedersen and Bertil Lintner. The author, proposing various possible actions based on international law, feels, contrary to most of the scholars he cites, that the end of the military regime might come sooner than many expect.

    Meanwhile, as Tucker points out, Burma continues to be treated as a pariah state. One guidebook publisher even leaves Burma out of its guide to South-East Asia on the grounds that it does not think people should go there. That decision is surely the right of every individual to make. Truly, a rough guide in more ways than one! Despite China's human rights record, including the continuing oppression of Tibet, heavy investment in that country by the West continues and vast quantities of Chinese exports are brought here. Yet all trade with Burma is discouraged and tourism disparaged. If the best way to improve human rights in China is by engagement, then isn't this the best for Burma?

    There is one vital difference between the two countries. China provides a vast reservoir of cheap labour for Western commercial enterprises and a huge, profitable and growing market. Burma, in contrast, has neither and will need much financial help before returns can be made. So much for an ethical foreign policy. As for the guide books, and the way 3000 Merrill's marauders (who were American) were given as much attention as 150,000 British and Indian troops driving out the Japanese, one observes that the American market for guide books is far bigger than the British one and Americans would rather read that it was their men who made the major contribution to victory in Burma even if it is not true.

    Philip Plumb
    November 2002

    Spring 2001
    Chinthe Women:
    Women's Auxiliary Service Burma 1942-1946
    Researched and edited by Sally and Lucy Jaffé.

    Available from Chinthe Women,
    c/o Rock Hill Cottage,
    Chipping Norton,
    OX7 5BA.
    Soft back; Cost £5 incl. post and packing.

    A full review by Philip Plumb of Chinthe Women can be read in our members' area - here are some extracts from it.
    Lucy Jaffé never knew her grandmother, Ninian Taylor, who died before Lucy was born, but she knew that she had accomplished something special during the war for which she received the OBE. Very little existed to record her achievements and those of the women who worked alongside her to form the Women's Auxiliary Service (Burma).
    The Burma Forces annual luncheon in October 1998 provided the starting point for the research carried out by Lucy and her mother, Sally, Ninian's daughter. An appeal for information, souvenirs, photographs, letters and anything else to throw light on the activities of this gallant band of women produced much valuable data.

    The Women's Auxiliary Service (Burma) was formed on January 16th, 1942, mainly for cipher duties. With the invasion of Burma by the Japanese only a few weeks later the main group of 350 members was evacuated from Rangoon by sea to India. A smaller number retreated with the British Army northwards to Mandalay, Maymyo and finally, Myitkyina, from where they were flown into Assam and then Simla. Mrs Ninian Taylor became commander of the re-formed W.A.S.(B) which was to become a canteen service for the troops of Burma Command.. They moved down through Burma with the Army, their camps being within sound of the Japanese guns and as far forward as Divisional Headquarters. In March 1944 they provided a canteen service about twenty miles out of Imphal to part of the Second Wingate Expedition then training in the jungle.

    The Wasbies returned to Rangoon early in May, 1945, where they took over the catering at the Boat Club, a large amenities centre attended by over twelve hundred men daily and also provided refreshment at the docks for the thousands of incoming and outgoing troops. Twenty Burmese girls were recruited in Rangoon and wore a distinctive light coloured blouse and longyi in contrast to the usual dark green dress. Small contingents of Wasbies manned mobile canteens in many parts of Burma particularly at the river crossings where the embarking or disembarking troops enjoyed the customary mug of tea. The airstrip at Hmawbi was the destination, after the Japanese surrender, of thousands of British prisoners of war and internees flown in from Thailand, about 400 arriving every day, and here the Wasbies provided refreshments and helped the men readjust to a life of freedom.

    In October, 1945, although the war was officially over they were nearly caught in an attack by twenty Japanese on a tea factory on an estate near Toungoo where they were providing canteen facilities to a British unit. A few days previously seven Japanese snipers had been killed close by. At least 24 members of the Service were Mentioned in Despatches throughout the War. Teams were sent out to Java, Sumatra and Japan and the Andaman Islands where troops were engaged in disarming and guarding the Japanese.

    During 1945 and 1946 girls were recruited from Australia and filled the gaps caused by members leaving to rejoin husbands and families. Typical was Dorothy Heytman, an Australian girl of Dutch origin, stationed in Rangoon where I was based and who became a good friend. It was a pleasure to see her photograph in Chinthe Women.

    Chinthe Women contains many photographs of Wasbies at work and after the War including the reunion in London at which the apron covered with the divisional and corps badges which the Wasbies served is prominently displayed (it is now lost but hopefully will reappear). The memories of many of the Wasbies printed here, together with tributes from servicemen, illuminate a very testing time for all those involved. The achievements of Mrs. Taylor, who was obviously held in great respect, and some awe, by her colleagues, shine through this account and fully justify the quest which her daughter and grand-daughter undertook.

    Philip Plumb
    September 2001

    Economic Development of Burma: A Vision and a Strategy
    A Study by Burmese Economists

    by Khin Maung Kyi, Ronald Findlay, R.M. Sundrum, Mya Maung, Myo Nyunt, Zaw Oo et al
    Stockholm: Olof Palme International Center
    ISBN 918-883616-9
    Review by Professor Anne Booth of SOAS, London University:
    Economic Development of Burma should be welcomed on two grounds. First, it represents a timely and careful analysis of Burmese economic development since the 1950s. Secondly, it is based on the work of a distinguished group of expatriate economists who were born and educated in , and who all studied at the University of Rangoon before going on to pursue graduate studies in the UK and the USA. . All have made their careers abroad since the 1960s, but they have continued to follow events in their homeland with both concern and compassion. It is hardly surprising that much of the book is critical in tone; the story the authors tell is one of both shameful neglect, and of a stubborn pursuit of policies which have had a devastating effect on both the export sector and the domestic economy.

    Today Burma is ranked near the bottom of the league table of Asian nations, not just in terms of per capita GDP, but also in terms of most educational and demographic indicators. Not surprisingly, given the presence of Professor Ronald Findlay on the panel, the "absurd overvaluation of the kyat" and the autarkic trade regime come in for particular criticism. Sadly by the end of the 1990s, the only part of the Burmese export economy which was flourishing was the large (but of course unquantified) drug trade. As is pointed out in Chapter 7, were it not for the drug economy, the black market rate of the kyat would have been even more out of line with the official rate than is in fact the case.

    But the book is not just a catalogue of policy failures, comprehensive though they have been. The authors have taken the sub-title of the volume to heart and each chapter contains not just an account of developments since 1960 but also a set of policy prescriptions. By and large these are based on the lessons offered by the more successful Asian economies since 1950. In Chapter 12, the authors stress the importance of restoring macroeconomic stability, of allowing market institutions to develop, and of introducing a more business-friendly regulatory environment in order to encourage both domestic and foreign investment. The importance of improving infrastructure, education and health facilities and of encouraging a free and open intellectual environment is also emphasised. While there may not be complete agreement about the reforms which the authors prescribe (this reviewer for example would question whether a currency board would be appropriate for Burma at its current stage of development), the overall thrust of the strategy envisaged by the authors is surely in the right direction.


    Review by Philip Plumb:

    This is a welcome reissue of a book which did not get the attention it deserved when first published; yet Epilogue in Burma 1945-48 contains an important analysis of the British Army's vital role in the days following the Japanese surrender. In particular it shows how near Britain was to having its own Vietnam catastrophe and how this was averted by the political wisdom and key military appreciation of Lt-General Sir Harold Briggs, last General Officer Commanding, Burma Command.
    October 2000
    Epilogue in Burma 1945-48:
    The military dimension of British withdrawal
    by John McEnery

    Published by White Lotus,
    Soft back, £15.00
    from John McEnery
    37 Leinster Ave
    London SW14 7JW

    While giving due credit to the work of Professor Hugh Tinker, editor of the official history of constitutional relations between Britain and Burma, John McEnery takes issue with its title, Burma: The Struggle for Independence, 1944-48 on the ground that the only real argument was about the pace of change; the Burmans were pushing at a door which was ajar.

    By using primary Army sources: files, war diaries and quarterly historical reports, ignored by the official history, this book shows that General Briggs, on 13th December, 1946, apparently with the agreement of General Stopford, commander-in-chief South East Asia Land Forces, forced the hand of a Burma Office out of touch with realities by deliberately giving a gross underestimate of the military forces available to him. The British Government had to take a crucial decision on how to react to an ultimatum that had been presented by Aung San on 13th November, 1946: that Britain must announce by 31st January, 1947 that Burma would be free with a year. We now know that if the British Government had resisted, there would have been a bloodbath with many British officers and officials killed by those Burmese people with whom they were working towards a viable future for Burma.

    Inevitably, as the years pass books about the Second World War are written by historians who are too young to have participated. John McEnery, however, was there in Burma. In April 1946 he was posted to HQ Burma Command, in Rangoon, and became a Staff Captain in A Branch. During this period I also had the pleasure of being in RA Mess, HQ Burma Command, where John was living, and I can vouch for the authenticity of a particularly valuable aspect of the book: the accounts of what it was like to be a part of a great Army, unwanted by many, but not all, of the people whose country we were helping to achieve an independence which turned out, in the end, to be illusory.

    NOTE - The author of this book has offered a discount to Britain-Burma Society members.