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Book Reviews
  • Saffron Shadows and Salvaged Scripts
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  • 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
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  • Burma: ... Politics of Ethnicity
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  • Burma 1942: Invasion
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  • 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.

    Feb 2008:
    The State in Myanmar
    by Robert Taylor
    Published by Hurst & Co.
    338 pages
    Paper back: ISBN: 1850658935.
    Hard back: ISBN: 1850659095.
    Review by Dr Michael Charney:
    Robert Taylor's The State in Burma was the first major analysis of the emergence of the Burmese state connecting its political evolution from precolonial to postcolonial forms and became required reading in politics and history courses on modern Southeast Asia when it came out in 1987. A considerable portion of the revised book, re-entitled The State in Myanmar, thus focuses on developments from 1988 and after, although the book has been revised throughout, to varying degrees depending upon the chapter.

    One phenomenon of the post-1988 period that attracts Taylor's attention is the significant influence on foreign perceptions of the Burmese state by exile politicians. Ultimately, Taylor argues, the latter's work had two unintended impacts. First, they limited "the range of politically acceptable issues" that could be considered in discussions that influenced how Western governments should deal with Burma. Second, various broadcasting agencies such as the BBC made it possible for Burmese people inside the country to listen to the views of exile politicians (pp. 432-433). 'Burmese politics' thus became a transnational phenomenon heightening the Burmese state's chronic fear of outside intervention (and the reader may remember all the problems regarding aid deliveries after Cyclone Nargis in 2008).

    The present reviewer found the most interesting part of the book to be the discussion of how the military government has attempted to reshape Burma's past, ethnic harmony, and the relationship between state managers and the religion to "legitimize itself in such a way that the army's custody of state power can be accepted without question" (p. 476). Hence, schoolchildren are taught about Burmese kings portrayed as "military state builders," ethnic labels were dropped in 1989 from the titles of military units which had been originally formed in the colonial period, and state television daily runs footage of generals engaging in public acts of Buddhist devotion (pp. 473-475). In this way, the reader will note, Burma's past is again being reshaped as it has at each stage of regime change, no less during the Konbaung dynasty, the colonial period, the early independence period, or under the BSPP, than it is today.

    It is extraordinarily difficult to write any book on modern Burma that will make everyone happy. The present reviewer was least satisfied with coverage of the relationship between the state and the sangha as it fell short of fully explaining the historical background of the monks of the Saffron Revolution (2007) seeking to influence the state and its policies. Nevertheless, The State in Myanmar is an important interpretation of the evolution of the Burmese state and the policies we see today that is certain to contribute strongly to academic debate on the present state of the country.

    Michael W Charney,
    SOAS, May 2009

    Review by Patricia Herbert:
    Almost Englishmen:
    Baghdadi Jews in British Burma;

    by Ruth Fredman Cernea
    paper back - 202 pages
    Publisher: Lexington Books, U.S. (28 Jan 2007)
    ISBN: 0739116479
    Book obtainable in UK from Lexington Books, Book Network Int'l Ltd., Estover Road, Plymouth PL6 7PY. Price: 15.99
    Cernea's well-researched book traces the origins of Burma's Jewish community, its growth, rituals and festivals, its internal dissensions (between Baghdadi Jews and Bombay Indian Jews known as Bene Israel), and its post-war decline, evoking in the process a rich cosmopolitan period in Burma's past that today it is hard to imagine ever existed. Cernea identifies the first Jew in Burma as Solomon Gabirol who served as a commissar under King Alaungpaya (1752-60) and traces the first Hebrew account of Burma as a work by Solomon Reinman from Galicia, published posthumously in 1884. But it was the expanding commercial empire of David Sassoon, who arrived in Bombay from Baghdad in 1830, which came to attract many other Baghdadi Jews to the East and to Burma. Cernea states that the earliest Baghdadi settler in Burma, Azariah Samuel, came not to Rangoon, but to Akyab (Sittwe) in 1841; his son Ezekiel is buried in Akyab's small Jewish cemetery. At about the same time, two brothers Judah and Abraham Raphael Ezekiel worked for a time at the royal court as accountants or bookkeepers, but following a family quarrel Abraham adopted the name of Raphael and settled in Bassein; another merchant family named Aaron established businesses in Mandalay and other towns; and one Mordecai Saul had a shop in the palace grounds selling perfume bottles which were prized by the Burmese court as vases for flower offerings to the Buddha. By the beginning of the twentieth century, there were many thriving prominent Jewish business concerns (Sofaer & Co., Solomon & Co. Joseph & Co., Ezra Brothers) which can be found profiled in Arnold Wright's Twentieth Century Impressions of Burma (1910). In Rangoon, a street, Judah Ezekiel Street, was named after an early Jewish settler.

    Cernea's title Almost Englishmen reflects the author's view that in time Baghdadi Jews adopted "the British narrative" - in that their dress, manners, culture and education increasingly approximated that of English colonial society. She writes (p.39): for Baghdadis, the British and Jewish dimensions of identity were all that mattered; the Burmese context was irrelevant to the realization of who they were and who they could be and that (p. 47): they looked to two promised lands: Jerusalem the ideal, and Britain the apparently unattainable. But, though many sent their children to English schools, and even changed their Hebrew or Arabic first names to more English versions, in the segregated world of British Burma, Jews were still denied entry to the Gymkhana and other elite clubs.

    Jewish life in Burma ended abruptly with the Japanese entry into the war in December, 1941, and the fall of Rangoon to the Japanese in March 1942. A huge mass exodus ensued, with some 600,000 fleeing to India - Indians, British, Jews alike - of whom some 80,000 died along the way. Approximately 1,500 Jews reached safety in Calcutta and were taken in by the Baghdadi Jewish community of Calcutta. Cernea's chapter 6, Desperate Passage, graphically describes the exodus from Burma and the arduous overland trek that so many took, drawing on interviews with survivors and contemporary documents. At the end of the war, some 3-400 of the Jewish population returned to Burma to find complete devastation, both economic and material. With Burma's independence in 1948, many Jews found themselves stateless, or faced with the choice of applying for Burmese citizenship, or of registering as foreigners with no guarantees. Many opted for emigration to Israell. In the 1950s, there was a "halcyon period" of much cooperation between Israel and Burma, but this ended in 1962 with the military coup of General Ne Win, and most of the few remaining Jews left for Israel or other overseas destinations.

    The synagogue is, however, still well maintained, largely by donations from foreign visitors, and Moses Samuel is restoring an old ritual bath, or mikva, to one side of the synagogue. Ruth Cernea is to be congratulated on her painstaking research and portrait of the life of the Jewish community, illustrated with many photographs and family accounts. I think too that the history of another minority, the Armenian community of Burma, also deserves to be written and trust that one day as dedicated an author as Cernea will take on that task.

    Patricia Herbert
    January 2008

    Return to the Irrawaddy
    by Frank Kingdon Ward
    1st Edition, London 1956
    2nd Edition, Orchid Press Bangkok, 2007
    224 pages
    ISBN: 9789745240865.


    Review by Colleen Beresford:
    One needn't be a botanical expert to enjoy this account of an expedition that would be impossible today. Frank Kingdon Ward, one of the great plant hunters and explorers of the twentieth century, was returning to a familiar territory. His last visit to the Kachin State was in 1938-39, but he'd criss-crossed parts of the 'Burmese Oberland' (as he called it) at least three times since 1913. In 1952 he brought his wife Jean to explore the high peaks and valleys of the Triangle. Two Burmese Forest Officers, U Tha Hla and U Chit Ko Ko joined them and FKW is generous in his appreciation of the their help. Marches were long and hard in rough terrain in relentlessly wet weather; camps were far from comfortable and they lived mainly on rice and tinned food that had to be carried by porters from camp to camp. FKW celebrated his 68th birthday there; when his energy and spirits flagged they were quickly restored by a hot cup of tea.

    Collections of botanical and horticultural material were made every day as they moved through different climate zones and habitats on their way to the alps. In 37 weeks they collected 38 loads of herbarium specimens, seeds, bulbs and living plants. There is a four-page index of fauna and flora. FKW's descriptions of magnolias, rhododendrons, cherries, lilies and primula and many more plants familiar to gardeners make one very envious; but he also describes the beauty of their surroundings, the excitement of their quest and their day-to-day experiences with such skill and wit that we discover that he is a brilliant writer, too.

    On reading this book again, after fifty years, I am struck by his insight into the lives of the communities they encountered. He foresaw that their circumstances, including their methods of cultivation, their habitats and those of the wildlife around them were bound to change. He was an ecologist long before it became fashionable.

    We must thank the Orchid Press for re-publishing this remarkable book by a remarkable man. It is no wonder that the young Chit Ko Ko - who later made a considerable contribution to Burmese botany - left the following tribute on a blazed tree half way up Tama Bum:

    Mr F Kingdon-Ward
    Who Knew and Loved Burma

    Colleen Beresford, Oct 2007

    Given the paucity of published material on the ethnic group who are labelled Taungthu by the Burmans but call themselves Pa-O, this book is to be warmly welcomed. In fact it is, barring theses or dissertations, the first book on the Pa-O to be published in English.
    Oct 2006
    The Pa-O: Rebels and Refugees
    by Russ Christensen and Sann Kyaw
    Publisher Silkworm Books (Chiengmai).
    Paper back, 81 pages, bibliography, index, notes.
    ISBN: 978-974-9575-93-2
    The Pa-O, a name cognate with Pwo, are generally considered to be a subgroup of the Karen. Although this book is a little slender (81 pages excluding notes and bibliography) it contains a great deal of information about the Pa-O, most of it right up-to-date and much of it gathered first-hand along the Thai-Burma border. The fieldwork was carried out over a four-year period by Christensen, a former US officer plainly committed to the Pa-O cause, with the invaluable help of Sann Kyaw, himself an ethnic Pa-O who has served with the Pa-O National Organisation as a signals officer.

    The book begins with a glance at the tale of Weikja and Naga, the legendary ancestors of the Pa-O, a couple who emerge from two eggs. This story is very reminiscent of the folk tale 'Master Born-of-Egg' (see Gerry Abbott and Khin Thant Han, 2000: 198), a fact which may indicate a closer kinship with the Mon. The book then moves on to a brief survey of references to the Pa-O in Burma's history, by the end of which we have reached page 14. The rest of the book deals with events from 1947 onwards, including the Pa-O rebellion. Here we come across the all-too-familiar fracturing on rival groupings; on page 29 alone, for instance, we see SSNLO, CPB, SSNLF, SURA, KMT and KNPP.

    But the focus remains on the Pa-O, and sharpens in the succeeding chapters. We are taken through the tribulations and sufferings of one community, mainly at the hands of the Burmese army but also because of Thai government policy, as it is forced to relocate ten times in eighteen years. As a result of such hostility and upheaval, the Pa-O identity on the Thai side of the border is being eroded, while the communities still on Burmese soil are being hounded by the so-called People's Army.

    The focus finally falls upon some individual survivors, who tell of their experiences in a chapter headed 'Six Pa-O voices'. Here are a few extracts:

    My aunt said because I am Pa-O I should learn Pa-O... (12-year-old girl)

    In 1996 my sister and three children died. My mother stayed with my brother. He was conscripted as a porter, got malaria, and in 1997 he died. In January 1998 my father died... (23-year-old woman)

    We had no food. We cut down young banana trees and ate the hearts. (...) We had no meat for a month until I shot a large monkey. (30 year old former soldier)

    My children, a daughter and two sons, were killed by government soldiers while they worked in the fields... (80 year old Karen refugee).

    I had twelve sons; nine have died. One was Red Pa-O soldier and was killed in southern Shan State. I don't know whom they were fighting. (90 year old woman).

    The book ends with chapter-by chapter notes, a useful bibliography and an index.

    I felt there was an occasional slight discontinuity, which may have resulted from welding together various articles on he Pa-O. Having outlined the origin-legend on page 1, for instance, the authors provide seven pages of historical information before telling us that "The legend focuses upon the Pa-O's migration" (p8). The gap led me to wonder whether this was indeed a reference to the Weikja/Naga tale, or to some other legend. But this is a trivial matter. The authors and Silkworm Press are to be congratulated for updating our knowledge of a little-studied ethnic minority group and for highlighting yet again the inhumanity of the Burmese junta.

    Abbott, Gerry and Khin Thant Han, 2000. The Folk-tales of Burma: an introduction.
    Leiden/Boston/Koln: Brill.

    Gerry Abbott, November 2006
    Honorary Fellow, University of Manchester.

    The Kinwun Min-Gyi's London Diary
    introduction and translation by L.E. Bagshawe
    29.00 hard back - 434 pages
    from Orchid Press
    ISBN: 9745240214

    Review by Patricia Herbert. Also a much more comprehensive appraisal by the same reviewer is in our Members' Area.

    To read the Kinwun Min-gyi's diary in Bagshawe's fresh translation is to enter a fascinating nineteenth century world where, for once, roles are reversed, and an astute Burmese envoy puts Western society under the spotlight, scrutinising and recording impressions of British towns and cities, technology and mores while at the same time zealously representing Burma's culture and cause.

    The diary begins on 2 March 1872 with King Mindon's royal order appointing the members of the mission and setting out its purpose and concludes on 2 May 1873 with the mission's return to Mandalay. The outward and return journeys aboard the King's steamship, the Setkya Yin-byan, took the mission on a journey of a lifetime: from Rangoon to a brief stop at Ceylon (thereby bypassing the diplomatic complications of Calcutta), to Aden and the Suez Canal, by train to Cairo (where they met Ferdinand de Lesseps, initiator of the Suez Canal, and made contact with the Italian consulate and were also received by the Viceroy); rejoining their ship at Alexandria, the mission sailed on to Brindisi, and over the next three weeks visited Naples, Pompei, Florence, Genoa, Turin and Rome where they were received by the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel II, before proceeding by train to Paris and a reception by the French Minister for Foreign Affairs and then on to Calais to sail to England. At this point in the narrative, a contemporary newspaper cutting is inserted describing the arrival at Dover of the Burmese ambassadors "whose enlightened King is anxious to do whatever is possible to advance the prosperity of the country by increasing its intercourse with Europe".

    The major portion of the diary describes a very full six month tour of Britain (from June to November 1872): the mission's audience with Queen Victoria (at Windsor), reception by the Prince of Wales, attendance at a Buckingham Palace State Ball, high society events and banquets hosted by the City of London's guilds and by other chambers of commerce (including Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Bradford, Halifax, Newcastle, Glasgow and across the Irish sea to Dublin). Palaces, museums, libraries, shipyards and dozens of factories (including the Royal Mint) were visited by the seemingly indefatigable members of the Mission whose meticulous recording of a wealth of technical details commands one's respect for their powers of observation (and for Bagshawe's abilities as a translator) as does the complete lack of any disparaging comments.

    Patricia Herbert, August 2006