Myanmar has been the victim of too many myths and prejudices ever since it opted to shut itself from the world over half a century back. A milder, freer and devout version of North Korea till 1962, Burma opened itself to the world around 2010 with a spanking new capital, a truly free election and a turn to the market economy.
Is Myanmar just the two touristy cities of Yangon and Mandalay besides the forbiddingly named Arrakan (where the Rohingyas live)? Or for the strategically minded, a battle ground for rival land corridors and oil exploration contracts between China and India? What is the tug that Indians feel with the old melody “Mere piya gaye Rangoon, wahan se kiya telephone”, inappropriately released in 1949 when a huge human transfer in the shape of Indians fleeing Myanmar was taking place?
Ever since Tatmadaw (the Myanmar army) decided that admitting foreigners past immigration desks was not going to rock its boat, the author, Abhijit Dutta, put on many hats — of a tourist, businessman and journalist — to make repeated forays backed by a deep study of land and its people.
The modern history of Burma was the amassing of British troops backed by unreasonable ultimatums to ensure unfair advantage for British businessmen unable to make their mark in the competitive Rangoon trading scene.
India looms large; that is where the omnipresent Buddha came from. But Indians began chasing the Burmese dream in droves with arrival of the British. This association also led to their doom. Stories about the Burmese dream tale must have spread far and wide. The principal character from the Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay novel Srikanto imagined it as the land where money was scattered on the streets, waiting to be gathered.
The tide turned against it when the Chettiars of South India foreclosed vast tracts of Burmese land to settle bad debts and then turned to their women as well. The customary immigrant-native tension was overlaid by a deeper resentment of the sub-imperial role played by the Indians for the British — the army, the police, the money lender, the entrepreneur were all Indians.
Soon it came to be known as the farthermost province of Imperial India, which it was for some time. All good men of the Independence movement had a stint in its jails — Tilak, Lajpat Rai, Sardar Ajit Singh, Bose. Indians brought Chandni Chowk or Burrabazar’s bazaar culture which was easy to supplant because Yangon was continuously getting razed. Most Indians who stayed back carry Burmese names but converse in Urdu; their real names as the second soft skin, somewhat like the Taqiyyah, the practice among Shias of hiding one’s true belief in adverse circumstances
If Dutta deeply inhales history and its people, he also walks its streets and footpaths; each of the many regions of different races that make a Myanmar. The straitjacketed mathematical layout of Yangon, Pekhon (Shan state) and Kyaukphyu (Rakhine state) with their troubled histories and spots of serendipity are all approached by a variety of transport. Accompanying the book, it seems is Than Myint-U’s The River of Lost Footsteps, the lyrical Bible of politics, history and culture of Myanmar. For those looking for strategic content, they need to trust Dutta when he says India is a sepia-tinted picture in Myanmar and its Act East policy creates no ripples.
Upset with Aung Suu Kyi’s blind eye to the suffering of Rohingya Muslims? While Dutta picks his way through the bars of Yangon, we get to understand that the deep intertwining of politics and religion would have made any other response from the Nobel laureate impossible. Myanmar has more airports now and the roads, as Dutta attests, are decent. One just needs to pick a chapter and spend a week. In it and later in the land it describes.