In this is intimate account called Whispers of Hope, I tell the story of Burma past and present. Sometimes gentle and often raw, a Burmese family and other Burmese nationals give their eyewitness version of events spanning the twentieth century up to the present day. Their quintessential English names hint at colonial influence and their Anglo-Burmese roots.
An intensely private individual, she is the hidden - and often reluctant - voice behind much of the book. Wedding photos capture a demure Burmese girl, in a fitted cotton dress, tapering to a slight fish-tail at her feet with a silk, flower-patterned organza jacket, silk white rose in her bobbed hair. It was this eastern apparition who lured me from the net-curtains of 1960s suburbia.
April’s mother Margaret was the dynamo of the Francis family. She didn’t hug easily, her kiss of greeting barely brushed one’s cheek and she regarded sentimentality as soft. Yet her love ran deep. As did her steely determination. It was largely due to her that - as events in Rangoon turned ugly – April’s family left Burma on a one-way ticket in 1964 with just a few pounds each in their pockets.
Maung Khin Maung (Austin)
April’s dad was a perfect foil for Margaret. Relaxed, unperturbed, like a rock smoothed by a constant torrent of water. Better to tell stories about the past than get agitated by current affairs, to tend his roses rather than moan about life’s thorns. Once, when we were driving past some orchards in Kent, Austin told me that as a teenager he had spent long, carefree summers playing with his cousins in the country and that he often dreamed of living out his days in just such a quiet, rural life in Burma. He talked of owning a rice plantation, tending fruit trees and roses, enjoying Burmese and oriental foods surrounded by relatives and friends. It wasn’t to be.
A name that intrigued me since I overheard it on the radio as a teenager. On a recent visit to Yangon, April and I wander down a leafy avenue in Windermere Park and come across the residence of U Thant. He attended Rangoon University a few years before April’s father in the 1930s. A provincial headmaster, he later became Secretary General of the United Nations and Burma’s only statesman to grace the stage of global politics in the twentieth century. His integrity and influential life throws into sharp relief the tragedy of Burma: incredible promise only partially fulfilled. Unrivalled power in South East Asia diminished to shadow boxing. A peace-loving nation persistently brutalised.
April’s aunt Jessie ought to have been a detective. With forensic memory she recalls mid-century events in Burma. As she stood on a school balcony with her best friend in July 1948, news came of the assassination of Burma’s ruler, Aung San, and nine parliamentary colleagues. In that moment any hopes of a united Burma were shredded. Her school-friend’s father was hanged for treason the next day.
As young mothers, April’s mother and Aunt Pat shared many meals and outings together. The wife of a Shan prince, Pat has a house up in the cooler hills of Taunggyi. Much of the original furniture is under wraps and there is a slightly musty smell to the rooms - unused for most of the year - with their creaking teak floors, forlorn cabinets displaying Burmese silverware and glass-fronted bookshelves of Penguin classics in faded orange. Yet this house resounds with past Shan heritage more richly than the official museum in town: here mannequins dressed in the traditional costume of the 30 or so Shan tribes, resemble an artless shop window in a closing down sale.
In 1995 April and I visited Burma with our four teenage daughters for what was to be an eye-opening, tongue-tingling, mind-stretching, spirit-enriching experience. Seeds of intrigue, curiosity and connexion that are still with all of us today. Born as Anglo-Burmese, the children were hearing the distant drumbeat of their DNA.
Lincoln and Leah
Our litmus test of the mood on the streets as we regularly visit Myanmar is Lincoln and his wife Leah. A local Chin couple, they run a small Bible college and his wife has pioneered a pre-school called Blossom in Yangon. From nine o’clock the little scamps arrive and deposit their flip flops at the entrance. As each trots into the cool interior of the bamboo hut, they take themselves to one of several play areas supervised by helpers. Watching them enter this envelope of unconditional love, as each is welcomed and made to feel at home, brings tears in my eyes.
Hsar Doe, Kaymalar, Aung Zaw, Sasa
As we travel and talk to local people, I discover fresh optimism and activism especially among millennials. Most are eschewing the conventional route of parliamentary politics and are seeking to bring about change at grass-roots level. Most have grown up in wretched conditions, hounded from their homes into refugee camps on the Thai border. Remarkably, people like Hsar Doe and Yee Htun shun opportunities to ‘escape’. They return home to use their skills (medical, legal, entrepreneurial, educational) by bringing much-needed leadership to their communities.
April’s niece Khin Khin is from a humble Buddhist home in Yangon. For several years she has administered humanitarian assistance for the American Embassy and gives up her weekends to teach English at an orphanage, plant trees and help old people in rural communities. She is up-beat, media-savvy and, for all its faults, loves her country. She seems to embody the positive spirit of a younger generation, dedicated to improving the lot of those worse-off in Myanmar.
In this is intimate account called Whispers of Hope, I tell the story of Burma past and present. Sometimes gentle and often raw, a Burmese family and other Burmese nationals give their eyewitness version of events spanning the twentieth century up to the present day. Their quintessential English names belie the colonial influence and their Anglo-Burmese roots.
From my outsider perspective, seven reasons come to mind…
"In those seven days the Burmese cast a spell over me, winding themselves into my heart, and leaving an ache, a gnawing hunger."