As a British teenager, I meet a beautiful Burmese girl on the school bus. She and her family self-exiled in 1964, soon after the military coup, to start a new life in England. I am blown away by the affections of April and by the warm hospitality of her parents, whose home is filled with the unfamiliar aromas of eastern cooking and stories of Burma’s golden days. My fascination is fired for this far-off land.
But this misty-eyed romanticism about Burma remains second-hand until April and I make an extended visit in 1995-6, along with our four teenage daughters. We eat with long-lost family members, have a private meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, April is re-united with her childhood nannie and we make new friends. But there is a sense of desolation in the country, a menacing presence of the military and a grim resignation on the smog filled streets of Yangon. For April, not a lot has changed in thirty years. For me it is an arresting reality check.
Over a period of 16 years I recorded oral history from my wife, her mother, father, aunt and wider family. They were eye witnesses to momentous events in mid-century Burma. Very few of her parents’ generation are still alive. These together with more recent conversations with a range of Burmese millennials – provide a unique portrait of Burma spanning most of the last century up to the present day.
This is essentially a story of one family, but along the way I begin to unpeel the history, the mix of Buddhist faith and nat worship, the warring interests of ethnic peoples, the decimated education system, the unequal distribution of wealth and the woeful human rights’ abuses. What emerges is a far more nuanced picture of Burma/Myanmar than the stereotypically negative one portrayed by the media. For all the vexing conundrums of this country, whispers of hope can be heard.
As the East India Company goes in search of more spoils, two wars with the British in 1835 and 1852 humble the Burmese army and bankrupt the treasury.
In 1885 a single gunboat sails up the Irrawaddy to Mandalay and King Thibaw, the last King of Burma, surrenders to the British.
April's great, great grandfather Thandaswint U Po Oh - minister in Thibaw's court - stays on in Mandalay and sets up a printing press and newspaper, one of the first in Burma.
Colonial rule is administered from the verandas of teak bungalows or little fold-out tables by divisional commissioners in pith helmets and sand coloured uniforms.
Roads and railways are built, trade is fostered and Rangoon becomes a prestigious university. But resentment boils beneath the surface and in 1947 Prime Minister Atlee grants Independence to General Aung San.
April's father works well with the British, managing the transport of oil down the Irrawaddy to Rangoon. For many older Burmese people, these are the golden years. For many British servicemen, the Burma campaign in WW2 is etched on their memory for other reasons.
A gunman assassinates Aung San and his cabinet in 1948. In the power vacuum, attempts to unite the ethnic peoples of Burma prove elusive.
Many Burmese flee following a military coup by General Win in 1962. April's family arrive in Britain. We fall in love and marry in 1973.
Student protests are brutally curtailed in 1988. The newly formed National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, are denied power.
Despite ongoing popular protests, including the 'Saffron revolution' by Buddhist monks in 2007, the vice-grip of the military junta remains firm.
Another election landslide by the NLD in Nov 2020, is met by a renewed crackdown on civilan protestors. 'We were just beginning to fly, and now they have broken our wings,' cries a young man on the streets of Yangon.