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Bien-pensant Britain is abandoning Burma

3 October 2017

8:00 AM

3 October 2017

8:00 AM

At first glance, the new footage of Boris being slapped down for reciting a fragment of Kipling in Burma seemed like just another of his gaffes.

Many Burmese people, however, reacted with bafflement. This was an affectionate poem expressing British love for their country through a soldier kissing a Burmese girl. (My great-grandfather, Sir William Carr, as it happens, did more than that. He married her and brought her back to Britain  with their eight half-Burmese children.) What was wrong with that?

It seems that bien pensant Britons are more sensitive about our colonial past than the Burmese, who are understandably rather more preoccupied with dealing with their country’s agonising transition to democracy.

The confected Brit-on-Brit hysteria came after St Hugh’s College, Oxford, in another Rhodes-must-fall moment, removed a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi from display. In an act of paternalistic micro-aggression by the safe space British establishment, the Lady was reclassified from virgin to whore. To many Burmese, this was a betrayal.

As the Burmese historian, Thant Myint-U, pithily tweeted: ‘For some, Myanmar was only about empty symbolism. For some, Myanmar is still only about empty symbolism.’

There can be no denying that the plight of the Rohingya is horrendous. But at times like these, it does not help if Britain turns its back, holding its nose in self-regard. (After all, Daw Suu is hardly Pol Pot.)


The UK is by no means to blame for the Rohingya crisis; but nor can we be said to be blameless. Our commercially-motivated, bloody invasion of upper Burma in 1885 led to a huge influx of cheap Indian Muslim labourers, laying the ground for the persecution of the Rohingya.

On the orders of Lord Randolph Churchill, British forces toppled Burma’s ancient and beloved monarchy, sending King Thibaw into exile in India. Then we annexed the country to the Raj and ran it as a turbo-charged commercial hub, bringing untold riches to the Crown while subverting the social makeup that had been relatively stable for millennia.

We Were Kings, a poignant and insightful new film by Alex Bescoby, charts the efforts of Burma’s royal descendants to bring home the remains of the country’s last ruler from Ratnagiri, west India, where he died in exile.

In one unsettling scene, shot in December 2016, the surviving royals — all of whom live ordinary and inconspicuous lives — gather at the tomb 100 years after the king’s death. For the first time, they are accompanied by the most senior figures in the country’s military junta, including General Min Aung Hlaing, supreme commander of the armed forces.

Clearly, this profound humiliation for the Burmese (imagine an occupying power unseating our Queen!) removed a vital cultural rudder, contributing towards the often chauvinistic drive for a postcolonial identity that we see in the country today.

Venerating the memory of Burma’s lost royals is all very well. But the shadow side of the project to rebuild national pride has been the imposition of Buddhist Burmese culture across the country, and the bloody persecution of the Muslim minority.

In Burmese eyes, the regional decline of Buddhist civilisation in the face of an ascendent Islam is a very real threat. To them, both Malaysia and Indonesia represent Buddhist cultures overtaken by Muslims, while Thailand and the Philippines are dealing with violent jihadist insurgencies. Even the demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan is seen as a dark sign of what may come.

One recent Burmese cartoon shows the portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi in Oxford being removed by an Islamic terrorist. Paranoid, maybe; an exaggeration, certainly. But in Burma, these fears are very real. The only way to allay them in the long term, and to allow the Rohingya to live in peace as an accepted minority, is for Burma to become a secure and prosperous democratic state.

For these reasons, now more than ever, Burma needs British help in building its infrastructure, health and education systems, as well as supporting its political transition. There is little point dwelling in the past; but there can be no denying that we owe it to the country.

So forget the portraits, the poems, the preoccupation with fallen angels. What Burma needs is a transition to democracy and an end to bloodshed. Far better to focus on that.

Jake Wallis Simons is Associate Global Editor at the Daily Mail Online


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