Jackboot and White Umbrella

by Kenneth Champeon, Apr 21, 2006 | Destinations: Myanmar / Yangon

In the tropical climates of Asia, a white umbrella stands for beneficent rule. Just as an umbrella deflects the harsh light of the sun or an excess of rain, so does the ruler protect the ruled from misfortune. Presumably this is the meaning intended by the title of Patricia Elliott's historical biography The White Umbrella, which recounts 20th century Burmese history through the life of Sao Hearn Hkam, a Shan princess now exiled to Elliott's native Canada.

Inhabiting the eastern corner of the Burmese rhombus, the Shan (also called the Tai) are closer ethnically to the Thai than to their Burmese rulers. Indeed the word shan is a corruption of syam, or Siam. But when Burma became independent of Britain in 1948, the Shan were incorporated into the new Union of Burma, as were a number of other ethnic minorities, including the Arakanese and the Karen. Though these minorities were originally granted the right to secede within ten years, the grant was subsequently revoked. As a result, Burma has known little but civil war for five decades, with no end in sight.

The advantage has clearly been with the ethnic Burmese, who constitute about 60% of Burma's population; and with the government, which boasts one of the world's highest ratios of military expenditure to GDP. Outgunned and outnumbered, the rebel armies have been funded by drug profits or sympathetic foreign governments, most notably China and the United States. In his introduction to The White Umbrella, noted Burma expert Bertil Lintner writes: "'Ethnic cleansing' is a strong and often misused phrase, but there is no other way to describe what is happening in Shan State today."

If "ethnic cleansing" is merely an ethnic war in which one side happens to be particularly brutal and successful, then ethnic cleansing has been occurring in Southeast Asia for ages. The process has only become more efficient and less fashionable. The Shan are within Burma's borders, so the matter can easily be dismissed as a mere domestic problem, aimed at maintaining the integrity of the Burmese state. A similar rationale allowed Western powers to condone Saddam Hussein's gassing of the Kurds, until it became convenient to say that the Kurds are Saddam's "own people".

In 1962, Ne Win ended Burma's fling with democratic rule. Elliott describes him as a rather unlikely candidate for this job, as do Sao Hearn Hkam and her husband, who cannot imagine that Ne Win could foment a coup. Like any strongman, Ne Win justified his action by pointing to the disintegration and inefficiency of the democratic state. Fascists, in contrast, make the trains run on time.

Ne Win's contempt for popular opinion is perhaps best revealed by his reason for holding elections, following a brief military interregnum prior to 1962. "Let the country make its own choice," he said. "It will get the government it deserves." Or: Let them eat cake. Unfortunately, Ne Win would rescind these high sentiments in 1962, and they would no longer apply when, in 1990, the country voted overwhelmingly for a reinstatement of multi-party democracy. In the meantime, he became ever more remote and unpredictable - and superstitious. Elliott informs us that in 1987 he decided "to demonetize several denominations of Kyat [the Burmese currency] and replace them with forty-five and ninety Kyat notes" because nine happened to be his "personal lucky number."

The only apology for superstition is that it provides consolation for misfortune, of which Burma has had more than its fair share. Elliott submits that during World War II Burma was bombed more than any other Asian country except Japan. Finding their markets swamped with cheap goods imported by the British, the Burmese turned to opium to earn the exorbitant tributes exacted by the colonial government. Adding insult to injury, the British then compelled Burma to pay for its defense during WWII.

Americans had already fostered the drug trade by paying Asian laborers in opium during WWII, though Elliott seems quick to compensate by showing us the obligatory American soldiers dispensing chocolate bars to Sao's children. Then, during the Vietnam War, the CIA helped transform thousands of American soldiers into heroin addicts by ferrying opium from Laos into Thailand. To accomplish this, the CIA received assistance from American missionaries. On the other hand, Elliott shows how the Shan rebels are one of countless insurgency groups manipulating American lawmakers for the grand prize of American aid.

Elliott refers to a rather less publicized scheme involving the Shan State and the Western powers: the region was considered as a possible location for resettlement of Jewish refugees created by the Third Reich. One can hardly imagine a worse marriage than that of Israel and Palestine until one contemplates a mini-Israel nestled in a chronically unstable corner of Southeast Asia. Fortunately, the idea was scrapped.

The White Umbrella is foremost a story of decline: the decline of Empire; of Rangoon's pre-eminence (Elliott says that it was once "Southeast Asia's foremost city"); of Burma's reputation as a land of milk and honey ("That's how it was in the Shan states - people took care of each other, and if you were hungry you only had to reach into a tree.") The book is also about the decline of feudalism and aristocracy; and about our ambivalence toward its decline. As a princess, Sao is either basking in the admiration of her subjects or being accused of parasitism. She tries to downplay her privilege, but her case is not terribly convincing. Her son Tiger, in danger of flunking out of Rangoon University, is admitted to Cambridge instead. Sao hobnobs with Nehru and Mao. The scene with Mao is almost beyond belief. Sao's husband praises the mass murderer's accomplishments, to which Mao answers, "We had to kill about five or six million people to get this far." Oh well.

As an exile in Thailand, Sao is fearful of Burmese spies. When one such suspect is apprehended, Sao is asked what to do. "Throw him in the river," she says, like a good autocrat. So The White Umbrella ultimately fails as hagiography. But it succeeds as a unique angle on contemporary Burmese history. It is not, however, without its inaccuracies. A crore is "10 million Indian rupees," writes Elliott. Actually it is 10 million anything. And a lakh is not "one million rupees", but 100,000 anything. "The streets were shaded by banyan trees with heart-shaped leaves, of the kind the Buddha sat under to gain enlightenment." I believe those would be Bo trees (ficus religiosa), not banyan trees (ficus benghalensis).

But let not these errors distract from the main point: no white umbrella for Burma just now, but a jackboot. But don't save all your tears for the exiled princess, whatever one may think of living in chilly Canada. For there is a middle way between aristocracy and authoritarianism, and that is the democracy the Burmese people requested and deserve. With a few cheers from the sidelines, and a few more books like Elliott's, perhaps the white umbrella will one day unfurl.

- The End -

Review of Patricia Elliott's The White Umbrella, Post Books, 1999.

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