Ten years ago one of the most common book recommendations for new arrivals in Myanmar was The Trouser People by Andrew Marshall. The book’s relentless attack on the ruling military junta, and its subsequent suppression by authorities, ensured that it was also highly sought-after by local readers.
I did my own small part to meet this demand by bringing along three copies of the book when I moved to Yangon in 2003 and making them available to any Myanmar friends who wanted to read them. I also made a point of using Marshall’s writings in a reading group I ran for local journalists.
Over the next few years the book became increasingly difficult to find, and in 2008 it was supplanted by Thant Myint-U’s River of Lost Footsteps as a favourite among newcomers to Myanmar.
But the two books are very different, with River providing a more complete historical overview of the country, but falling flat as a travelogue. Marshall is far more entertaining, and his book is based on outstanding firsthand observations collected during travels around the country, mixed with careful research focusing on very specific and colourful aspects of Myanmar’s past.
Last year The Trouser People — the title is derived from the term used by longyi-clad locals to refer to white colonialists — once again became easy to find on Bangkok bookshelves, with the release of a revised edition that includes a new chapter on Marshall’s experiences during the 2007 pro-democracy demonstrations in Yangon.
Historically, the book focuses on British adventurer George Scott’s forays into Burma in the late 19th century. Aside from being credited with introducing football to the country, he was tasked by the colonial administration with establishing British rule in the jungle-choked wilds of the Shan states.
Scott was a flamboyant, larger-than-life character who often waded into dangerous situations and blustered his way out the other side unscathed. He was a complex personality: an imperialist who “pacified” the Shan but who was also sympathetic to the various cultures he encountered along the way. He wrote a well-known book about traditional Burmese lifestyles called The Burman, as well as the authoritative Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States.
The excerpts from Scott’s newspaper dispatches and personal diaries make for evocative reading. On the effects of the British imposing their rule on Mandalay in the 1880s, he wrote: “The pigs have all been eaten up and the pariah dogs poisoned by municipal order; A, B and C roads testify to the unromantic stolidity of the Military Intelligence Department; electric trams make it easier for the Burman to move to the suburbs and leave the town to the hustling foreigner. There are no agreeable scallywags. The Palace, instead of being tawdrily magnificent, smells horribly of bats.”
Marshall is likewise no slouch when it comes to describing his travels through Myanmar in pursuit of Scott’s ghost. His writing is pointed and humourous, as with this description of a government ferry plying the Ayeyarwady River: “Standing on a spur of sand, where a man was lovingly washing his bicycle, I got my first real view of the ship. It was not a pretty sight. It was a Japanese vessel with an English engine, flat-bellied, snub-nosed and weeping with rust. I’d seen better-looking boats 120 feet beneath the ocean with an air canister on my back.”
Marshall also pulls no punches when it comes to his view of military rule, which was imposed in 1962 and, to paraphrase the author, resulted in the replacement of history with propaganda.
In one section he details the abuses of the junta’s vicious Four Cuts campaign, which was aimed at cutting off supplies of food, funds, intelligence and recruits to the Shan State Army: “What it amounted to in practice was a systematic campaign of terror against a civilian population, in which mass killings, gang rape and torture by Burmese troops were routine.”
Readers might question the relevance of rehashing the “bad old days” of malevolent junta rule. But with riot police burning Buddhist monks at Letpadaung, authorities doing little to quell rioting between Buddhists and Muslims, and reports of sketchy army tactics filtering out of war-torn areas of Kachin and Shan states, these past atrocities are well worth remembering.
Older Myanmar friends tell me of a time when the people respected the Tatmadaw, as the country’s armed forces are known. But then 1988 happened: In the midst of crackdowns against the pro-democracy movement, protestors expected the Tatmadaw to rescue them from the brutality of the riot police. Instead, the soldiers betrayed the trust of the citizens they were meant to protect, and shot them dead in the streets.
A repeat performance in September 2007 — during which, among other unmeritorious acts, soldiers assaulted Buddhist monks in their own monasteries — further soured the public’s view of the armed forces.
For me, the new chapter in The Trouser People detailing the events of 2007 is particularly fascinating. In this case, I can confirm the veracity of Marshall’s account because I witnessed some of these events myself — including the September 27 attack on protestors at Sule Pagoda. State media later said demonstrators “mobbed the security forces, throwing stones and sticks at them, using catapults and swords”. But what I saw were protestors sitting on the ground and praying when security forces swooped in and started killing.
The absurd disconnect between the actual events and the junta’s fantasy version might have been humorous had the crackdown that day not resulted in the deaths of at least nine people, including Japanese videographer Kenji Nagai, who was shot point-blank by a sandal-wearing soldier of the Myanmar army.
With this bleak track record hanging over their heads, the burden is on Myanmar’s “security forces” to prove that they really are dedicated to taking courageous steps towards positive change, and that they are now working in accord with the best interests of the people of Myanmar, rather than standing by and waiting for orders to once again brutalise the populace for the benefit of the powerful few.