Colonial hangover: The fragmented history of Myanmar is narrated under a veil of fiction

April 12, 2020 5:30 AM

Lawrence's fictitious Indian National Army captain Immanuel Stanley David is faced with a wave of events, mostly untoward circumstances, after his landing in Burma during World War II.

To put it as the narrator has intended to, the colonial annexation of the British and the Japanese occupation in Burma had lifted the veil exposing ethnicities of diverse tribes predominating the terrain.To put it as the narrator has intended to, the colonial annexation of the British and the Japanese occupation in Burma had lifted the veil exposing ethnicities of diverse tribes predominating the terrain.

By Bidita Sen

Burma, or present-day Myanmar’s fragmented, blood-stained past is laid bare in the words of Eugene Lawrence in The Lacquered Curtain of Burma, which reveals the stories of people caught in the throes of change at the end of the Japanese occupation of the country and the British colonial conquest during the World War II.
Any history of independence is a history of bloodshed, assassination, coup d’état, and the landscape, in this regard, pretty much captures the same hues of socio-political upheaval post-independence.

Yangon-born Indian Lawrence delineates the history of Myanmar with carefully chosen words that set the book’s simplistic tone, holding readers’ fragile attention. With lucid language, the author takes readers straight to the grim historical details to create a clear understanding of the social, religious and political disturbance that the nation had unwittingly and unwillingly embraced since 1947.

A straight yet disturbing narrative is probably the best Lawrence could do to roll out a momentous sequence of events—the country is torn between a new-found independence and an emergency of sorts as desperate attempts are made to bring in a form of order out of the ensuing chaos. Independence from the colonists is just the beginning, and democracy is the outcome that nations try to achieve—in between the transition is the period when a country is bled dry by those who left it and the ones who aspire to rule it.

“The union of Burma would not be a true union unless we involve our ethnic peoples in the political, economic and social process of the nation…,” Major General Aung San, a Burmese revolutionary who served as the 5th premier of the British Crown Colony of Burma from 1946 to 1947 and father of Aung San Suu Kyi, said in his opening statement. His vision of an independent Burma was to be a union marked by the peaceful coexistence of all the ethnic groups uniformly represented by his government. The chapter opening with his speech finds him promising an electoral process to democracy. His fiery speeches in 1946 succeeded in sowing seeds of hope in members of ethnic communities, so much so that they would be able to preserve their identity and culture.

The author as narrator makes a quick reference to Subhash Chandra Bose, drawing a parallel with Aung San, who tries to cut out a defined role for the nation’s ‘vague’ army.

The 223-page book is broadly divided into nine chapters and nuggets of information on the ancestral origins of the Burmese people lie scattered among them. In Lawrence’s own words, “…the Bamar people had their origin in India who had settled in the plains of the country, leaving the mountainous regions to the ethnic peoples—many of whom were believed to have inhabited the land prior to the appearance of the Burmese…”

“…the Burmese had dominated the land over centuries, alienating the diverse ethnic groups in their hill tracks of the west, the fearsome Kachins and red Karens; north-east and east, the war-like Shans, and south-eastern regions of the country where the redoubtable white Karens settled.”

To put it as the narrator has intended to, the colonial annexation of the British and the Japanese occupation in Burma had lifted the veil exposing ethnicities of diverse tribes predominating the terrain.

Lawrence’s heart goes out for all those who fought for a cause, and those who were uprooted. The all-pervasive conflict in the nation plays as a refrain in the book where the concept of a ‘unified nation’ becomes an irony, or at best a mirage of hope that moves away from one as one moves towards it. The chronology of events is indelibly imprinted on the minds of readers—the hostilities between the Karen and the rest of the communities, the struggle of INA, the assassination of Aung San and the consequent beginning of the civil war.

Starting from the strife between the majority Burmese (Myanmar people) and ethnic communities immediately after independence, the military takeover in 1962, the book ends with the emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi as a resolute voice determined to purge her country of its vices and surreptitious evils. Yet, her concerted efforts were majorly inconclusive.

Lawrence has crafted the book masterfully, banking on history, holding the hands of a wide array of personalities—both factual and fictional. In the process, the author’s fiery fantasy has created a powerful narrative painted in history.

Lawrence’s fictitious Indian National Army captain Immanuel Stanley David is faced with a wave of events, mostly untoward circumstances, after his landing in Burma during World War II. He eventually marries a girl from the Karen tribe, Dora. Lawrence creates situations and allows his fictional characters to play to his tune to portray their dislocated and fragmented existence. David, Dora and Commander Solomon, a Karen guerrilla, are unknown faces in the narrative pushed under the spotlight as the novel unfolds. It’s through their feelings and longings that the novel spins its myriad emotions. The book also spares a thought and space for Indians who migrated to Myanmar from then British India.

The metaphoric curtain keeps alluding to varied circumstances, like an illusion the author creates on several occasions to suit his order of things. It is the iron barricade that the powerful junta imposes on the nation and the veil of isolation that the country calls upon itself. The battle scenes are vivid in the way they play out in words. Historical personalities like Aung San, former prime ministers General Ne Win, U Nu and third UN secretary general U Thant, among others, constantly remind readers that the novel is grounded in history, and while appreciating its narrative technique, one must not undermine its historical importance.

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