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Burma -- caught in the China-US crossfire

July 24, 2008
Myanmar, which some of us still prefer to call Burma, holds a special place in Amitav Ghosh's conscience. Many Indians who lived and worked there before World War II forced them to leave have read The Glass Palace (Ravi Dayal, 2000) and spoken with nostalgic fondness of the way Ghosh had recreated the Burma they loved -- the land of King Thebaw and his queen Supayalat (who survives, painfully Anglicised, in Kipling's poem Mandalay as 'Supi-yaw-lat -- jes' the same as Theebaw's Queen'). Exiled by the British to India, the king spent the rest of his days in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, where his pagoda-styled Thebaw Palace is today a tourist attraction. It is another matter that the British, in some kind of insidious counter-gesture, exiled the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to Burma.

Perhaps because little is discussed today of how Burma was first yoked to the British Raj in the 19th century and then brutally overrun by the Japanese in the 1940s, and perhaps because Indian college textbooks are preoccupied with debating seemingly more urgent histories, Burma has slipped out of our consciousness even as its dreams of democracy appear to grow more and more distant.

While researching the novel, Ghosh travelled to Rangoon (now Yangon) and attended a 'gateside' meeting called by the incarcerated Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The fictionalised account of the meeting marks the conclusion of The Glass Palace, whose title alludes to a fabled hall of crystal that was symbolic of Burma's grandeur and self-sufficiency before foreign rule crushed the country. The Glass Palace won four literary awards but notably, Ghosh withdrew his nomination for the Commonwealth Prize, stating that winning this award would 'betray the spirit' of his book.

To those who knew Burma intimately, The Glass Palace made for very nostalgic reading. What objective do you have in sight when you write? Do you see yourself as a chronicler re-imagining the past?

It's not quite that simple, somehow. The Glass Palace began for me as a kind of family story. My father and uncle were in Burma and I grew up with stories about Burma. When I started writing it I saw myself tracing my uncle's life, but it completely changed. More and more went into it. And then I discovered King Thebaw...

You wrote about the palace in Ratnagiri...

Yes. But again, between what you start and what happens, something creates its own reality.

Today, mass media cares little for Burma. But the junta's attacks on the monks and the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis have brought Burma back to the global news radar. On June 19, Aung San Suu Kyi celebrated her birthday under house arrest. On YouTube, a public awareness campaign is trying to sensitise young Americans to the conditions in Burma...

One of Burma's real problems is that it has become a counter in a great power confrontation between China and the US. And often, people who mean well become a part of this confrontation, where the only thing they care about is regime change.

I was horrified by what happened in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in Burma. But I was just as horrified by the way it was represented in the American media in a purely politicised way -- it wasn't about the people who were dying; it was about the regime. There's something so callous about the fact that you are trying to use this human tragedy to promote a political objective.

I think people should care about Burma, but the first and most important thing that anyone who cares for Burma has to say to themselves is that any sudden and catastrophic change in Burma is going to be a disaster not just for the Burmese but for all of us around it. And none of us would wish to have that happen.

Burma is in many ways a simmering cauldron -- it was undermined by 16 ethnic insurgencies and we can never forget that. What has happened in Burma is a response to that breakdown. What we would want for Burma is a gradual change into a circumstance where Aung San Suu Kyi is able to take the reins of government. It's not what you would want overnight or suddenly.

When I see the sorts of statements that issue out of America and Europe, it just seems to me that they don't have the good of the Burmese people at heart. They just want to see their own political projects implemented in Burma. In the same way that Iraq was for them a political experiment where the lives and circumstances of common Iraqis were sacrificed.

And to see the revolting spectacle of Laura Bush lecturing the Burmese government about cyclone deaths! What was she saying when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans? Is anyone going to tell me that this woman feels any kind of human sympathy for a national disaster? Why didn't she go and help the people of New Orleans? What is she doing for them? Hundreds of thousands of people continue to be dispossessed to this day. And suddenly she's so interested in Burma -- doesn't it make you suspicious?

Video, click above: 'I felt, with this book I was bringing together so much of myself -- my life, my work, my engagements, my love of languages'

Also read: Why Burma matters

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