Saturday, September 25, 2010

Kyi May Kaung's review of William Dalrymple's The Last Moghul --

Book review:

William Dalrymple, The Last Mughal – The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857.
Alfred K. Knopf, New York, 2007.
ISBN 978-1-4000-4310-1

When the British annexed India in 1857 and Burma in 1886, they sent the Burmese King Thibaw and his family to Ratnagiri near Madras in India, and the Indian Emperor to Rangoon in Burma.
I lived in Rangoon almost 40 years before I came to the United States, but until 1988 I had never heard of Zafar Shah, the last Indian Emperor. In 1988, when my childhood friend, Yasmin and I were having high tea at the Hotel Atop the Bellevue in Philadelphia, Yasmin, who is Burmese-Muslim and can trace her origins to her grand aunts in Mandalay, the last capital city of the Burmese kings, happened to mention a Zafar Shah Road in Rangoon. Lost in a fugue state in one of the worst exile periods of my life, I asked Yasmin, “Who was he?” She then told me in one sentence about the British colonial power’s cunning prisoner exchange.
I had heard about the Sepoy Rebellion and the Indian Mutiny, in relation to the economic history of Burma and its annual budget, when it was a part of the Indian colonial empire until 1937. But I realize now, this 1857 event was a rebellion or a mutiny only if seen from the point of view of the British administration. From the Indian point of view, it is a national uprising and an attempt to regain native control of the Indian territories, which were being successively taken over by the East India Company.
I had read William Dalrymple’s other best-selling book, The White Mughals, 2002, a few years ago. This book was given to me by another childhood friend, this one the daughter of my father’s closest British, actually Scottish, friend. I loved The White Mughals, which was about the star-crossed marriage of a Mughal princess, Khair un-Nissa and the “gone native” British Resident at the court of the Nizam of Hyderabad. So it was easy for me to find The Last Mughal on the shelves at Politics and Prose in Washington, DC.
The author photo on the back book jacket flap of The Last Mughal shows William Dalrymple sitting on what must be an Indian veranda, holding his right hand to his forehead as if to keep all the historical facts he has researched together in his head. This book is indeed a tour de force of primary research and gripping historical narrative. It holds the reader’s rapt attention until the very last page – leaving you still yearning to learn more about Zafar’s family and his descendents.
To write this book, Dalrymple and his colleague Mahmood Farooqui translated the Mutiny Papers from the Urdu in the Indian National Archives, and there were also primary sources in Persian. In Rangoon, then UK Ambassador to Myanmar Vicky Bowman, he says, helped him “get into the Rangoon Archives.” Again, until I read this book I had no idea the Zafar Shah papers still existed in Rangoon, though I come from a well known bookish Rangoon family myself.
Because of this wealth of new primary material, Dalrymple’s book presents an amazing “I was there, and this is how it was” view of Indians from various walks of life before, during and after this earth-shaking uprising of 1857. At the same time as we obtain the views of the ruling British Resident family, the Metcalfes, we also get the views of members of Zafar’s family and court.
One of the most lucid and effective contemporary commentators was the court poet Ghalib, who was, by a fluke of luck, one of the only survivors of the mass killings and rapes that accompanied the re-taking of Dehli from the rebels. At the same time, Dalrymple has marshaled his facts so well, telling us only what we need to know at the right moment and no earlier, that the narrative reads like an historical novel.
As in the best fiction, the main characters change over time. Gradually, Zafar loses hope. He was after all in his mid-eighties. But he always conducted himself with dignity and humanity and quite a degree of political astuteness even in the face of overwhelming odds, in contrast to the outright brutality of the British officers and soldiers.
On the other hand, driven by thoughts of revenge, Theo Metcalfe, the scion of the Metcalfe family, metamorphoses into a frightening monster with his own gallows in his own back garden. In The Last Mughul, the facts themselves read somewhat like the quotes in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and I mean this of course as the highest of compliments.
The Last Mughal is also just plain well-written. Some of the most affecting and lyrical chapters are the ones depicting what a day in the life of the capital city was like before the troubles. Contrasted with the carnage after, The Last Mughal is a must read as an accurate depiction of what happens when wars of colonization take place.
Kyi May Kaung holds a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in Political Economy and is an expert on totalitarian systems and Burma.

Kyi May Kaung's review of JoAnne Growney's Red Has No Reason -- poetry

Kyi May Kaung – Review of JoAnne Growney’s poetry chapbook, Red Has no Reason:
• Paperback: 82 pages
• Publisher: Plain View Press (May 15, 2010)
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 1935514520
• ISBN-13: 978-1935514527
This amazing little volume of poems, meticulously made and carefully sequenced, is like picking up a precise multifaceted jewel, seeing now and then flashes of red, and sometimes just feeling the sense of red, without overt showy splashes.

Featured are Growney's signature square poems, which always confound a non-able-to-count intuitive poet and painter like me. How can she stick to these exact rules and still produce a sentence with astounding truth value?

The poems look simple, but they aren't.
Somewhere in there is a mother, like mine, who withheld praise.

The counting poem of the farmer's daughter is spectacular and clear-eyed.

The hammer poem shows a sound sense of rhythm and a great ear for sounds.

Kyi May Kaung.
Burmese-American poet.
August 2010

Kyi May Kaung's review of Mischa Berlinski's novel Fieldwork.

Mischa Berlinski, Fieldwork.
• 336 pages
• Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (February 6, 2007)
• Language: English
• ISBN-10: 0374299161
• ISBN-13: 978-0374299163

Book review by Kyi May Kaung.
I bought Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork because of the picture of the pink hibiscus on the cover and the blurbs on the book jacket.
It did not disappoint.
As part of my job with a Burmese non-profit, I have made several trips to Chiangmai, Thailand, where Berlinski’s story of an anthropologist, Martiya van der Leun, who goes native, but goes a little too far, is set.
The novel begins rather slowly, with the narrator, Mischa, describing his time in Chiangmai. Chiangmai as a “cool Thai city” – cooler in terms of both climate, that is, a little less hot than sweltering Bangkok, and also “cool” in the sense of stylish and chic -- is full of non-profit organizations, working with Burmese refugees from across the border or with the hill tribes which live around the fashionable hill station, which is full of expatriates.
Berlinski successfully captures the do-gooder culture of the place, which does have a bit of cultural condescension about it, in the sense that the non-profit organizations think they “know better” than the locals, what the locals’ problems really are.
Anthropology as a subject discipline may have a bit of this. Berlinski describes with sensitivity the awkwardness of Martiya living in a one-room Dyalo hut as an observer with a Dyalo family, of which the household head would like to sleep with her. Berlinski is supposed to have originally wanted to write about the real life Lisu tribe, but his fictional Dyalo are no less compelling, especially in their belief systems.
The counter culture of the pi (Thai) or nats (Burmese) – the spirit world or animism, is beautifully depicted here. In Fieldwork, the rice spirit which possesses Martiya’s native lover is a character in his own right, and in the end possesses Martiya also.
When Berlinski as the narrator of the story arrives on the scene, Martiya has already been murdered, having met a mutual friend who goes and sees her in a Chiangmai prison only once. Martiya is in prison because she murdered a Christian missionary.
One of the most affecting scenes in the book is when this friend goes to see her in prison, and Martiya, a western woman and a researcher who is an ABD (all but dissertation) on her way towards a doctorate, crawls or grovels out into the waiting room in the traditional Thai style. Her hair has been cut in the short Thai style, somewhat like a “butch” hairdo.
In Thai and Burmese culture, and perhaps in other Southeast Asian cultures, the head is the highest and holiest part of the body and the feet the lowest or most lowly.
In the 19th century one Thai princess drowned because no one dared touch her body.
As a prisoner, Martiya was crawling out on all fours so her head would be lower than those of the other people in the room who were sitting in chairs.
The Dyalo and the non-profiteers are not the only two tribes or cultures that play a large role in this fascinating novel. There is also the intergenerational family of the Walkers, a Christian missionary tribe. Here, Berlinski does the missionaries’ God-talk particularly well.
As a learned person’s book, Fieldwork is full of satisfying intellectual detail. It is told backwards, after the fact of the murder, as Berlinski the narrator keeps finding out more and more.
In the end, it is a certain must-read, as it demonstrates vividly how each culture has its own way of thinking. Try as we might, we can only enter another culture at risk of total immersion, perhaps losing our own individuality and even our lives in the process.
Berlinski tells us that in the end, Martiya van der Leun did not go on to get her Ph.D. and considered herself as “just beginning to understand the Dyalo” when she died.
Kyi May Kaung (Ph.D.) has written fiction set in Burma and Thailand and spent decades in academia.

Case of the disappearing ropes -- VOA TV Burmese --

unofficial translation and summary --

"-- Have you heard, they caught a white elephant -- (believed to be auspicious for upcoming so-called election)

but ropes tying it disappeared by a tech trick (Photoshop)

ropes disappearing are nothing -- even a whole human being -- Daw Aung San Suu Kyi talking to Kurt Campbell --

was obliterated. And even the rats are running away from Naypyidaw."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Text of NLD Tin Oo's letter ref. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung's views on Burmese so-called election 2010

National League for Democracy
97/B West Shwegondaing Street
Bahan Township, Rangoon

Mr. Andreas List
European Commission
South East Asian Unit

Subject: Rountable Discussion on "Burma/Myanmar before the
parliamentary elections - Perspectives from inside the country"

Dear Mr. Andreas List,

We learnt that you are going to give comment at the above Rountable
Discussion sponsored by Friedrich Ebert Siftung to be held on
September 17th, 2010 in Berlin. It is a matter of grave concern that
this discussion/workshop might be a deliberate attempt to present a
biased picture of the serious situation in Burma.

For instance, what evidence is there to say in the invitation that "In
light of these developments growing parts of the population are
reluctantly optimistic that the elections will bring about some
positive change in creating more space for political action" when just
yesterday the Election Commission deregistered 5 political parties
that they themselves had permitted to form very recently? It shows
clearly that the present political parties can function only for this
discreditable election, only in time of election and no more "space"
post election.

Besides, the impartiality of both of the speakers is questionable. Is
there any other prisoner of conscience who would cliam that Mr. Khin
Zaw Win was a "prisoner of conscience"? What had been his seditious
writings and human rights work that bestowed him that title?

Is "Myanmar Egress" the organization founded by Mr. Nay Win Maung
independent from the junta's influence or is it a broker between the
government's cronies and the NDF which it is touting as a substitute
for NLD?

It is highly disturbing that Mr. Andreas List, an European Commission
official responsible for this country is going to give comments on the
selected international views and reactions as a recap after the
speeches of these two dubious "experts". This could create the
impression that the European Commission is trying to steam roller this
election which most see as a means to constitutionalize military
dominance in Burma.

We strongly urge that the appropriate measures to be taken by European
Commission to make clear that it is not acting in concert with those
who are disseminating pro-junta propaganda.

Yours sincerely

U Tin Oo
Vice Chairman

Copy to: -

Mr. Jurgen Stetten
Head of Department for Asia and the Pacific, FES

The Ambassador
Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, Rangoon

The Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Government of the FRG
Per kind favour of the Ambassador

Oldie but goldie -- interview of 1988 veteran Aung Thu Nyein on prospects for upcoming "election" 2010 Nov 7

from VOA

If Burmese is not your language of origin, pl ask VOA Burmese for help.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Kyi May Kaung's comment on Taxation in Burma report mentioned in Irrawaddy magazine --

left on Irrawaddy site --


I wrote the forward for this Report by Dr. Sean Turnell and Dr. Alison Vicarey.

It contains nothing but The Truth.

Everyone should read it.

It shows how the junta is squeezing the farmers with "taxation," most of it arbitrary and based on whim of military government/officers. In other words, they do what they like.

"Taxed to death" would be a good description.

Other researchers, including Dr. Nancy Hudson Rodd and U Sein Htay, have also documented similar situations where farmers are losing their land "as in the 1930s" Dr Turnell has noted.

The 1930 situation brought on by the decline in rice prices due to the world wide Great Depression led to the Saya San Revolution.

The British colonial government called it a "rebellion" and it was suppressed by Madras sepoys.

Kyi May Kaung (Ph.D.)

Burl Ives-Ave Maria