Just back from a brief few days in Burma, now almost universally known as Myanmar - my first time there, and about the most interesting place I've ever been. It has stupendous Buddhist architecture (including the renowned Shwedagon Pagoda), about the most remarkable colonial architecture in its downtown area (most dilapidated but still standing) I've seen outside of Calcutta, and a very warm and friendly people.
Rangoon (now Yangon) was one of Asia's big trading centres during the colonial era - and attracted so many immigrants that prior to independence, the Burmese were a minority in the city. Most of the migrants were from India - there's still a large Indian population, though economically they are no longer the moves and shakers. The Chinese community is as numerous, and China's economic power more ubiquitous (and more resented).
Once Armenians and Baghdadi Jews played a crucial part in commerce here - there's still an Armenian church and a synagogue - now Japanese and Korean brand names are starting to intrude. But this remains an old fashioned city - most of the big international brands (Macdonalds, Starbucks) haven't made it here yet - the politics of the country, and the gradual liberalisation and opening up, hasn't advanced so far that observers would say there's no way back.
And Burma's turbulent modern history is everywhere at hand. The country suffered greater privation during World War Two than almost anywhere else in Asia. In the tourist markets, sets of Japanese printed wartime rupees for use in occupied Burma are among the most popular purchases. In July 1947, with the British back in charge, Burma's 32-year-old nationalist leader Aung San - the father of Aung San Suu Kyi - was assassinated along with several of his colleagues. Members of a militia controlled by a rival Burmse politician were responsible - and the gunmen, and their political master, were hanged. But it meant that when the country achieved independence a few months later, it had already been deprived of some of its commanding political figures.
A fascinating country, changing rapidly, and facing much uncertainty. More in coming weeks as I reflect on my handful of 'Burmese Days' (if you are wondering why that phrase has a familiar ring, it's the title of a George Orwell novel).
The painting, by the way, I bought for a very reasonable sum at Yangon's Bogyoke (it means General) Aung San market. I like it, and the city it depicts.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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