Sleepless in Mandalay

Two giant Chinthes standing guard at the southern approach to Mandalay Hill. (Photo: Wagaung / WikiMedia)

In my second recent visit to Burma, I went up to Mandalay—its second largest city. We decided not to fly in order to experience the landscape, people and living conditions while driving along the road from Rangoon.

I missed Mandalay—its pagodas, the walled city with its beautiful moat, the horse carts and famous Zecho market, as well as its friendly people and hill-tribes who venture down from the Shan plateau. When I was young, my family would sometimes travel upcountry to meet relatives in Sagaing, Mandalay and Mogoke.

Burma’s King Mindon built Mandalay from the ground up in 1859 when he moved his capital to this new settlement at the foot of its namesake hill from the old stronghold of Amarapura.

The reason behind the relocation was tactical from a military perspective, but the proud king never admitted this publicly. The old capital was on the Irrawaddy River and exposed to foreign invasion if colonialist gunboats arrived. By this time, the British had already occupied Lower Burma.

Mindon was a “reform-minded” monarch—he built modern factories, sent young Burmese scholars to study in Europe and even developed a national Morse Code. The king also dispatched ambassadors to establish diplomatic relations and sign agreements of amity with his neighbors and powerful Western nations.

He published the first newspaper and introduced what became considered one of the most enlightened media laws in Southeast Asia. The king famously once said, “If I do wrong, write about me. If the queens do wrong, write about them. If my sons and my daughters do wrong, write about them. If the judges and mayors do wrong, write about them. No one shall take action against the journals for writing the truth. They shall go in and out of the palace freely.”

The king and his court subscribed and read newspapers published in Lower Burma, then under British control, and were quite sensitive to criticism. When the Rangoon Gazette reported the poor state of roads in Mandalay, Mindon’s seat of power, its ministers immediately ordered their repair.

However, despite the king’s embrace of a free media, criticism of palace scandals in the royal court of Mandalay never made its way into the Yadanabon Naypyidaw—launched with Mindon’s blessing in March 1875.

Mandalay was full of rich stories including the brutal palace coup, which saw Prince Thibaw ascended to the throne in 1878 after Mindon’s death.

According to the history books, Thibaw and his powerful Queen Suphayalat seized power by killing their rivals—including several princes and princesses plus other close relatives. Under these Burmese monarchs, the lifespan of the new capital lasted only 26 years.

Under the British, Mandalay saw a new life—Thibaw was to spend the rest of his days in exile. Ministers who served under the king retired or became advisors to their new foreign bosses. Loyal soldiers went to the jungle to begin the rebellion against colonial rule.

It was no longer Burma’s Naypyidaw (abode of kings) but rather a small, upcountry town where the British renamed the walled inner city surrounded by moats as Fort Dufferin. Burma’s capital now moved to Rangoon.

The British, like in Rangoon, even introduced a six-mile-long tram service. This was very popular with the residents of Mandalay as it offered clean and efficient transportation. But when nationalist fever hit the country in the early 1900s, local trishaw drivers targeted the tram and the service finally went bankrupt.

Mandalay also hosted many prominent figures such as Burma’s literary guru and respected “peace laureate” Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, who was studying in the city during the fall of the Thibaw dynasty.

There were also many left-wing writers, the respected journalists Ludu U Hla and Ludu Daw Amar, U Razak, a headmaster who became a government minister and was assassinated along with independence hero Gen Aung San, and renowned British author George Orwell who produced Burmese Days based on his experiences as a police officer in the 1920s.

During World War II, Mandalay suffered heavily from Japanese bombing. Gen Slim, head of the British 14th Army, retook the city in 1945 after Allied forces crossed the India-Burma border and seized the garrison town of Meikhtila before encircling historic Mandalay.

Historian Thant Myint-U wrote in his 2011 book Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia that, “The 14th Army was a combined force of British, Indian, Gurkha and African troops—the African troops included Idi Armin, the future tyrant of Uganda, as well as a grandfather of the future US President Barack Obama.

“The Allied air forces pummeled the Japanese while three divisions of the 14th Army encircled Mandalay and then fought street-to-street, the now desperate Japanese snipers aiming straight for the heads of British officers.”

After Burma regained its independence from the British, Mandalay was rebuilt but it never again regained its former prominence.

As under the British, Burmese troops remain stationed at the palace and Mindon’s walled city. I remember visiting the palace in the 1980s and seeing soldiers around the dilapidated buildings and lake where kings and queens would once rest and play. Nothing has been done to restore the palace and Burma’s past glory—not even to promote the attraction to tourists.

The dictator Gen Ne Win made frequent visits to Upper Burma and would stop in Mandalay to spend time in the palace. Aside from meeting military commanders and local officials, he would also invite prominent intellectuals to meet him in the city. They included one young editor called Win Tin, now a senior member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, who then published the region’s Hanthawaddy newspaper.

I wanted to capture Ne Win’s thoughts at Mandalay Palace. He was one of the independence heroes who fought against the British and Japanese, but is better remembered these days for his cocktail political system “The Burmese way to Socialism”—a mixture of Marxism and Buddhism—which proved disastrous for the nation.

Ne Win himself became a deeply unpopular leader and feudal warlord. He was superstitious, paranoid, believed in numerology and eventually became extremely secluded—not trusting anyone and shutting the door on the outside world.

Ne Win’s legacy in modern Burmese history is as a tyrant. An army officer told me that he once had to fix the air conditioner in Ne Win’s room in Mandalay Palace as the general was having trouble sleeping. The noise from the unit bothered Ne Win so much that he abused his officers and walked out. Troops were put on alert and army technicians were immediately called to fix the air conditioner so that the dictator could finally doze off.

But Mandalay has a history of being alert and politically aware. I remember that during the 1988 uprising in Rangoon, students immediately looked to their counterparts in Mandalay to join in. Although Mandalay was at first unhurried, sleepy and disconnected, they finally came through. It was a full-blown uprising—residents and monks in Mandalay showed their courage and defiance. Ne Win left power in disgrace that July.

But this was not good news either. Ne Win’s subordinates were just as tough, shortsighted and oppressive—lacking governance skills and boasting an alarming culture of brutality.

Some of the generals who came to power saw Mandalay as a useful tool to promote nationalism and oppose the foreign imperialists. They decided to rebuild the old palace—much to the dismay of historians—and over a few years many historic buildings were restored in concrete with thousands of civilians and prisoners forced to contribute labor to beautify “Golden Myanmar” by restoring Mandalay’s iconic moat and walls.

But Mandalay was rebellious—in the early 1990s monks defied the generals and refused to receive alms from those in the Burmese armed forces. The furious military hierarchy ordered a raid on more than 130 monasteries in the city and many clergymen were defrocked and imprisoned.

I see Mandalay with nostalgia—a city that could easily recall old spirits and ghosts to share stories of the past. There are many tales to be told for those that scrape beneath the surface. But times are moving forward and great change is afoot.

When we checked into a small hotel in downtown, I saw a sign promoting tourism written in both Burmese and Mandarin. There were several Chinese visitors sitting in the lobby, and I noticed that the girls at reception spoke Chinese as well as their native tongue.

Later I met the Burmese writer Nyi Pu Lay, the son of Ludu U Hla and Daw Amar, who spent 10 years in prison for political crimes and was released a few years ago. He told me that the new Chinese immigrates who arrive in the city tend to live in expensive gated houses and do not integrate with the locals.

Apparently, many come from southern China and have bought Burmese IDs. Especially in Lashio, Shan State, the Chinese have been accused of taking over the town. This is a common sentiment in Upper Burma these days—perhaps indicative of the latest stage in Mandalay’s chequered history.

Beijing has heavily invested in several hydropower projects in Shan and Kachin states and is also building a gas pipeline and railway across upper and central Burma from Arakan State to China’s southern Yunnan Province.

Burmese President Thein Sein received plaudits at home and abroad when he suspended the controversial Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State, but he will not dare touch the billions of dollars-worth Shwe Gas projects. On our way to Mandalay we saw the pipelines up close. Several battalions were deployed to protect the construction process.

A brawl recently broke out between Burmese and Chinese people in Mandalay. Several local residents and artists I met told me that everyone is afraid of a backlash.

In my 24-hour stay in Mandalay, I could not escape from the debate on China and its prominent influence in Upper Burma. Even when I met the famous comedy Par Par Lay troupe they joked how China robs Burma of teak trees and other resources. I can see that there is a danger of a brewing xenophobic sentiment amongst the younger generation aimed at their booming northern neighbors.

Many questions remained unanswered. What does the future hold in the next decade? How will Burma’s sovereignty and territory be preserved? Unfortunately, spending an evening in a restaurant talking with young Burmese residents over beers makes it difficult to have a sound night’s sleep in Mandalay.


16 Responses to Sleepless in Mandalay

  1. That China is robbing and looting Burma’s natural resources is not a joke. It’s a sad reality! That a lot of Burmese resent these rich illegal Chinese immigrants buying fake ID’s (Rohingyas can’t afford that lol) and taking over Burma, as you correctly said, is not xenophobic or racist, but pure self-defense and self=preservation. There are 1.3 billion Chinese and they are using the 2Y-strategy (Yuan and Y-chromosomes) to invade Burma. There is a surplus of men in China. No wonder the girls in Mandalay have to speak Mandarin nowadays (this was definitely not the case when I lived there as a young boy in the 50’s and so hopefully I am dead before Mandalay becomes a Chinese city like Lashio).
    Why do you say “he (Thein Sein) will not dare touch the billions of dollars-worth Shwe Gas project”? Is money more important than the sovereignty of Burma? Are Chinese business interests (supported by traitors and axe-handles) more important than the tradition and independence of a country? All these extractive mega-projects by the Chinese have to be stopped. Otherwise Burma is just a province of China with some external trappings (like Suu Kyi in parliament) to please the West.
    Stop the Chinese invasion of Burma!
    Save the Irrawaddy dolphins and the people of Burma!

  2. Doesn’t surprise me that you were sleepless there, given the noise from the generators and swarming motorbikes! Apart from the riverside, I’ve always found the city itself to be completely charmless, a place for wheeler-dealer businesspersons for the most. Glass and steel constructions have replaced colonial buildings and neighbourhood dwellings (remember the demolition of the railway station and its replacement with a dusty, half-empty concrete monstrosity), and the garbage in places is terrible – I took my dad there a few years ago and he said it was the filthiest place he’d ever seen, so disappointing.

    Happily, around Mandalay is a different matter, absolutely wonderful; but the city itself is an example of how NOT to do urban renewal.

  3. Than Shwe sold these off to the Chinese.

    But people do Burma are not required to go along with that. All they need to do I’d simply to say so.

    But only if people say so.

    People must not be fooled as Dave above put it, these concrete and glass are abomination NOT PROGRESS as poor Thant Myint- U thinks they are.

    The richness of Burma is her tradition, her culture and her lovely, peaceful people. Not glass pieces and plastic cars and monorail.

    Unlessele understand which is really valuable and which are simply trash in dress, they will lose out. Wake up!!!

  4. Ludu Daw Amar famously wrote that the Chinese have occupied Mandalay without firing a shot. It remains a tinder box filled with explosive resentment, and an anti-Chinese backlash is in the offing on the slightest provocation. As Mao said, a single spark can start a prairie fire, and his fellow Chinese, innocent/friendly/intermingling or exploitative/ostentatious/arrogant, will be on the receiving end.

    Monks and lay people alike of Mandalay however have shown their strong sense of fairness and justice willing to take on tyranny time and again, the candlelight protests being only the latest. You can bet Mandalay will play a very prominent part in the so-called second struggle for independence with or without the Lady.

  5. Mandalay sadly is almost unrecognizable now from my days there in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Remembered attending an outdoors nighttime Duke Ellington concert inside the moat on palace grounds in 1971 ( fading memories )? Hopefully, all leaders of the Tatmadaw will realize that they need to embrace reform, and help guide the country out of the big mess that they have led it into in the past decades.

  6. Liked your story about Mandalay then and now (especially Mindon’s quote about the press), but have to agree with Dave that all the charm has been taken out of Mandalay recently. It’s a loud, dusty, and ugly place now littered with Chinese-made concrete.

    The bit about ethnic tensions being on the horizon was very relevant too. As Burma develops the Chinese are bound to profit first, with their easy access to credit (supplied by fellow Chinese). Burma is at risk of developing a mainly Chinese middle class. Which will lead to racial tensions sooner or later if the government fails to address this problem in time.

  7. Abusing natural resources has become a part of the formula for development for many developed countries. I, as a Chinese Burmese, also feel that anthroponetric behavior towards nature is shameful and punishable. However, if everything were to blame onto Chinese immigrants, it’s not only unjust but also being discriminative. I was born in Mandalay and grew up there. I really appreciate the multi-culture atmosphere that the city could offer.
    If we see the natural resources are being misused, we got to find the real problem behind and talk to government, in stead of conveniently accusing an ethnic group in hope of solving the problem. Chinese are not the problems here, the lusts and profits are.
    The culture of the city is the contribution of every single person living there. We have got to learn to appreciate our own. Cultural identity is a heritage that we pass onto our younger generation; if we pass on hate, there will definitely be more hate. Wouldn’t it be better if we can pass on some positive energy and hope to them?
    Our country is developing, there are more and more opportunities for everyone. I really hope that we do not lose our ethical virtues as our income grows in number. Only if we can maintain our virtues, we can maintain our happiness and be happier.

    • Only partially true.

      With only money in their mind, Chinese thus far has shown no concern whatsoever for the nature at all. Or the welfare of the host country. How could a person even envisage to dam the Irrawaddy? And with loud objection, keep trying with suitcase full of cash to the Sit-tut.

      It is also true the the Chinese appeal to the dark side of human nature did meet willing recepticle in the Sit-tut who are solid greed and ruthlessness.

      People then suffer in the hands of both. Unfortunately the unstable relationship will get worse. Most Burmese may not feel like letting their starving children to spend their lives looking up to the Chinese to throw some bones their way in their own country.

      This opening business is more intense example of the current hunger strikers.

      Just as in Burmese Way to Socialism, where a lot if people did get to the socialist paradise, there wil be a lot of people getting again now to the opening paradise, reform paradise. Meanwhile……

    • Dear Maung maung
      i totally agree with your wise opinion upon Chinese. I stress again that China is not the main culprit in every happening in Burma. Than sein and thein sein are seller and China is buyer. Can anybody prove that people liberation army invade Burma to point their guns to than shwe and thein sein for getting everything for china?. Who start to kill their own Burmese ethnics for own advantages? Who does not want to fulfill the Pinglong agreement? Do you know the Chinese nationalist army defect the Japanese army in the crucial battle in Myitkyina? For this defect, Japanese lost their military supplies for the whole Asia. Previously, allied army claimed that they defected Japan army in Myitkyina. Now , there is no reply from USA for confirmation after China makes clarification. Do you know how Japanese military might defected easily the famous British defense in Singapore? If anybody told about the bravery, do not forget about the Chinese army and Japanese army in history because i do not want to listen about the ne win and all bama military bravery any more after comparison. Burma is the poorest country now so it needs the rich saver in general. In addition, China, the future superpower is our neighbor. Please, find the real reason of middle east battles. For oil, Europe and USA are fighting in middle east. Yes, i agree that the system(Law and corruption) in China is poorer than USA and Europe because China is still in the stage of modernization gradually. Because China, like Burma was suffered from Japanese invasion and USA Korean, Vietnam wars. After world war 2, USA takes UK-place for influences around the world(similar to colonization). If you blame more on China, DASSK will lost a chance to visit China. I sincerely, request “tocharian” to read my above for his response in every questions. But i confirm that China still love baby boy(y-chromsome) than girl because boy will bear his parent’s surname usually so boys are precious in Chinese culture. If more “Y” with Yuan come to Burma for good intention and investment, please welcome. If the boy luckily is married to Burmese girl, he will live with his Burmese girl’s parents to support all in Burmese culture. The boy and his children will also lost their surname as Burmese has no surname. I will not be jealous to those lucky boys for my country. I will appreciate the boy’s central nervous-brains in MIT, Barley, Oxford, Cambridge for Chinese influences and cardiovascular system-love to precious Burmese girl. Thank Maung Maung.

  8. Mandalay is a cultural city, why government is making our heritage to chinese city, these immigration officers have no shame selling IDs to chinese to settle in Mandalay. Why Burmese authorities from top to bottom just closing their eyes?
    Our last King Thibaw and Suphaya Latt sold the country to colonial power British with the exchange of 100,000 silver coin as pension honour monthly and exiled to India till death is also a historical fact. The artilery soldiers including Pathi Muslims soldiers and its commander Bo Min Hasim continuous fighting against British naval foreces was stoped by the King’s Court order, so Bo Min Hashim had been withdrwan his artilary soldiers from the camp of Sagaing bridge is also a regretable fact. A beautiful teak Mosque in side the Mandalay palace was demolished by the order of central commander is also a racism mentelity of a military general which leaded to disconfortable to Muslim comunity of Burma.

  9. Soon the Japanese, the Koreans will be coming ; the Indians, the Europeans, the Americans will be coming; Asean neighbors will be coming; they will come in droves in three to five years time. They will be flashing their wealth around the country.
    What do we Myanmar want with regard to these aspects of economic development??
    Are we going to drive them out as we did in the 1960s? It is possible the situation will develop into the similar scenarios where the Chinese, the Indians, the Westerners, the Japanese will control a large portion if not the majority of our commerce and wealth.
    We need to look hard at the pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages, to face & accept reality.
    We should not, for example, want to develop our tourism industry to the kind as in some countries where it has become detrimental to the social and natural environments. Never mind we do not have 15 million tourists a year, we can live with a few millions responsible tourists interested in and have due regard for our culture, history, people, land & ecology- we have enough to attract; no sex tourism, no child sex, no backpackers, no environmental destruction, no destruction to our way of life.
    As for the businessmen and the entrepreneurs, we must understand that we have to compete with other developing countries to attract their investments, which should bring in know-how, technology, science, engineering, skills, and more importantly management expertise. Our commercial laws, business environment, infra structures, human resources, etc must be able to compete- urgently and as soon as possible- with those of others such as in Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, not to mention other emerging countries around the world. And once the foreign businesses play fair by our laws and regulations, our environmental & social norms and requirements, we must make sure they can flourish and make money on our land. No investor will come if one cannot make money in security or if one can make more money somewhere else. No foreign investor ever invests a business in a country at a loss due to love of that country.
    Once the foreign businesses pay our taxes, treat the local employees fairly, transfer reasonable knowledge, play by our rules with respect to international norms, and also make money, we cannot complain if they use or waste or flounder or remit their money. Instead we are supposed to learn quickly, try to be as good and competent as they are, and to start and stand on our own. Here the government needs to assist with proper policies and inputs.
    We may selectively look for a role model, or role models in different aspects of development , to our neighboring SE Asian countries, or elsewhere. Anyhow one looks around our region, one still finds overseas Chinese, as citizens already for generations or as foreigners, are holding a large share of the commerce or wealth, for example. Added to this are other foreigners, MNCs etc. How do these countries handle this situation? We have to strike a balance between letting the foreigners work in a way that is beneficial to them and then not allowing them hurt the local people or the country but also beneficial to us.

  10. “It is possible the situation will develop into the similar scenarios where the Chinese, the Indians, the Westerners, the Japanese will control a large portion if not the majority of our commerce and wealth.”

    True. Only if we stay in the same trail Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi are blazing rapidly together.

    There seems united desire among the military and their crony elites as well as the token opposition and majority of currently internetted crowd that there is a desperate need for quick money which they like to call development so that at least they can be like Thailand and Singapore and start using iPAD’s all over Burma.Such strong and virulent inferiority complexes.

    Except they cannot make it themselves. None of them can make a drop of clean water or an ounce of clean air. Their most wonderful plan is to sell out the country to get there. Pristine environment, people- for slave labour and sex, the lot.

    Not even by themselves, by letting all sorts of foreigners and multinational companies and international financing agencies to come in and do it.

    And with little or no rules! Clinton told the US companies to do it responsibly like asking the tiger to go vegetarian.

    So the problem is not Chinese or any other race but total lack of good planning, discussion and safty measure for the majority public who are totally at the mercy of these foreingners. Even now Norway with KNU is dictating where the Karen can live in preparation for future use as workers in multinational factories on slave wages soon.

    One would expect this from the military and their front man, who every one has taken in, Thein Sein, but NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi or indeed any other wannabe politicains are not any wiser either.

    So chaos awaits.

  11. i agree with Norman Hla.Thks Irrawady

  12. Wait for new chinese burmese riot in the very near future. Might is right. Let the burmese people and govt dare evict the chinese. They can do to poor like rohingyas? Try the same with the chinese

  13. I live in California, and am looking forward to visiting Myanmar in January 2013. I will visit Mandalay, so find the description fascinting, but moreso the comments that follow. A good indication of freedom is that of speech, and what people have offered is encouraging.

    I will be staying in small guest inns and renting bicycles where possible. I want to meet the people of your country, to find out what we have in common, how we are different, and how well your people are treating their rich heritage.

    What your future will bring is conjecture at this time. I certainly hope that Burmese people will seek education and internet resources because the whole world is available online. An educated population should be able to deal successfully with international companies and share profits with them.

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