Book Review: My Conscience: An Exile’s Memoir of Burma

By Ashoke Chatterjee 22 April 2017

To be expelled from one’s native land, or to live away by compulsion, is the experience from which emerge so many narratives in our time. Exile, immigrant, émigré and refugee: the terms overlap their burdens of displacement and violation.

Narratives of loss are often of aspirations power-mongers will not countenance, and that others understand all too seldom or too late. Exiles from Burma have been tucked away in Indian society for almost five decades, unseen and unheard as New Delhi accommodated the reality of military rule in what became ‘Myanmar’ in 1989.

This despite the ethnic cleansing of lakhs of Indian origin, expelled earlier as boatloads of refugees, leaving the only land they had known and taking with them that love of soil which is the hallmark of every Burmese.

This book is a story of another exiled life, rooted in Burma, linked to India, and lived out in the USA and across the globe. It has been a life of conscience, driven by a single unrelenting cause:  Burma as a free, democratic and inclusive society. No political correctness here—it is ‘Burma’ all the way, the author dismissing the generals’ claim that ‘Myanmar’ correctly encompasses all the inhabitants of his polyglot country.

My Conscience is a modest book with major significance. For thinking Indians, it offers an important understanding of the dynamics of a close neighbor—close by geography yet distant in terms of awareness and even logistics. (Only Kolkata and Gaya are linked by a few direct flights to Rangoon/Yangon, and today’s tourists find it quicker to fly to Bangkok and then backtrack to what should be less than a couple hours’ flight.)

My Conscience provides an easy yet perceptive education on the forces that transformed Burma into Myanmar and brought into play, at India’s doorstep, regional powers competing for access to the country’s extraordinary wealth and strategic advantages.

Today with the opening of ‘Myanmar’—to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s participation in national affairs, trade and foreign investment, regional power plays, tourism and slow movement away from military frameworks—this book reminds that such cataclysmic changes next door have caused scarcely a ripple in India despite deep links of history, faith and migration.

The book describes a life that has spanned British and Japanese rule, the end of the Raj in Burma in 1948, and the aspirations for freedom that were shattered by the assassination of Gen Aung San in 1947. The horrors that would later overtake Burma and seal its borders reflect waves of ethnic conflict (of which the Karen rebellion is the most serious and continuous), incompetence and corruption.

Despite the brutality of a complete army takeover in the 1960s, it took the massacres of 1988 to finally draw world attention, transfixed by repeated incarcerations of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and all that followed in their wake through betrayals of electoral promises.

There is a warning here of complacency about constitutional advantages so scarce in India’s neighborhood, and so precious in terms of Burmese lives lost in their pursuit as the world preferred not to notice.

If indeed there is to be an era of a Modi-driven ‘look East’ policy, My Conscience may offer useful lessons to an India often obsessed with distant powers at the cost of opportunities at its borders, and too casual about the influence its democracy should provide in the region.

Born of Christian parents, with a Karen mother and a Burman father, the book traces U Kyaw Win’s journey from a war-torn Burma for Woodstock in Mussoorie, India, the international school established over 150 years ago.

Its culture of nations and creeds and its Himalaya-inspired global network welcome a Burman upbringing that harmonizes Christian and Buddhist heritage. Win takes the opportunity of his Indian schooling to explore from ‘Kashmir to Kanyakumari’ what is to emerge as a surrogate homeland.

After college years in the USA, a return to Rangoon finds little prospect of stable earning. Another painful uprooting follows, taking Win back to a US career as educator and then to the experience of exile lived out in an adopted land.

For Win and his siblings, what was to be a temporary sabbatical absence from Burma is sealed by generals who take command of the country, closing its borders in 1962. All who have left become suspect as traitors.

Commitment to soil and country now transform as ties of love within a family struggling to remain in touch. Its efforts are a poignant thread linking elements of Win’s story—ageing parents denied contact with children overseas, children terrified of contact that may rebound at home on the old and the vulnerable, risks that must be taken to know who is alive and what succor may still be possible, letters and crackling phone lines threatened by surveillance and suspicion.

There are heart-breaking memories of visits dreamed and planned only to be frustrated by brutal restrictions. Family despair is heightened by delusions that a despotic regime will one day miraculously reveal some benevolent purpose.

Secrecy becomes a way of life in a Burma sealed from the outside world, to which only the privileged junta has access. Over the years that follow, Win returns again and again to India, comforted by its tantalizing proximity as a secular karmabhoomi to a matrabhoomi transformed into an army jail.

My Conscience tracks the impact on Burma’s contemporary history of the military coup that ousted Prime Minister U Nu in 1962. U Nu is among the book’s huge cast of characters, adding to it an enigmatic flavor as he flits in and out of Win’s life in Burma, the US and then in self-imposed exile in Bhopal and beside the neglected grave of Burma’s last king in Ratnagiri.

His exit is followed by the army’s disastrous ‘Burmese Way to Socialism.’ By 1974 complete power is vested in a ‘People’s Assembly’ headed by General Ne Win and his military cohort.

Soon, U Kyaw Win is a marked man. In the US, Win meets and marries an Indonesian, Gandasiri (Riri in the book). There is further turmoil as her family rejects an interfaith union. Turning adversity to opportunity, the couple chooses a path of conscience in their adopted land, working for Burma’s freedom as well as for harmony in a world fragmented by prejudice and oppression.

Win and Riri become American citizens to create a context for advocacy and to avoid a stateless fate. In 1973 Win begins to type out his Burma Bulletin, a modest newsletter for émigrés and friends in the USA.

Initially, response is limited. Burma is still a land few Americans can identify by name or on a map. Yet the Bulletin’s impact is measured by junta fury at this exception to its media clampdown, and Win as its editor is barred from entering Burma.

He helps found the Committee for Restoration of Democracy in Burma. Devious stratagems begin to sustain contact, and sometimes to enter home territory, most often through porous borders in northern Thailand alive with insurgent camps.

There, Win and Riri become familiar figures, volunteering for relief and teaching. As the Burma Bulletin reaches out to influential decision-makers, the initial response is that of deaf ears. A relentless campaign begins: demonstrations in Washington, letters across the globe, and links with international networks on human rights.

Suddenly, a friend becomes Burma’s powerful symbol of resistance: Daw Aung San Suu Kyi returns to Rangoon to look after her ailing mother. There, history overtakes her.

In 1988 the Burma Bulletin draws attention to the thousands dead in anti-government riots, and Win’s efforts begin to represent wherever he can the cause of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. During her incarceration under house arrest (these continue with brief respites until 2010), Kyaw Win is among those who carry her torch to spaces she cannot reach.

At the Nobel Prize investiture, the Win family is there on her behalf. Encounters with the dictatorship also take place, through channels official as well as clandestine, in efforts to reach a home and a society where ties bind and are held close to the heart.

In one chilling account, Riri travels alone with her children to Rangoon. Before they can step out of the airport, Riri is detained and abused as the wife of a traitor. Finally, the power of a US passport gives her a few precious hours with Win’s tearful parents, before she and the children dutifully prostrate themselves and return to the safety of a departing flight without breathing a word of their airport ordeal to the aged.

In 2001, the unexpected intercession of a Buddhist monk brings a ‘Myanmar’ visa for Win. His journey protectively monitored by US diplomats, Win returns home to ‘Yangon’ and to relatives and places he has not seen in decades. A visit to Suu Kyi in 2003 does not go unnoticed, as spooks of the junta tag every brief movement of the reunion.

Burma-watchers will find interest in the book’s detailed listing of names (influencers and influenced from within and outside Burma), dates (the book moves back and forth across five decades with dizzying speed), and locations (colonial names recklessly replaced in Myanmar, as here, are carefully cross–referenced).

For others, such details may interrupt what is an extraordinary flow of recent history, told with the ease of a living-room conversation.

My Conscience offers a perspective of Burma that is cautiously optimistic. Win believes that much will depend on the new administration’s ability to deal with decades-old secessionist movements.

He has an observation that is uncomfortably appropriate to India 2017: “The separatist aspirations of Burma’s minority peoples are man-made. They arise in large measure due to the arrogant presumption held by the majority of Burmans….that it is their right, if not their destiny, to rule over others.”

There is another story as well, between the lines of this book. It is the story of America as hope and opportunity. How many environments in the world can enable such a productive exile?

A lifetime of separation is comforted by extraordinary benefaction: churches, colleges, friends and networks provide a half-century of support to what was once the slender hope of a few individuals.

In a year that has seen such monumental tragedies of human displacement and such vicious anti-immigrant rhetoric, My Conscience is a reminder that for countless millions all over the globe, despite failings and contradictions, the USA remains a lamp lifted by a door. Without America, My Conscience could not have been lived or written.

This review was originally published in the Economic & Political Weekly, Mumbai, on April 15.