MOGOK TOWNSHIP, Mandalay Region – Nestled in Pyaung Khaung Valley in the Shan Hills, some 20 kilometers east of Mogok, lies the town of Ywar Thar Yar, also known by its old name Bernardmyo, or Bernard Town.
Named after Upper Burma Chief Commissioner Sir Charles Edward Bernard, who founded it as an army garrison town in the early 1880s, Bernard Town is home to a remarkable piece of British-Myanmar heritage.
Overgrown with bushes and weeds on a beautiful Shan hillside, the 19thcentury British cemetery provides a sense of serenity and history, but also of sad neglect.
The tombstones offer sparse details on the lives of British soldiers who died between 1886 and 1893, following the Third Anglo-Burmese War, which established British rule over Upper Myanmar but was followed by years of insurgency among the population.
The soldiers who died in Her Majesty’s name abroad have only their army units and date of their death mentioned. One tombstone reads: Pte. J. Pierree, 2nd Bttn, Cheshire Regn, died 16.4.1890.
The men came from four British regiments: the Devonshire, Hampshire, PWO Yorkshire and the Border Regiment.
According to a book titled The History of Mogok, written by Mogok resident U Htet Naing, British authorities decided to base troops at a military head office in Mogok in 1886, when the region was already known for its ruby wealth, and to station a garrison in the Pyaung Gaung region. Later, Bernard Town sprung up around the garrison, which constructed weapons depots, roads and bridges in the region.
Originally, the cemetery had some 100 tombstones to mark the graves of the fallen soldiers, according to elderly local residents, but these days only about 20 remain standing.
Bernard Town residents lamented the fact that the site has fallen into neglect and said authorities should take steps to preserve it, in particular since it has been attracting a rising number of foreign tourists in recent years.
“When I was child, there were many grave stones around the cemetery. We used to play around here, but later some residents took some of the grave stones to use as a slab to wash clothes on,” said Ko Aung Naing, 35. “There is no one to take action against it, that’s why there are fewer and fewer grave stones left.”
Another threat to the site is the region’s mineral wealth: Just meters from the graves is a massive, red-colored mud stream that has washed down from a mining site on a hilltop where workers are searching for rubies and sapphires.
Foreigners have been allowed to visit Mogok, considered sensitive by authorities because of ruby mining, since 2013. They are required to first gain prior government permission for a tourist visit, a process that can be facilitated by a local travel agent but may take up to two weeks.
Ko Aung Naing said since the rise in tourist visits authorities paid more attention to the site and built a boundary around it, but otherwise nothing was being done to preserve it.
U Htet Naing, author of the history book, said Mogok Township authorities should take steps to protect the graves and improve access for those who want to visit. “This is our Mogok history, we will have to maintain it and prevent it from being wiped out because of natural disasters and man-made mistakes,” he said.
This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.