A witty, beautifully turned travelogue about benighted Burma.
The Trouser People: A Story of Burma in the Shadow of the Empireby Andrew Marshall
The Trouser People is an offbeat, thrilling and unforgettable journey through Britain's lost heritage and a powerful expose of Burma s modern tragedy.
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The Trouser People is an offbeat, thrilling and unforgettable journey through Britain's lost heritage and a powerful expose of Burma s modern tragedy.
An evocative travel book and adventure story . . . Marshall is a gifted writer.
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Read an Excerpt
The Thai�Burma Border
Philip the Miracle Monk rummaged at length in the mysterious folds of his orange robes and retrieved a trilling mobile phone.
�Excuse me for a second,� he apologized, but I was getting used to it. Philip�s robes had been ringing all morning. Hairless, podgy and swaddled in robes, Philip reminded me at times of very large, very bright baby. I had met him in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, soon after dawn, and it was immediately obvious that he was highly unusual monk. For a start, most monks were not fanatical fans of the heavy-metal group The Scorpions at least not as far as I knew. Monks weren�t usually called Philip either. His Buddhist holy name was as long as his arm, and was bit of mouthful for foreigners, so he had chosen an English name inspired by an electrical appliance. �I liked the sound of it,� he told me. �It sounded very modern.
Nor are monks supposed to know as much about troop movements as Philip seemed to: the Shan State Army, he whispered, had just dispatched fighters to positions in north-east Burma. Not long ago, it was rumoured, Philip had returned from Thailand �s frontier with Cambodia, where he had negotiated the release of clandestine arms shipment from some overzealous border police. His heavenly powers of persuasion in such dealings had earned him the nickname �Miracle Monk�. Sometimes he was also called the Combat Buddha. Later on, in the jungle, I spotted him sitting with sculpted calm, his robes wrapped tightly around him, reading Guns & Ammo magazine.
The miracle expected of Philip today was relatively minor one. It was his task to spirit small group of journalists and aid workers over the Thai border to the jungle stronghold of the Shan State Army, an insurgent group fighting against the Burmese military junta. We were going there to witness the celebrations for Shan New Year, and to meet the reclusive commander of the Shan rebels. The unfathomable depths of Philip�s robes would prove invaluable for smuggling film past the Thai border guards, none of whom would dare frisk monk �- not even highly unusual monk called Philip.
I left Chiang Mai in the back of speeding Toyota pick-up truck crammed with sombre Shan men wearing military fatigues. A warm drizzle pelted my face. The road meandered through fields of dead paddy, then climbed in steep, switchback curves beneath rain-drooped bamboo and watchful pines silhouetted by mist. We rose high enough to glimpse long, deep valley boiling with clouds and, massed along the far horizon, the dark ramparts of the mountains bordering Burma�s Shan State �- our destination. Then the road corkscrewed down into the gloom again. A few hours later we hit Thai military checkpoint, and it was time for Philip �s miracle. Soothingly, he told the Thai soldiers we were not journalists but �friends of the Shan people� who had been invited to celebrate New Year with the rebels. The Thai soldiers decided to believe him. They confiscated the cameras we hadn�t hidden, then took group photo of us all for their intelligence files. For moment the whole process took on the air of a jolly Sunday outing.
Beyond the checkpoint, our truck swept through another curtain of mist and emerged in landscape of mythic beauty. The road was now dusty red channel winding between immense towers of craggy limestone, part of an army of stacks that marched down the Thai�Burma border to the oblivious beach resorts of the far south. These stacks were in turn encircled and dwarfed by an arena of cloud-shrouded peaks of deep, aching blue. We were now inside the fortress of mountains I had seen from afar. It felt like an undiscovered place. Thick mist crept through the rolling forest in hot pursuit and swallowed the road behind us.
�Yup,� drawled the Associated Press photographer, an American ex-military type with talent for mood-wrecking one-liners, �this is just about as far out into the boondocks as you can get.�
It got dark. The road shrank to little more than mud-filled groove through thick jungle. The Toyota�s engine screamed blue murder as it propelled the truck up improbably steep hills. We stopped to give ride to two bleary Shan villagers, their breath reeking sweetly of rice wine. The road ended abruptly in small hillside clearing. I jumped out, massaged my legs back to life, and by torchlight followed the others along narrow path winding up into the jungle. More torches approached us, and there was the smell of cheroot smoke and the squawk of walkie-talkies. Unseen hands reached through the darkness and wordlessly relieved us of our bags. I trudged on, following the circle of my Maglite, and soon I heard the deep boom of Shan long-drum, carrying far through the damp night air, and saw through the trees few smudges of light. Philip �s voice rang through the darkness. �Welcome to Shan State, everyone,� he announced. �No visa required.�
The rebel camp was scattered along narrow, sloping ridge. At the top was parade ground of packed mud dominated by an enormous flag featuring the crossed sword and rifle of the Shan State Army. At the lower end were rough bamboo stalls selling dry goods and illuminated by candles, or by lamps fashioned from dead beer cans. Wood smoke bathed the scene and turned torch beams into light-sabres. A small crowd of mostly women and children waited by makeshift stage where giant moths battered themselves to death on the fluorescent strip lights.
Most SSA soldiers I saw were very young. They wore yellow neckerchiefs fastened with woggles, and carried Vietnam War-era M-16 assault rifles �- weapons older than they were. They looked like heavily armed Boy Scouts. There were few older soldiers, their dark skins etched still darker with magical Shan tattoos believed to deflect bullets and keep out the cold. The SSA had few thousand troops. It was massively outnumbered by the 400,000-strong Burmese army, whose nearest camp was, unnervingly, only on the next hilltop. �We flash our torches at them,�a rebel told me cheerfully, �and they always flash back.�
The SSA men cleared circle in the crowd for the musicians. I had arrived just in time to see the ka-toe, a traditional Shan dance featuring pantomime long-horned deer, which shambled in after the musicians. Everything about this grossly elongated invention was ridiculous. The costume was made of green and red felt, and the yellow, papier-mâché head was too small. Instead of hooves the deer had muddy jungle boots, which belonged to the two Shan soldiers inside.
They were evidently making final adjustments, for just before the show began a disembodied arm extended comically from hole beneath the deer�s tail to pass a torch to a nearby soldier.
But then the music began, and it was as if powerful electrical current now coursed beneath the skin. The deer leaped with astonishing speed around the circle, sending spectators scurrying backwards. It would suddenly freeze, then slowly rotate its head to scan the crowd, its mechanical ears twitching with irritation. Or it would crouch and shudder its spine as if preparing to pounce. This was no longer bumbling pantomime animal, but creature with all the menacing agility of Chinese festival dragon. The boom of the long-drum, the drone of gongs, the dark, infinite jungle all around �- the whole performance was mesmeric.
Just before midnight, the young SSA soldiers fell in before bamboo flagpole. The camp�s civilians formed ragged columns behind them. The SSA was one of the few rebel armies still fighting the Burmese junta; nearly every other ethnic insurgent group had signed cease fire agreements with the generals. What I was seeing here were the last free Shan in a Shan State. A few monks appeared, among them grave-looking Philip. The Shan flag was raised and saluted, and the Shan national anthem was sung. Then Philip and the other monks chanted blessing. It was solemn occasion, mourning rite for people without a nation.
The celebrations started up again. The deer reappeared, wilder this time, twitching, pouncing, pestered into whirling frenzy by boy soldiers. A monster cheroot was put in my mouth and lit, and in the fragrant burst of light-headedness that followed I found myself dancing around the deer too.
On the stage, a couple in Shan national dress began to dance, and the bamboo floor trampolined gently beneath them. They were accompanied by traditional Shan music, pre-recorded and played back through scratchy sound system at volume that made my internal organs vibrate. I was shown to a raised bamboo sleeping area reserved for honoured guests �- right next to the loudspeakers. The Associated Press photographer lay beside me and groaned.
�It sounds like poor defenceless animal being slammed over and over and over in car door,� he said. Then he wrapped a blanket around his head and, to my great envy, fell fast asleep.
* * *
It was the diaries that had brought me here. Only few months before, but world away, I had sat in the pin-drop silence of the British Library in London poring over collection of nineteenth-century notebooks. Only handful of determined scholars had ever dusted them off before me, and I could understand why. Blotched with jungle mould, and unimproved by later decades in damp Sussex attic, the diaries were virtually illegible. But I read them with growing excitement.
They had belonged to Sir J. George Scott, an unsung Victorian adventurer, war correspondent, photographer and sportsman with a fondness for gargantuan pith helmets and bluffness of expression that bordered on the Pythonesque. �Stepped on something soft and wobbly,� he recorded in his diary one dark night. �Struck match, found it was dead Chinaman.� Born in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, George Scott was natural imperialist who was instrumental in imposing British colonial rule in Upper Burma. Armed with nothing more than the moral force of the Raj, this diminutive preacher�s son from Fife hacked, bullied and charmed his way through the uncharted Burmese highlands. The diaries noted jungle firefights with angry natives, bullets flying everywhere, and as Scott strode unarmed into a hail of spears and buckshot there were manly exchanges like this:
�Have revolver if you are going on,� called out the Colonel.Part of Scott�s job was to map the lawless frontiers of this �geographical nowhere� with China, and for years the Indian Empire�s easternmost land border was marked by something called the �Scott Line�. But he also widened the imperial goalposts in another way: he introduced football to Burma, where today it is the national sport. The boisterous Burmese loved the game, Scott noted, �because it�s just like fighting�.
�Send me box of matches, my pipe�s out, �returned Scott.
Reading the diaries, I formed an impression of Scott as bluff, mouthy and artless -- a kind of Victorian-era New Lad larging it through the imperial hinterlands. But that was only half the story. Scott was also pioneering photographer, as well as gifted and prolific writer. His masterpiece, The Burman (1882), still in print today, was an unrivalled authority on everything Burmese, from ear-boring and exorcism to monastery construction and the funeral requirements of sacred white elephants. Two genres he spectacularly failed to master were adventure yarns �- he penned strikingly bad novels -� and Foreign Office dispatches. �Truly Indian in its prolixity,� remarked shattered British official who read one of his epic reports.
Scott spent most of his working life in the mountains that now brooded massively in the darkness all around me. Ancient migration routes between India, China, Tibet and Assam had seeded this wilderness with a baffling array of ethnic groups, each evolving outlandish customs quite distinct from those of the majority Burman people who populated the lowlands. Some tribes ruled mountain fiefdoms half the size of England; others occupied single, remote hilltop and spoke a language unintelligible to their neighbours in the valley below. Scott plunged into this great unknown to record tribal customs and photograph way of life that had remained unchanged for centuries. One of these tribes was the ferocious Wild Wa -� headhunters with betel-blackened teeth who lived in skull- ringed mud fortresses and, rather incongruously considering their savage reputation, claimed to be descended from tadpoles. Negotiating jungle paths strewn with decapitated corpses, Scott became the first European to study them in depth. Cunningly, he once disarmed party of headhunters by telling joke so funny that it survived being translated through four separate tribal languages before reaching the Wa tongue. Though unbelievably dirty and permanently drunk, the Wa made a favourable impression on Scott. �They are an exceedingly well-behaved, industrious, and estimable race,� he concluded, �were it not for the one foible of cutting strangers� heads off and neglecting ever to wash themselves.�
Fast-forward a hundred years. Burma was no longer a British colony, but military dictatorship �- one of the world �s most brutal and enduring. Scott�s tribal stamping grounds had been ravaged by the Burmese army, and the country whose borders he helped to map was now delineated by misery. Any memory of Scott himself was buried deep beneath the rubble of Burma �s turbulent post-war history �- its coups and massacres, its endless civil wars.
After months spent deciphering Scott �s diaries, I found myself embarking on an oddly obsessive quest to rescue this singular Scotsman from obscurity. How could someone who had once been living legend in Burma be so little known today? The answer was blindingly obvious: Scott had been forgotten because Burma had been forgotten. Isolated and impoverished, Burma was trapped in time warp. Few big countries were so little known.
Scott knew all too well that British rule was slowly eroding native traditions. The invasion of the �Trouser People� -� as white colonialists were known by the country�s sarong- wearing civilians �- wrought immense change, and doubled Scott�s resolve to record Burma�s dazzling ethnic diversity before it was lost for ever. Now, as the Burmese military finished with chilling thoroughness what the British had begun, I wanted to discover whether the traditions that Scott had meticulously documented had survived. Did the witch doctors of the Pa-O still recommend tying lock of your grandmother�s hair around your neck as cure for insanity? Were young girls of the Padaung tribe still wearing the brass neck rings that earned their mothers the nickname �giraffe women�? Did Palaung women still don the complex tribal dress which commemorated their mythical descent from lovesick she-dragon? I was also intrigued by romantic accounts of the saophas, or �lords of the sky� -� Shan princes who took countless wives, sent their children to English public schools, and ruled their mountain fiefdoms during Scott�s time with an opulence which recalled the maharajas of India. What memories of them persisted?
The only way to find out, of course, was to go. As a journalist based in Thailand for four years, I had already made several trips to Burma, posing as tourist. While certain areas were now open to foreign visitors, war, drug lords, government restrictions and bad roads meant that much of Burma remained as remote and dangerous as it had been century before.
I began to plan series of journeys, starting in the Burman-dominated plains and travelling up into the troubled heartland of tribal Burma, into the wilderness where Scott had his greatest adventures and closest shaves. One of those journeys would be clandestine cross-border foray over the �Scott Line� and into the opium-rich badlands of the Wa. The Wa were no longer headhunters, or so they claimed. Nowadays they were heavily armed drug traffickers, and responsible for much of the heroin sold on the streets of America. But in some ways it sounded as if nothing had changed. �It�s like the Stone Age there,�an American missionary told me, �except they all carry AK-47s'. Along the way I would realize that my obsession with long-dead Victorian explorer had curious modern resonance. Scott was child of the Empire, and embodied many of its ambiguities; I could imagine him agreeing with Charles Napier, the conqueror of Sind and fellow Scot, who defined empire building as �a good thrashing first and great kindness afterwards�. I knew Burmese people who looked back on British rule with nostalgia �- nostalgia they might not have felt had their present government treated them better. As for the Burmese government, it despised all things British. The 1962 military coup had ushered in rabidly xenophobic regime bent on eradicating all Western cultural influences in the country. Foreign books were censored into extinction, Christian missionaries expelled, beauty contests outlawed; one female singer was even banned for five years for performing in hot pants. To neutralize any colonial associations in the word �Burma�, the country was renamed �Myanmar�.
Burma had won its independence in 1948 �- that is, over fifty years ago �- but its generals behaved as if the Brits had left only last Tuesday. The military�s disastrous rule had led a prosperous, fledgling democracy into misery and ruin. Yet, according to their bilious propaganda, all the nation�s modern woes �- poverty, AIDS, the booming narcotics trade �- were �pernicious legacies� of the Empire that Scott had helped to build. Aung San Suu Kyi, the courageous leader of Burma�s embattled democracy movement, was branded �a satan of destruction sent by the Western colonialists�. Similarly, spurious conspiracies involving shadowy foreign agents were invented, all for the same purpose:to legitimize the junta�s tyrannies against its own people and justify Burma�s crippling isolation from the rest of the world.
There was bitter irony in all this. While the regime�s propaganda machine railed against Western imperialists, its soldiers subdued the population with much the same terror tactics used by the British century before: arbitrary arrests, village burning, summary executions, exemplary beheadings. Burma�s generals were the new colonialists �- the new Trouser People. It was no coincidence that Aung San Suu Kyi had described the democracy movement as �the second struggle for independence�.
This struggle had many front lines �- military, political, cultural, personal �- and I was sleeping on one of them. Or trying to. The celebrations at the rebel camp went on all night. At around 3 a.m. a Shan maiden took to the bamboo stage and sang lament urging all young men to fight for the cause. It was astonishingly loud. My only solace, as I lay there listening to her keening voice, was knowing that the Burmese soldiers on the next hill could hear her too.
In the morning we hung about, waiting to meet the Colonel. The camp was desolate place by daylight. Refuse clung to the parade ground and cascaded down both sides of the ridge. Beyond the trees the land was cancelled out by clouds, which cocooned the camp and lent it an entirely false sense of security. Hard-bitten peasant women with groggy-looking children shivered over the embers of last night�s fires; their menfolk squatted nearby and spat between their sandals. These people were not just Shan, but Lahu, Akha and Muso hill tribes with strong, dark, secret faces raked by the elements. All were products of ferocious counter-insurgency campaign by the Burmese army in Shan State. Thousands of refugees had spilled into northern Thailand to work for low pay at lychee farms or construction sites until the Thai police or army, in the latest caprice that passed for policy, herded them up and dumped them back on the border again. Hundreds more scratched out semi-nomadic existence in the Burmese jungle, or arrived in silent, exhausted groups at Shan rebel camps like this one, hoping for food and protection.
With Philip�s help, I asked some refugees to tell me their stories. For while nobody said anything. Then a young mother stepped forward, carrying a toddler in a faded Disneyland baseball cap. Her name was Nang Seng Tong.
�They gave us one day,�she said flatly. �They came in the morning and said that anyone who was still there in the evening would be shot.� Burmese soldiers had heard gunfire in Nang Seng Tong�s settlement, part of vast shanty town of internal refugees who had been relocated by the military; they assumed that the community was harbouring Shan rebels. At dusk the soldiers returned, and the shooting began. Nine people were killed. �The old people and the children moved too slowly, and some were burned to death in their houses,� said Nang Seng Tong. Her sickly grandfather died in a bonfire of his meagre possessions. Her uncle was shot dead.
The others fled with what they could carry. Burmese soldiers butchered the livestock, and shot any villagers who crept back to salvage crops or possessions. Nang Seng Tong and her daughter trekked through the jungle for the Thai border. She now lived in a hut nearby, and moved on whenever there was fighting. �I do not feel safe here,� she said quietly. Why would she? She lived in war zone. The day before I arrived a ten-year-old Shan boy had had his foot blown off by a Burmese landmine at a nearby spring.
A little girl wearing only one wellington boot was pushed forward. She had also been trapped in the fire at Nang Seng Tong�s settlement. The girl sat down in front of me and tugged off her wellington. Her leg ended in a stump. At first I thought that she had also stepped on a mine, but in fact her foot had been crushed and bent forward, and the fire had fused it to her shin. The girl put both arms around the wellington boot and hugged it.
A posse of Shan rebels arrived to take us to the Colonel. The ruler of this bleak, apocalyptic place was not, as I had idly imagined, an unhinged recluse who stroked his bald head and growled, �The horror, the horror...� Colonel Yawd Serk was a plain, businesslike man in pressed khakis, with a farmer�s haircut and spectacles the size of Game Boy screens. The meeting took place on nearby hilltop beneath thatched canopy. The journalists and aid workers sat on benches of twine-lashed bamboo. Small men with big guns crouched in the bushes all around.
We asked about troop strengths and rebel strategy and dry-season offensives. The Colonel answered methodically in Shan, and someone translated. He talked to us as he might to his soldiers; his quiet resolve and optimism were meant to inspire us. But this was the Burmese border, a region of the world where politics was so muddied by decades of ethnic war, and people so compromised by the lucrative trade in narcotics, that it was hard to tell who the good guys were any more. Nobody in our party seemed ready to trust him.
But I had a sneaking admiration for the man. There was a kind of formulaic outrage in writing about Burma that turned its people into little more than featureless victims. The Colonel�s rebel army was tiny; his war against the Burmese military juggernaut was unwinnable. But he was not a victim. He continued to insist that the destiny of his people would not be decided by the generals in Rangoon. In Burma -� a country once described as a prison with 40 million inmates �- I would meet many more like him. For, despite the best efforts of the military dictatorship, the peoples of Burma were cultured, deeply eccentric and justly proud of their vibrant traditions. It was this courage and individualism that I hoped to seek out and celebrate as I set out in Sir George Scott�s footsteps.
The Colonel spoke earnestly and at some length, mostly about the future. As he spoke, I watched a leech wriggle slowly across the table in front of him, climb on to a tape recorder lying there, and arch itself into a dot-less question mark.
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