Mandalay

Michael Vatikiotis
Feb 20th, 2014

In Mandalay, Michael Vatikiotis brings together Myanmar's royal past, its colonial rulers, the current regime and the woman who embodies, for many of its people, an ideal of leadership.

 

A country and its culture can tell you much about its leaders.  Then again, there are characteristics of leadership that have universal appeal.  Both the cultural and universal qualities of leadership were on display over a long weekend in Myanmar’s last great royal capital of Mandalay.

‘Is our leader here yet?’  Something in the driver’s voice injected a note of concern into the question.

‘I’m not sure,’ I said, after realizing who he was talking about.

‘I must see her,’ insisted the driver, as he nosed the battered taxi through the hotel gates.  ‘She has not come to Mandalay very often.’

‘Our leader’ is a presumption of status made by almost everyone you ask about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.  Although now an elected Member of Parliament, she is a long way off from securing the presidency.  Many obstacles are strewn in her path.

 

When he dropped us at the festival, the mood from the day before had changed, electrified in anticipation of her visit. Small children carried by their parents waved red flags, wore red bandanas and red stickers pictured with their leader’s face. Groups of young women and men, similarly adorned, wandered around the festival grounds marking time before she was due to show. Seldom does any Asian leader receive such adulation. None are so hugely adored and respected by foreigners either.

Aung San Suu Kyi was making an appearance at the Second Irrawaddy Literary Festival, held this year in Mandalay.  The adulation was no less evident inside the room, where it was hard to restrain the throngs of people holding phones and cameras aloft in a desperate bid to capture her image. And where foreign writers, diplomats and officials mixed with her local supporters, all of them – foreigners and locals alike – wore the same rapturous expressions.

They hung on her words, sparse and sometimes terse – a reflection perhaps of the long, agonizing wait she has endured. They claimed her, too.  Didn’t the great Western Philosophers of democracy influence her, a moderator asked?

 

Outside, her supporters squatted in the shade, cheroots clenched, staring at a screen showing her image, imagining the wisdom she was imparting to the foreign devils.

Mandalay is haunted by memories of a once-revered leadership long ago trampled on by the same foreigners that today champion Daw Suu. In 1885, the British army sacked the royal palace in Mandalay and sent the last King of Burma, Thibaw Min, into humiliating exile in India. Later that day, his grandson, Prince Taw Phaya, sat quietly in the midst of another audience listening to Indian author Sudha Shah talk about her book, The King in Exile.  The presence of the prince made it painfully sad to hear of the deposed king’s reduced circumstances, the last few jewels he gave away as favours, and the poverty his descendants endure as auto-rickshaw drivers and mechanics in India.

Asked at the end of the talk to say a few words, the old prince, now aged ninety, was speechless. ‘You don’t want to hear an old man’s gibberings,’ he said, just managing to hold back his emotions. For it was clear the story of his family, the pictures of the once splendid court and the scattering of its wealth, opened old wounds.

And then it came, something taken, never found: The Burma Ruby.  Did someone slip it into his pocket as the family went into exile? Is it the same stone that sits today in the British imperial crown?

‘Yes it’s the same stone,’ declared the old Prince, rising to his feet excitedly and addressing the audience. ‘A stone the size of a pigeon’s egg!’

Perhaps this wasn’t the only gentle reminder of the country’s colonial past and the memory of loss.  For precariously perched between their role as historical usurpers and modern supporters, the British organizers of the festival experienced some awkward moments.  On the eve of the festival, official permission to use a historical Buddhist pagoda as a venue was withdrawn. Some local writers boycotted. 

None of this prevented the festival from going on. If nothing else, the people of Mandalay caught a glimpse of their leader, and old Prince Taw Phaya managed, in the shadow of the old Mandalay palace walls, to remind its conquerors of that missing ruby. 

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Michael Vatikiotis
Singapore
Last blog date: Oct 18th, 2016

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