Norstedts, 2006. ISBN: 9789113015071
Reviewed by Anna-Lisa Murrell in SBR 2007:2
Modern Burma (Myanmar) does not often appear in the news, although it has shot to prominence with the recent wave of popular unrest. After World War II Burma was considered one of south-east Asia’s most promising countries, with natural riches and a democratic constitution. However, in 1947 everything started to go downhill. Jesper Bengtsson paints a rich and well-balanced picture of this unfortunate country, corrupted by the drug trade, in-fighting and many years of brutal dictatorship.
The reader gets poignant glimpses of individual suffering. Young Burmese girls are sold into the sex industry in Thailand; in fact, the export of women and children from the border area is so extensive that it has become one of Burma’s greatest export "successes". At the present time there are 30,000 Burmese prostitutes in Thailand.
Woven into the work and binding it together is the story of the Swedish-American missionary couple, Ola and Minnie Hanson, who went to Burma in 1890 and spent forty years among the Kachins. Ola Hanson was born in Skåne in 1864. When he left school, times were very hard in Sweden, with famine in parts of the country, and he joined the emigrants to America. The following years he suffered a religious crisis when an accident brought him close to death. As a result he became a Baptist and a missionary and familiarized himself with social evangelism. His wife Minnie also played an active part in his work in Burma. Baptists consider Bible study and discussion of great importance. Hence there was a pressing need to translate the Bible into the native language, in this case Jinghpaw, so that the Kachins would be able to interpret "God’s word" for themselves.
As the language had no writing system, Ola Hanson – a gifted linguist, who wrote fluently in Swedish, English and German, and also had a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew – had first to create an alphabet before starting on the translation of the Bible. It was a mammoth task, and it took him thirty years. The common written language provided through his translation of the Bible gave the Kachins a national identity and pride and confidence in relation to other Burmese peoples, as well as a new religion. Most Kachins were non-Christian; spreading Christianity in Burma, especially in the mountains, was a dangerous task. The Baptist missionaries worked under immense difficulties, spreading the gospel and teaching in the mountain villages. The natives were naturally suspicious of them and thought them British spies.
Bengtsson provides us with a valuable insight into contemporary Burmese history. He quotes part of Kipling’s poem Mandalay and mentions other writers on Burma’s turbulent past. A Burmese joke maintains that George Orwell (Eric Blair) wrote three books about the country: Burmese Days (1934), about the colonial period; Animal Farm (1945), about revolt and how a new-found freedom quickly turns into despotism; and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), which very much conveys the nature of the Burmese dictatorship today. Blair would have been furious if he had known how Burmese Days would be used as propaganda by the present junta. In chapter four, Bengtsson brilliantly analyses Orwell’s views on colonialism.
Burma’s modern history is one of suppression and continual conflict. But it needn’t have been so tragic. One man, Aung San, a military and political leader respected by all the ethnic groups, once united the country and would have established democracy there. In the country’s first democratic elections, in April 1947, his AFPFL party gained 248 of the 255 votes. But in July he was assassinated in the parliament building along with other leading democrats. This opened the way for Ne Win’s military dictatorship.
Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, became leader of the democratic movement in 1988. In August of that year the streets were filled with mass demonstrations against the military. Muslims marched with Christians, and students with workers. But the junta sent out the infantry, who shot at the crowds, and in Rangoon alone 2,000 people were killed in a single night, 8-9 August. When Suu Kyi emerged as leader of the democrats, she was put under house arrest.
The book is rich in detail. It deals with the opium trade, the drug barons, the dungeons, the conflicts with China, and life in general in one of the world’s strictest dictatorships. On one level it is a travel document, but on another it is a history of an Asian country that has suffered more than most since World War II.
Its Swedish title, literally translated as The Bomb-Bells of Myitkyina: A Tale of Burma, refers to the church bells which were made out of the rusty casings of unexploded World War II flying bombs.