20 AUGUST 1988, Page 11


Anthony Daniels recalls

a week spent in a country sweet to visit, but bitter to live in

BURMA'S foreign minister, a leading member of the Burmese Socialist Program- me Party, was aboard the airliner in which I flew a few years ago from Singapore to Rangoon. Half the seats had been removed to accommodate the cartons of electronic consumer goods that he and his entourage were taking back with them to Burma. I sat next to a graceful middle-aged Burmese lady who worked for the United Nations: 'Do you mind if I speak, in French? They can't understand it.' She was returning to Burma on her. UN rather than her Burmese passport, because otherwise she might not be allowed to leave the country again. 'Only they are allowed to travel as they please,' she said. She gave me her telephone number in Rangoon in case I should find myself in trouble. Then she got up, went over to the foreign minister and had a friendly, ani- mated chat with him. They had known each other for years, she said. The monsoon broke on the way from the airport. The taxi was an American relic from the early Fifties, unrecognisable as to marque because of repeated panel beat- ings. We had to stop after the first heavy drops of rain because there were no windscreen-wipers and the world ahead became what in films would be called a Prolonged dissolving shot. I was soon soaked sitting on the back seat, because there were no rear windows either.

The rain stopped and steam rose from the roads. Thin Burmese in sandals scur- ried by, picking their way between pud- dles. We reached the famous Strand Hotel, formerly the grandest of the grand. As I registered, I noticed the heavy leather- bound comment book, open on the coun- ter for guests to write their views. The latest entry was: 'This hotel stinks'. It was not without charm, though. The lift bore a certificate of safety, dating from 30 years before. On the window-sill in the Corridor outside my room I found the night watchman's report book. All guests sleep- ing soundly, it reported as of April 1963. As for the dining-room, it still contained the heavyweight silver of the Raj: the menu, rather optimistically in the event, had '30 minutes to wait' printed against every item, including ice-cream. One be- gan to understand how it was possible that the country now produced less per capita than it did in 1938.

I hired another taxi outside the hotel. This one was rather better equipped, in- asmuch as it had rear 'windows' made of plywood. It had a driver, a general facto- tum and a man who described himself as `the manager'. He was a Bengali whose family came originally from Calcutta but had never managed to escape from Burma after independence. In the next six days, I provided all three of them with their living.

First, said the manager, I must go to the Diplomatic Stores. There I could buy things for foreign currency which I could sell at a vast profit on the black market. The stores had painted-out windows, and at the entrance stood a blackboard with the words: 'This week's special: toothpaste.' Inside, I found only Chinese bicycles, footballs (as approved by Fifa) and diplomatic-grade Burmese cigarettes which came in the brown packets that disting- uished them from ordinary proletarian cigarettes. I bought $40 worth. I never actually took receipt of the cigarettes, but when I returned to the taxi the manager had $240 worth of kyat (the Burmese currency) ready for me. Together we toured Rangoon. At the Shwedagon, the 300-foot stupa covered with 80 tons of gold that is said to contain a hair of the Buddha's head, the manager shielded me from an umbrella-wielding monk who screamed that I should leave Burma at once. The manager, learning I was a doctor, took me to see his wife who was lying breathless from heart failure on the floor of their bare wooden house of two rooms. I recommended some drugs, but of course they were unavailable to ordinary people like him. And he took me to a park where, he said, there used to be Cultural Dancings, but the army had now forbidden Cultural Dancings because soldiers got drunk at them and had fights.

We went to see the ninth-century reclin- ing Buddha, 160 feet long, at Pegu. It had been lost in the jungle for several hundred years until rediscovered in the 19th cen- tury, and then it was given a giant shelter of corrugated and wrought iron, made in Glasgow. On the way back to Rangoon the car started to veer crazily along the road, and when we came to a stop the three members of the taxi's crew began a heated discussion as to whether or not we had had a puncture. The manager denied absolute- ly any possibility of it. After a few minutes I suggested in my vulgar, empirical West- ern way that we settle the question by having a look. Of course, the tyre was not merely punctured but shredded. The man- ager was disgusted. He exclaimed: `Stones in the road bloody!'

On my last day I went to visit one of Rangoon's large Victorian gothic churches constructed of red brick. The grounds around it were overgrown. I knocked at the vicarage and two small Burmese chil- dren answered. Their mother let me in and asked me to wait in a room furnished with a 1940s three-piece English suite and a diocesan map of Australia. She called her husband, the vicar. He entered the room as if he had just risen from his bed after a prolonged illness; he looked profoundly exhausted. Learning I was from England, he revived a little, half-expecting a mes- sage of succour from the mother Church.

The church was vast. It could have seated a congregation of hundreds, but now in all of Burma there were only 120 Anglicans left, and not all of them were churchgoers. The vicar had been educated during a time of acute xenophobia, when the teaching of English had been forbid- den. He had taught himself, and eventually became fluent enough to preach in it. I asked how many people came to his English services.

`Three or four.' They were old ladies who had stayed on in Burma after inde- pendence.

He showed me the illuminated parch- ment book which commemorated the Brit- ish dead from the Burmese campaign. Every day, he turned over a page and put the book back in its display case. I won- dered how the British would reward such devotion.

His ambition was to study theology in England or Australia, but the government, which barely tolerated his religious devia- tion, would never agree to his departure. I left him standing at the door of the vicarage, waving weakly to me as the rain began to fall once more and cascade down the sidei of the church from broken gut- ters. He said he would cherish my visit for ever, and I felt ashamed that on my side it had been so casual. The crew of the taxi laughed at him.

The government of Burma was despic- able; xenophobic, tyrannical, corrupt, in- competent, and led by an anti-British nationalist and socialist who used his ex- torted fortune to buy up property in Britain. Yet it was also this government that had preserved so much of the coun- try's bittersweet charm; it is sweet to visit Burma, but bitter to live in it.