|Book review by Emma Larkin, (The Journal of the Siam Society, Volume 93, 2005)
Back to Mandalay is Abbott’s memoir of his two-year assignment as an English language teacher at Mandalay University in the late 1980s. As a diary of his time in Mandalay, the book is similar to the currently popular personal memoirs of other British writers who write of their “year in Provence” or “summer in Tuscany”. There is the familiar search for a suitable house, and the daily struggle with eccentric toilet facilities, and unfamiliar locals (both the friendly and the unwelcoming). In Abbott’s case, the details of his sojourn abroad are somewhat more exotic: local transport woes come in the form of a horse-and-cart and there are scorpions in the bathroom. But what sets this book apart from the usual descriptions of setting-up a life in an unfamiliar place is the backdrop of Burmese politics. By pure chance, Abbott landed in Burma at a critical time in Burmese history and his memoir chronicles the last two years of the Burmese dictator Ne Win’s absolute rule as well as the lead-up to the popular uprising of 1988 in which thousands of unarmed protestors were shot and killed by government soldiers.
Abbott lovingly recounts the Burmese pagodas he visits along with the country’s colourful festivals and seasons, but it is the politics of the time which make his account unique. The daily frustrations of working as a foreigner within a xenophobic autho ritarian state, for instance, provide fascinating, and sometimes funny, anecdotes. Though Burma was mostly closed off from the rest of the world, foreign tourists were allowed in for a limited seven-day period. Burmese people were discouraged from fraternizing with these foreigners and Abbott witnesses various poignant examples of this such as the “apartheid” system which prohibited foreigners and Burmese from drinking in the same bars. When a Burmese associate accompanied Abbott to the Myamandala Hotel in Mandalay, he was not allowed to drink beer alongside Abbott in the tourist bar and Abbott was not allowed to sit with him in the separate bar reserved for Burmese drinkers.
The Burmese regime’s reluctance to communicate with the rest of the world also had a severe effect on the country’s educational system. The university at which Abbott taught had no formal syllabus and the students’ grasp of the English language was eccentric, to say the least. In one exam paper Abbott marked he came across answers to a set of true/false questions which left him baffled. The student had written:
Indeed, one of the themes of Abbott’s memoir is the blurred line between truth and falsity in Burmese political life. Ne Win refused to acknowledge that the country’s economy was in shambles. Whenever he travelled around the country, roads were repaved, buildings repainted and decorative floral archways hung above his path. Abbott compares this phenomenon to the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes: “For a couple of decades people had watched things fall apart. Where they had been able to, they had mended; and where they hadn’t, they had pretended. It was a way of life by now, and without a little boy to shout ‘The emperor is naked!’ things could go on like this till kingdom come.”
Before Abbott’s contract came to an end, however, he was able to witness the entire country stand up and effectively shout that the emperor was naked during the mass protests of August 1988.
While Abbot is no political scientist and Back to Mandalay does not claim to provide a comprehensive overview of the events of 1988, the book does offer a ground-level view of events as witnessed by one foreigner living among the increasingly politicized Burmese. Abbott watched resentment against the government grow when the 75-kyat, 35-kyat and 25-kyat notes of the Burmese currency were declared redundant and people’s savings disappeared overnight. The notes were later replaced by new denominations linked to Ne Win’s lucky numbers (90 and 45). Abbott, who has a good handle on local humour, writes that people jokingly predicted the 10- kyat note would soon be replaced by 7 1/2-kyat and 3 3/4-kyat notes.
The regime started to close the universities as rumbles of dissent spread around the country and Abbott saw the number of students in his class dwindle. By the time severe unrest had broken out in August of 1988, he had only 16 students, and cows and pigs were wandering placidly around the emptied campus. The country’s train and bus services were shut down and Mandalay became isolated; the only source of outside news coming from daily BBC broadcasts. Unsure what to do, Abbott retired to his house, taking temporary solace in his collection of butterfly photographs-his love of nature surfaces throughout the book in his enthusiastic descriptions of local flora and fauna. Abbott’s ennui does not last long and he eventually finds himself embroiled in the politics seething around him.
As the military began violently suppressing protestors across the country, rumours rustled through Mandalay of a horrifying massacre in the nearby town of Sagaing. Though official reports stated that 31 people had been killed, Abbott heard that some 300 had died and that many more were critically injured and dying in poorly-equipped local hospitals. Driven into action, he convinced the British Embassy in Rangoon to send two trunks of medical supplies which he was able to smuggle to Sagaing via an abbot and local doctor. As daily protests grew in size and fervour, Abbott soon found himself marching alongside the burgeoning masses that were jubilantly filling the streets of Mandalay.
But the events of 1988 spiralled out of control. The regime released prisoners to create chaos and there were ominous troop and ammunition deployments within the major cities, precipitating the final crackdown that was to come. The British Embassy pressured Abbott to evacuate and he ended up making a hasty retreat. Pyan-la-meh , he assured his distraught Burmese friends, as he raced to the airport for one of the few flights leaving Mandalay: I will return.
Abbott clearly did return to Burma as he promised, if not in person than in mind, as his biography at the end of the book illustrates; he went on to write more specific studies of Burmese culture such as The Travellers History of Burma and The Folk-tales of Burma .
Over 15 years have passed since Abbott’s teaching stint in Burma and this edition of Back to Mandalay has, as a result, a somewhat dated feeling to it (it is a reprint of Abbott’s original book which was first published in 1990). The dictator Ne Win is dead and Burma has opened its doors to foreign investment and tourism. But an authoritarian regime still holds sway in Burma and Abbott’s book illustrates not only how much has changed but also, and perhaps more importantly, how much has stayed the same.
[Read a review from The Nation]
[More Orchid Press Reviews]