Remembrance in Myanmar 2017

Mr Curtis, Housemaster of Seagrim, was at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Yangon for Remembrance Sunday this year. At the service, a plaque commemorating Hugh Seagrim was unveiled by Philip Davies, who has recently published a biography of Seagrim entitled ‘Lost Warriors’. Whilst in Myanmar, Mr Curtis was also supporting the work of ‘Help 4 Forgotten Allies’, a charity, which provides a small pension and humanitarian aid to the handful of surviving veterans with whom Seagrim fought during the Burma campaign in the Second World War. If you would like to contribute to their work, please visit www.h4fa.org.uk. This is a personal account of his trip.

I sit in the Mahabandoola gardens in front of the high court adjacent to the Sule Pagoda. It is 11am on 8th November and a clock has just struck the Westminster chimes. In the 30-degree heat, I welcome the cooling breeze when it comes. There seem to be fewer soldiers and military police on the streets than when I was last here two years ago – perhaps because they are engaged elsewhere – and there are far more tourists, although the time of year almost certainly accounts for this. I reflect that Yangon is undergoing something of a transformation: new banks, hotels and office buildings have emerged, their prismatic forms contrasting starkly with more elaborate colonial architecture elsewhere. A new shopping centre is even more western than I anticipate: English writing coexists alongside circular Burmese script; outlets for artisan coffee and bread have custom; an identity parade of international brand stores lines up for inspection. I notice that there is a moisturising cream advertised, which causes me concern, as it claims not only to moisturise, but also to whiten the skin. The United Colours of Benetton display, usually known for the diversity of its models, lacks such breadth here. None of the people featured in the giant, cardboard cut-outs in the window appears to come from Myanmar. I surmise that there is at least some danger that young people here might begin to aspire to a different paradigm: western and white, pampered and privileged. I ask myself what I think about this shift. Why shouldn’t people in Myanmar seek a more plural and affluent life? After more than 70 years living under a regime dominated by the military, surely they are entitled to hope for a brighter future. How, though, should that future look?

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Some aspects of life in Yangon haven’t changed. I walk over a railway bridge towards the central station and get slapped hard in the face by the abject poverty that is the everyday reality for many residents of this city. Two men sift through scraps of rubbish discarded down the embankment. Behind them, next to the shack in which he lives, a man defecates onto the track. Further along the road, a small group of people eats communally on the pavement alongside charcoal burning stove pots, which emit the aroma of spicy, pungent food. I pause to savour the smell, but the moment is ruined by a rising thermal of stench from the drain below. A toddler cheerfully and deftly crouches over the gutter edge to wee, then runs back to resume eating with her parents. Around the corner, workmen are painting the kerbstones in blocks of red and white colour. I study their posture admiringly as they simultaneously squat, balance and paint. Suddenly I can no longer inhale. Chemical vapour latches on to my palate and my throat sticks. I now notice that all of the workmen are coughing and spluttering too, the toxin resin they apply contaminating the air they breathe and burning their senses. I escape guiltily, and flee back to a more beaten track, heading along the Bogyot Aung San Road towards the indoor market. I pass a Buddhist monk, who stands and ticks uncontrollably. A mother sits, with an unfeasibly large number of pigeons crammed into a small circular cage in front of her, whilst feeding her baby. A person with a disability is subconsciously negotiated by the flow of the crowd, as if some sort of obstacle. A python of wiring is slung over rickety bamboo scaffolding, below which a warning sign proudly proclaims ‘Safety First’.

This is the bi-polarity of Yangon: foreign sponsored economic regeneration on the one hand, an exploitative, putrid raw deal on the other. And this injustice poses an awkward question for the proponents of completely unregulated capitalism: why does development always seems to start by catering for the whims of a wealthy minority, rather than providing for the needs of the impoverished majority? Any rational person would surely accept (at the very least) that latrines are more important that luxury. This city is on the move. The Downtown area of Yangon, which broadly encompasses the grid system of streets implemented by the British in 1852, now boasts a Shangri-La hotel, new retail precincts and sky scraper with rooftop bar. Those with ready money (and there seems to be many – mostly foreign) are welcomed through airport style security by friendly guards into a consumer comatose. Commercial success is modernising this part of Myanmar, and the amount of business being conducted in hotel lobbies by overseas entrepreneurs indicates that this process is set to continue and potentially accelerate. Whether such a process will constitute progress for all or privilege for the few, however, remains to be seen. Thankfully there are benevolent, forward thinking agencies at led by dynamic, dedicated and determined people taking up the challenge. Their work would undoubtedly become less onerous, however, were big business, and society in general, to consider bottom-up investment as the only acceptable approach to development.

In a land divided by not only economics, but also race, religion and politics, one might wonder what unifying factor, if any, there is. The most immediate and tangible sign of hope, in Yangon at least, is the indomitable spirit of the people. Generalisations are often inaccurate and should be used sparingly; however, reporting that all the people on the street in Yangon seem cheerful is perhaps akin to suggesting everyone on the London Underground is grumpy: this may not be completely correct, but there is nevertheless an element of truth in it that many would recognise. One sight stands out to me as a symbol for the spirit, beauty and dignity of the people amongst so much want and pain. I am in a taxi bound for the airport. A bicycle threads its way through the detritus that litters the roadside. A woman with long flowing hair, wearing a traditional silk tunic and full length skirt sits sideways on the luggage rack of the bike, above the back wheel, behind her husband, who is pedalling. She holds-up an umbrella to shield them both from the sun, as elegantly as a duchess riding side-saddle on a thoroughbred.

 

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Previous blog:

In August 2015, Head of Seagrim House Mr Curtis travelled to a Myanmar/ Burma to mark the 70th anniversary of Victory over Japan Day and to remember ON Major Hugh Seagrim, after whom Seagrim House was named. Mr Curtis is getting ready to return to the area in order to attend the unveiling of a commemorative plaque to Hugh Seagrim in Yangon/Rangoon cathedral. He is collecting unwanted reading glasses to be redistributed to the elderly, with the Karen veterans of the Burma campaign now in their 90s. If you would like to know more, please visit www.h4fa.org.uk or search @glasses4myanmar on Facebook. Ahead of his trip in November the story of his last trip can be seen below:

The taxi is confronted by a stiffly uniformed military policeman tasked with hindering any further progress, so I step out of the cool of the car into the fuggy humidity of early morning Yangon. As I try to slalom my way through army jeeps and jumpy policemen as deferentially as possible, the congested, muddy road gives way to the pristine grass of the war cemetery. 

On 15th August 2015, many people gathered together to mark the 70th anniversary of Victory over Japan Day, and I travelled to the Rangoon War Cemetery in Myanmar/Burma and, more specifically, to plot 4, row A, the grave of Major Hugh Paul Seagrim GC DSO MBE and Old Norvicensian. Seagrim is known for his willingness to operate behind enemy lines as the Japanese advanced on British controlled Burma during the Second World War; his ability to raise a volunteer army of 3000 to surreptitiously disrupt the enemy; and eventually his self-sacrifice to protect his friends who were being executed in order to force him to surrender. What is perhaps less documented is his obsessive assimilation with and care for his soldiers, who had been drawn from the Karen, an ethnic group who were Christian and loyal to the imperial crown they viewed as paternal.

As I loiter, waiting for the service to begin, numerous and varied interested parties file in: a Burmese general and his entourage; the Commonwealth defence attaches, hot and gleaming in gold and white; a battery of photographers and journalists, pencils and Pentax made ready; diplomats, with calm smiles but eyes darting; security guards and gardeners; casual observers of this anachronistic spectacle. Had the ancient veterans not been wearing their traditional woven, blood red tabards, their arrival might have gone unnoticed (and they, the most important guests!). As the diminutive men shuffle through the gate and over the lawn, like tired imps, toward their reserved seating, it’s like a pulse leaping, throbbing life back into the day. For them, neither the names on the headstones, nor the accounts of battle read out are unfamiliar: names are friends, and battles real.  

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Annually honouring the fallen is a sombre, serious imperative, but one which causes no great inconvenience. All we have to do is polish our shoes a bit, conscientiously attempt to visualise their ordeals, recite the appointed words, keep a minute’s silence and ‘show our respect’. The elderly soldiers in the dense heat of a Rangoon graveyard represent the uncomfortable reality of remembrance however, as if we really want to show our respect to the dead, should we not ensure we care for the living? Maybe all too often we salute at the Cenotaph whilst ignoring the homeless squaddie, slumming it on the Strand.  

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After the main service has finished, the Karen veterans make their way determinedly to plot 4, row A. A spontaneous and less formal act of remembrance ensues. A Karen choir starts to sing Seagrim’s favourite hymn, in their own language, which Seagrim took the trouble to learn. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. The veterans sing along enthusiastically: they believe in a Father God who won’t turn His back on them in the way the father empire did after the war was won. Saw Berny, a 92 year old who fought alongside Seagrim gesticulates from his wheelchair about his friend: “he wore our dress, ate our food, spoke our language; he loved us”. I stand and listen to his fluent English, words only obscured by a lack of dentures, and marvel at him and his tenacity, as well as the man from Norfolk who led these warriors. Exhausted after his exertion, Saw Berny is wheeled away and returned to his fellow pilgrims. I am suddenly alone at Seagrim’s graveside, along with those of the other 1330 men buried here: in a nowhere part of a forgotten city, in an abandoned country.

 The 1925 prefect board standing in School House

The 1925 prefect board standing in School House

Seagrim’s story was always inspirational and relevant, and undoubtedly a good name for a new House in an old School; his conduct in a cruel 20th century battle sets an example to the pupils and staff in a safer 21st predicament. But since visiting his home church in Whissonsett, looking at his name on the 1925 prefect board still standing in School House, travelling to his grave in Yangon and meeting the men still alive who knew him, I more keenly feel the fierce challenge of Seagrim’s example, that is, to remember actively, rather than passively. The forgotten Karen of Myanmar, who fought for Britain and her interests against tyrants are still alive and in need, as are those veterans in this country who are reeling from physical, mental and spiritual injury from more recent conflicts. We should remain diligent in remembering those who did not come back, but also better care for those who did.

Philip Davies has recently released a book, Lost Warriors - Seagrim and Pagani of Burma The last great untold story of WWII, which tells the story of Major Hugh Seagrim and Ras Pagani, who fought alongside each other. It is an epic tale of two Englishmen, who were among the most courageous and resourceful heroes of the most savage conflict in human history, yet who remain unknown in their own country. Philip will also be travelling to Myanmar next week and will unveil the plaque to Hugh Seagrim at Yangon Anglican Cathedral. The book can be purchased through Amazon here.