“You got room for a small one?” A pronounced Australian accent boomed over the murmur of other tourist voices and the coughing scooter engine as we pulled up in front of the hotel: two westerners jammed behind a large Burmese driver. Tired after a long and hot day of pagoda-hopping and evidently looking lost on the way back into Moulmein town centre, we had been more than happy to accept the scooter driver’s offer of a lift. Balanced precariously, we descended slowly to the riverfront and guided him to our accommodation. I was peeling off the equivalent of a dollar in Myanmar kyat when Denis introduced himself.
For a brief moment my brain raced to reconcile two different senses. I couldn’t immediately put together the sound of the voice that was directed at us and the small Burmese gentleman who I could see making his way through the dozen or so desultory backpackers, milling about in front of the hotel in anticipation of dinner. Our arrival had been a brief hiatus in their routine and I could detect a slight amusement in the general hubbub. “Hi” he said, proferring his hand, “I’m Denis. One n. I’m 82.”
We introduced ourselves in turn, in between thanking the scooter driver for his valiant effort and waving him off. “You been with him all day?” Denis asked. We explained about the lift. “Yeah,” he continued, “they’ll take what they can get from the tourists, I guess.” Mystified, I asked Denis if he lived locally, which was the wrong question as he proudly proceeded to tell us half his life story. We eventually extricated ourselves with the excuse that we needed to change for dinner but found ourselves a captive audience again the next morning, when Denis happily told us the other half of his story.
The hotel we were staying in was a blue pastel-shaded, colonial era building facing the waterfront. The owner, about the same age as Denis, occupied the back of the first floor of his establishment with three other generations of his family – his two infant great-grandchildren ran noisily about the polished wooden floorboards outside our room on the same floor.
“You could play a game of football in there”, he explained when we first enquired about rooms, “or dance, if you prefer” and we were impressed to discover that he wasn’t exaggerating. A former merchant’s house of the 1920s, the rooms that hadn’t been converted to backpacker accommodation were vast and airy, with countless awning-clad, wooden-shuttered windows to counter the heat of the summer. For a slight premium we found ourselves with a four-postered bed each, reclining chairs around a coffee table, a separate bathroom the size of most normal bedrooms and space left over – to dance, which we preferred.
In perfect English the owner also explained that the building had been in his family’s ownership since his father had bought it from a departing Englishman in the 1940s: “The cleverest thing my father did and the greatest gift he could have left me” he said, referring to the golden opportunity it gave him to exploit the boom in tourism in Myanmar over the past decade and a half. I asked him where he had learnt his English. “Here in Moulmein,” he replied, as though it should have been obvious to me, “in St Patrick’s College.”
During the later years of colonial rule in Burma, and for a few years following independence in 1948, the education system – at least in the main towns – was one of the few worthwhile legacies of which the British could boast. The combination of a relatively well-funded network of state schools and a number of private, largely Catholic Church- sponsored schools, meant that Burma had one of the highest rates of literacy among the newly liberated Asian countries of the post-war era. Designed in part to allow the sons (and some daughters) of the middle class to be educated appropriately for the civil service, it also meant that a high proportion of the population spoke English well into the 1960s. This situation ended following the military coup of 1962.
In addition to other, more brutal, restrictions, the new military rulers proscribed the use of English for official purposes, including the teaching of English and the dissemination of English language publications. This was part of a raft of measures aimed at making a definitive break with the colonial past but, in a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the dictators, noting that most of the opposition to their rule came from the educated elite, curbed spending on education and allowed the system of schooling generally to atrophy.
Denis confirmed all of this background from the front seat of the car which we had hired for a tour of points south the next day. Climbing into the car after breakfast we found him already ensconced and engaged in conversation with a young Burmese woman crouched beside the open car door – a niece from Yangon we later found out. “I thought I’d join you for a day out,” he said, probably noticing our surprise, “I haven’t been out this way for a few years.”
Denis had the confidence of a moneyed, western tourist at ease in his own country and its language – which is what he was. That and his naturally garrulous manner lent him an authority to which the local residents appeared to defer: a quality helped by his age, which Asians generally respected and Denis played up whenever the opportunity arose. Born and brought up in what was then Rangoon, he had been educated at the city’s St Joseph’s College and trained as an accountant. Ambitious for his young family and seeing no future under the military regime, he took advantage of their willingness to allow non-supporters to leave, and the Australian government’s encouragement of skilled workers, to emigrate in 1968. He had never looked back.
However, in recent years, following his retirement and the easing of restrictions by a government anxious to attract western tourists to the renamed Myanmar, he had returned every couple of years or so to renew contacts with the family that remained in the country and to explore the land of his birth. His attitude to both was cynical and outspoken.
In contrast to the cautiousness with which, I had read, the resident population spoke about politics and social issues, Denis decried one government general after another for his corruption or callousness, bemoaned the state of the economy and explained how the education system had indeed collapsed to the extent that the Burmese population now had one of the lowest rates of literacy in the region. There was also an implicit denigration of his native family in that, while visiting them in Yangon, he preferred to stay in a local hotel rather than putting up with conditions in their home: Burmese domestic toilets were a particularly sore point, the old man explained.
During this harangue, which I found illuminating for the context it put around the beautiful but poorly developed countryside through which we were passing, Denis constantly sought confirmation – in Burmese – from our driver who indeed nodded in agreement. In fact, while we were in Denis’ company, many of the Burmese we encountered responded to his statements with what we thought was remarkable alacrity, leaving us as the ones who spoke in hushed tones, looking edgily over our shoulders.
Our tour took us to a number of Buddhist temples and Buddhist-related attractions, each with its distinctive twist: a temple perched on the top of a limestone pinnacle, reached by a forbidding length of steps; another on the edge of a clear blue lake in which its golden spires were beautifully reflected; a third housed within an extensive monastery complex of jewelled cloisters; and a fourth, Disney-like park, guarded by a row of five hundred concrete Buddhas in flowing red robes which led to a giant Buddha, reclining on the side of a mountain.
This mixture of the gaudy and the serene was typical of the range of second-tier attractions in Myanmar. But our end goal was a more sombre pair of sites, located within a few hundred metres of each other at Thanbyuzyat, a busy crossroads a couple of hours south of Moulmein.
Here we stopped first to view what remained of the Death Railway, the railway line connecting the former Siam and Burma, built by the Japanese during World War Two with slave labour. As it turned out, the terminus of the Burmese end of the railway was a forlorn affair: unsignposted and almost hidden in a dark copse on the edge of the town, it consisted of a segment of rail track and an old steam engine, both apparently transplanted from elsewhere to furnish a museum which had also long gone. Of the handful of railside statues that had once illustrated Allied servicemen working on the railway under the gaze of their Japanese oppressors, only a few metal stumps remained.
Although the contents of the site were disappointing, there was nonetheless a poignancy attached to what it had been and what it represented. This was reflected even more forcefully in the next site, the Commonwealth War Cemetery around the corner. This beautifully tended, peaceful and moving place contained the graves of several hundred of the yet more thousands of servicemen who died in the construction of the railway between 1942 and the end of the war.
Row upon row of low headstones were filed according to nationality – British, Dutch, Australian and American in order of the number of casualties suffered by each nation – and the approximate date of death of those whose remains had been transplanted here from the jungle where they had actually fallen. Every grave had a short inscription, picked out in bronze letering, stating the name and regiment of the occupant and a motto – “At the going down of the sun…” was the favoured verse but some were more personal – while a small, flowering bush grew between each stone.
The minutiae were sad beyond words. Even Denis took a seat in the shade and fell quiet. But the site as a whole made a powerful statement, both in its scale and in its simplicity. It resonated under a Burmese spring sun with a story of the human spirit that had nonetheless survived the ordeal. Those who had carefully chosen the words and verses for the husbands or sons they would never see again had themselves passed on by now, unremembered in quiet country churchyards and unkempt municipal cemeteries, while their relatives and the brutality that they endured was still commemorated. I almost envied them.
After that we needed a drink. The driver duly obliged, returning us to the town centre and pulling up at a roadside café where we arranged a handful of plastic chairs under an awning and ordered beers. Denis was quickly back into his stride, talking politics in a loud voice. This attracted the attention of another old gentleman, at the back of the café, who I took to be the owner.
Short and unshaven with a large belly under a sleeveless vest, he waddled up to our group and pressed three fingers down on the table in front of Denis: partly for support and partly in preparing to make his point. Throwing back his head, he smiled to reveal the single tooth in his mouth, then in perfect English said: “Now old man, what nonsense are you speaking?”
“I’m 82,” replied Denis, “I can say what I like.” Then, looking round at the rest of the group he added, “What are they going to do to me?”
“Well, I’m 81,” said the owner, “and I agree with you. There aren’t many of us left!”