Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Burma's Ho Chi Minh Trail (2)

(This is the direct translation of Chapter 5 of Major Ba Shin’s "Burma Before Anawrahta".)

Proto-Burmese Invasion into Burma in Mid 9th Century

The original inhabitants of the place now called Middle Burma (Myanmar) were Pyus and in AD 832 their ancient nation Thayekhittayar was destroyed and their civilization uprooted by the Nansaws from Yunan in China.

The Mon nation Thuwanabummi (Yarmanya) in Lower Burma was also invaded by the Nansaws in AD 835 and over 2000 Mon were taken to Yunan as the prisoners. After the Nansaw invasions Burma had completely collapsed without a central administration and most of the country lay in ruins.

Demographically it could be safely assumed that by that time there were Thet in the region of Upper Burma where the Irrawaddy River meets Chindwin River, Karen in the Middle Sittaung Valley, ancient Mon in the Lower Sittaung Valley, Pyu in Middle and Southern Irrawaddy Valley, and the rest of the ancient Mon in Zawgyi and Panlaung Valleys (The Karen seemed to have cut of the ancient Mons into two groups).

In addition Palaung and Wa the Mon-Khmer tribes and Gadu the Thet tribe were also mixed with other tribes in Middle Irrawaddy Valley and the Zawgyi-Panlaung Valley.

Chance for the highlanders to move down into Burma 

There were no written historical evidences such as stone inscriptions from that period between 832 AD when the Pyu Nation was destroyed by the Nansaw and mid 11th century when King Anawrahta ruled Pagan have been found yet. So what were the significant historical events during that period?

The existing society was collapsing. People were deeply divided. There were no unified forces to resist the foreign invasion and defend the land and that chaotic period was quickly becoming an opportune time for the stronger tribes from the highland to move in en masse or invade the fertile plain valley land of Burma.

People who speak Burmese and sub-Burmese Languages

Basing on the demographic distribution of the current people of Burma and the ancient stone inscriptions the people who had moved down from the Yunan Highland to the valley land of Middle Burma during that chaotic ruler-less period were the earlier Burmese. In other words it could be evidently stated that they were the members of the Tibeto-Burman tribes and they spoke either old Burmese or the sub-Burmese languages.

That statement could be strongly reinforced by the detailed study of the regions of Burma now occupied by the people who speak the languages belonging to the Burmese sub-family of the Tibeto-Burman family of languages.

Languages of Burmese sub-family

Linguistically at least 8 out of ten natives of Burma speak the languages of Burmese sub-family. Here are that languages of the Burmese sub-family.

1.      The Burmese language used by the majority.
2.      The Accented Burmese languages which have slight deviations in sound 
and pronunciation from mainstream Burmese language.
3.      The Earlier Burmese languages which are basically similar to both
Mainstream Burmese and other Accented Burmese languages.

Main Regions of Burmese Speakers

Mainstream Burmese (Burmese) is widely spoken in all over Burma. But the principal regions where Burmese is the only language are the districts namely Mandalay, Shwebo, Sagaing, Pakhoku, Myingyan, Kyaukse, and Meikhtila districts at the confluence of Irrawaddy and Chindwin Rivers in the middle Burma. These districts are the principal demographic region of Burmese speakers.

Farther from these districts the fewer the Burmese speakers. But the speakers of accented Burmese can be widely found at faraway places from these main districts and they appear to be the descendants of original Burmese speakers since long way back.

Speakers of Accented Burmese

The people, whose ancestors were originally from the middle Burma, now speaking a form of accented Burmese can be found in the Western Burma in Ramree and Sittwe Districts (Arakan Language), Hteelin and Saw regions in Pakhoku District (Yaw Language), along the Kaladan River of Southern Chin State (Chaungthar Language), and East Pakistan -now Bangaladesh- (Western Arakan Language and Northern Chaungthar Language).

In Southern Burma they can be found in Tavoy District (Tavoy Language), and Mergui District (Mergui Language).  These people speaking accented Burmese are strikingly similar in both culture and couture to the people from middle Burma.

The People Who Stayed Behind

In the western part of Shan Plateau east of Middle Burma there are people still widely speaking some form of accented Burmese languages. The Danus in the west, the Taungyoes in their east and the Inthars by the Inle Lake region belong to these groups.

Even though their places are not that far from the Irrawaddy Valley their accents, culture, practices, and couture are starkly different from the Valley Burmese. From that evidence it could be easily concluded that the ancestors of these people were not the people who had moved up from the Irrawaddy Valley but the people who had stayed behind when other were moving on down to the Valley of Middle Burma.

Where Did the Old Burmese Come From?

The question is if the Taungyoes, Danus, and Inthars are the stayed behind people of the original Burmese migration then where the old Burmese were coming from. And the obvious answer is the old Burmese or proto Burmese did come from the direction of Shan State.

The Original Burmese Speakers

Before that serious and potentially controversial statement is discussed further it should be appropriate to mention more about the people who speak the old Burmese or original Burmese language.

The Marus from Namtu region in Northern Shan State, the Azees (a) Zees along the Chinese border in the Kutkhine region in Northern Shan State, the Maingthas (a) Achans from Bamaw region in Burma and Hotah and Latha regions in Yunan, the Lashees from Sadon and Lawkhaw region in Kachin sate, the Marus from Lawkhaung and Htawgaw regions of Maykha Vally in Kachin State, and the Phoons around the first narrow of Irrawaddy on the border of Bamaw and Myitkyinar districts in Kachin State are the other ethnic groups who also speak the old Burmese language. The Marus and Lashees can be found in around Myitkyinar too.

Conclusion from the Demographic Distribution of Old Burmese

From the demographic distribution of ethnic groups speaking old Burmese or accented Burmese languages it could be wisely speculated that the old Burmese or the proto Burmese had migrated into Burma step by step from the North in Eastern Kachin Sate and Western Yunan to the South in Northern Shan State then to the Southern Shan State. From the Southern Shan State they migrated down into the Irrawaddy valley in the Middle Burma.

Why didn’t they go down between Chindwin and Irrawaddy Rivers?

The obvious question is the old Burmese could have forded the shallow Irrawaddy in Kachin State and moved down to the plain but they did not. Somehow they might have tried to cross Irrawaddy and move down south.

But during that time the valley lands between Irrawaddy and Chindwin were the Dagaung nation of Thets and the old Burmese were not able to go through them. So the first few waves were stopped by the first narrow of Irrawaddy and ended up as today Phoons.

Also because of difficult terrain the old Burmese couldn’t follow the Irrawaddy  through the Darpane and Shwelee river routes.

Into the Shan State

So the next migration waves bypassed the Thet’s Dagaung country from the east by following the Myitnge River route and temporarily ended up in Northern Shan State. From there they moved further down to the south into Yartsout and then southwestern Shan State.

Why didn’t they go down into the Sittaung Valley?

The obvious question is why they didn’t go down further south and move into the Sittaung Valley. The answer is by then the mass of Karens were already occupying the fertile Sittaung Valley. That route also is difficult because of rough terrain. As mentioned before the regions of today Moebyae and the Kayah State and northern Karen State were already the Karen strongholds by then and the Karens were even moving into the valley land west of Sittaung River. 

The easiest route with least obstacles

In those situations the easiest route for the migrating proto Burmese to travel further into the Irrawaddy Valley was through the northern part of southern Shan State where the obstacles were fewer and then into Kyaukse District which continued into the plain valley land of Irrawaddy River.  

From Yartsout and Pindaya into the Irrawaddy Valley

Moreover, basing on the linguistic evidence of accented Burmese speaking highlanders Danus and Taungyoes living along the South-western edge of Shan State the above conclusion - that the old Burmese had moved down onto the valley plain of Middle Burma through Yartsout and Pindaya regions the northern part of southern Shan State – appears to be obviously correct.

Are above just educated thoughts?

The statements above are just the conclusions according to linguistic comparisons and analysis based on the demography of the speakers of mainstream Burmese and various accented Burmese languages in Burma today. But there are many questions!

Are there any other historical evidence to support these statements and conclusion?

Are there any strong references proving the statement that the old Burmese or proto Burmese were originally from the Western Yunan and Northern Shan State in today China and Burma respectively?

If there are, the obvious question is are there any records or written evidence about these people who had lived in those lands during the 8th and 9th centuries?

If above questions can not be satisfactorily answered then the statement about the old Burmese moving down into middle Burma through Southwestern Shan State is just nothing more than an educated thought or just a dream.

There is no history without the historical evidence, and it would not be that easy to firmly state that the educated thoughts are the true history of a nation and its people.

Contemporary Chinese written evidence

Fortunately there are ample stories about these old Burmese originally living in Western Yunan and Northern Shan State during the 8th and 9th centuries from the contemporary Chinese history books and regional records.

(To be continued.)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Aung Moe and Amy: Sanctions' Collateral Damage (4)

Massive Insein Prison in Rangoon.
Justice is swift and brutal in a primitive place like Burma where humans have very few rights and criminals have no rights at all. Aung Moe thought he would be hanged soon without realizing that no one has ever been hanged in Burma since late 1988 when the army staged a coup and started more than 20 years long right-wing military dictatorship.

Although the courts in Burma are still regularly sentencing the criminals committing heinous crimes to death by hanging no one has ever been hanged for decades now. The junta had considered themselves a temporary caretaker Government so not an actual hanging has been allowed during their rule from 1988 till recent transfer of power to the present military-backed civilian Government in April 2011.

But young Aung Moe didn’t know that and he was mad enough not to wait till he is horribly hanged till death. Maybe he had read too many of Yan-aung Maung Maung’s articles about judicial hangings in popular crime magazines. So one night he decided to end his own life. And the stupid boy chose to hang himself.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Double Hanging in Mandalay (1985)

(This edited translation is from former Warden Yan-aung Maung Maung’s autobiography.)

The criminals condemned by the courts were nearly shocked to death once they heard the sentencing judge or magistrate reading the death sentence to them in the court. Even the hardcore criminals who already considered themselves half-dead as they knew they were guilty of their heinous crimes couldn’t even smile while they were being sentenced to death by hanging.

So many people asked me this same question; do you have to let the condemned go if he or she wasn’t killed in one hanging?  That is just a myth. In every death warrant the words to be hanged till death is prominent and even if one rope doesn’t kill him for some reason the second rope is waiting for him.  No condemned one has ever come out alive from hanging in our prisons.

I have witnessed many hangings in the earlier part of my prison service. But in all those hangings I was just an insignificant participant as a junior prison officer since the hangings were personally overseen by the senior warden. Only in 1985 when I became a senior warden I did my hangings and I personally hanged seven men. I still remember two names from my only double hanging. Aung Mya and Than Myint.

Hangman Warden

In wars soldiers kill each other in the heat of a battle but the cold-blooded hanging in a prison is never like that. Hanging is judicially ending a person’s life by a legal procedure that exactly follows the prison hanging manual to the letter. That’s why it is called The Capital Punishment the biggest criminal punishment by law.

Back in Britain, I was told, the hangings were done by the professional hang-men not the prison officers like in Burma. When I was a junior officer I once asked the warden how he felt about hangings he had personally done before and this was his answer.

“I always felt like quitting my job whenever I had to do a hanging. It wasn’t that bad when the condemned was dragged onto the gallows and the drop-door lever was pulled. I just wanted to finish the job and get over with it.

Only after the corpse was taken outside and the whole business was over the bad feeling inside began. I had to take off the uniform and get rid of them as I could never wear the same uniform ever again. After the shower and new set of uniform on I immediately had two or more drinks, neat without ice or water. Only then my inside got warmed and I calmed down.

But I still had bad feelings whenever I looked at my own hands. It would take at least one or even two months to get back to my normal self by slowly talking myself that I was only doing my duty as a warden.”

And he was the only warden I knew who never let others do the dreadful job of putting the noose around the condemned’s neck and tightening it. Putting a noose around the prisoner neck was not that difficult but the important part is tightening the noose properly. The regulation one-inch Manila hemp rope used for hanging has a ring called Metal Eye on one end. That Metal Eye has to be directly beneath the left or right jaw so that when the prisoner dropped that would be just behind the ear and broke the neck. If the noose wasn’t tightened and placed properly the noose would rotate and come off together with the hood.

My Turn to Hang

There are a lot of works in hanging a prisoner. As a preparation for a hanging we had to order one inch diameter Manila hemp rope. Then a heavy weight was attached to one end of the rope and other end tied to a high beam and let the rope hang for two three days to take out the stretch and thus any tendency to coil.

We also had to weigh the prisoner and measure his height and his neck diameter. Only after that process the rope length (drop) had to be worked out by the exact formula from the prison hanging manual.

In Burma, a former British colony, the judicial hanging takes the form of measured or long drop hanging as practiced in Britain since 1874. The distance the condemned drops when the trapdoors open is calculated according to the weight, height, and physique of the condemned and is designed to break the neck and thus severed the spinal cord to make executions more humane than other forms of hanging.

Hanged in Iran?
 Hanging with little or no drop usually causes death by slow strangulation due to the weight of the body on the noose, causing it to tighten, so constricting the air passage. The condemned typically struggle and suffer for sometime, as long as half an hour in extreme cases, after suspension due to the physical pain caused by the noose tightening around the slowly stretching neck.    

In the British long drop hanging it takes less than a second for a person to reach the end of the drop after the trapdoor opens. The force produced by the person’s weight multiplied by the length of the fall and the gravity and the position of the noose causes virtually instant fracture-dislocation of the neck which leads to death.

Typically the fracture-dislocation occurs at C2 or C3 of the cervical vertebrae with about two inch gap and traverse separation of spinal cord at the same level causing instant deep unconsciousness and rapid death.

Once the rope was prepared my first task was to set the gallows. In all Burmese prisons the gallows are the copies of Alipore Gallows from the Calculatta’s Alipore Central Jail in India. It basically has two parts. The base is a large concrete hole in the ground covered by two large hinged trap doors linked by a mechanism to a lever. The top part consisting two posts and the cross beam is removable and normally disassembled and kept in a store room.

Alipor Gallows?
 So we opened the trap doors and brushed the rust off the lever and mechanism beneath the doors with kerosene first and later with the diesel oil. After that the posts and cross beam were taken out of the store room and then cleansed and polished with diesel oil. Once the gallows had been set up I had to fix a Sunday and ask the permissions from the divisional and township courts.

Once everything was ready for the hanging I began to read the files of two condemned men, Aung Mya and Than Myint. Like other hangman-wardens, knowing how ruthless and brutal the two criminals were would give me certain degree of comfort for me in doing the unpleasant work of hanging them.

Aung Mya and Than Myint: the Condemned

The two young men Aung Mya and Than Myint were childhood friends born and grew up in a small town in the Magwe Division of Middle Burma. Aung Mya’s father worked for a Government factory and Than Myint’s was a porter at the port. Their characters were totally opposite. Since very young age Aung Mya was a good boy and he always avoided trouble and fights.

But Than Myint was a bad boy and he was always looking for trouble and never refused a good fight. And he dominated and bullied Aung Mya all their lives. Weak Aung Mya was afraid of stronger Than Myint and followed him in whatever bad things Than Myint did. Two of them together became the bad boys of the town and eventually they were kicked out of the school at their year 8 and finally Than Myint ended up in Pa-khoke-ku prison doing 2 years for a robbery.

Without his dear friend Aung Mya became decent again after a year in monkhood at the local monastery and started working for the factory where his father also worked. His parents were happy but their happiness didn’t last too long as Than Myint was released and he came back town. By then Than Myint was behaving like a hardcore criminal as the ex-convicts usually do and Aung Mya tried real hard to avoid him in the town.

But one day he ran into Than Myint at the port and they ended up in a cheap liquor shop. Only after two or more glasses of local moonshine Aung Mya belatedly realized his old friend had a plan to take advantage of him. This was their conversation at the liquor shop and the beginning of their ways to the Mandalay Gallows I was now setting up for their double hanging.

“Aung Mya, don’t you know … that girl Pu-tu-ma likes you a lot?”
“Which Pu-tu-ma?”
“That Pu-tu-ma from the Pu-tu-tu-lay betelnut-shop at our port.”
“Oh, I ain’t interested!”
“But, I am!”
“If you are interested, why don’t you try yourself?”
“Yes I did, but she doesn’t like me and even insulted me. She told me to my face that I am an ex-convict without a job and she rather marries a beggar than me. So I asked her if she would consider you and she replied you are better than me since you have a steady job.”
“I can’t help it.”
“Ha, I can help it, just look at these……..”

Than Myint then pulled out two letters and a small photo from his shirt pocket. Photo was Pu-tu-ma’s and letters were the reply love letters to him from her. Back of her photo even bore the words With Love to Ko Aung Mya. Suddenly Aung Mya remembered the friendly behavior of that girl and felt bad for her.

“Than Myint, you shouldn’t trick a young girl like that!”
“You, an ex-monk, you don’t know shit about this cruel world. You think Pu-tu-ma is serious about you. No way, she has so many boyfriends. I’ll show you one day about that. My plan hasn’t finished yet.”

It was right. Than Myint’s evil plan wasn’t finished yet. The day that plan ended was the day all three of them ended their short lives, so to speak. That day Aung Mya and Than Myint half-drunk from local moonshine liquor patiently waited for Pu-tu-ma to show up alone at the deserted grounded-freighter abandoned on the riverbank. The girl thought she was seeing her lover Aung Mya alone.

They had sex while Than Myint hid and watched. After that Than Myint came out, showed her a knife, and violently raped her. She then grabbed the knife and cut his arm. In rage Than Myint held her tight and forced Aung Mya to stab her first then he finished her off by stabbing the hapless girl multiple times.

That was their hangable criminal case. The brutal rape and murder of a young innocent girl my daughter’s age. Now I had a very good reason to hang them both till death. And I won’t feel bad.

The Double Hanging

The day they were hung. The judges had arrived. The prison doctor was ready waiting to confirm the deaths. The junior warden and his troops had already taken positions at the rear of the gallows. All the electric lights were brightly on and the four kerosene pressure lamps for the emergency in case of power blackout were also burning.

Apart from the shue-shel noises from the pressure lamps everything was quite and noiseless.

British Hanging (1879)
I stood at the front of the base of the gallows and carefully observed my men doing their duties step by step. The guy who was assigned to pull the trapdoors lever was tightly holding the handle of the long lever in both hands and at the same time staring without even a wink at me for my final signal. He didn’t look anywhere else the whole time. 

Aung Mya and Than Myint were already on the gallows and forced to stand inside the two white circles on the trapdoors. Aung Mya on the right and Than Myint on the left. With huge white hoods on and in the white jail garb they looked like two white cocoons standing up. Their hands were already cuffed from behind since in their cells and the men were now tying their legs tight with ropes.

Once everything was ready one junior warden shouted an order and the troops of warden stood to attention. Nooses were already around the necks of Aung Mya and Than Myint and already tightened. So I asked them to say their last wish.

First appeared Aung Mya’s voice. Not loud and not clear just blurred.

“For every future life ….  not a bad friend like in this life ……….”

Even before Aung Mya finished his sentence Than Myint’s voice came out loud and clear.

“Shit, Aung Mya, you Bastard …….”

I pulled out a white handkerchief from my trousers’ side pocket as the prearranged signal and the man at the lever pulled the handle while grinding his teeth. Jaing, with the loud noise from the trapdoors hitting the concrete sidewalls of the gallows base the two white cocoons dropped and disappeared out of sight. Both ropes taut without oscillating and twisting.

Than Myint was still dominating and bullying Aung Mya till the last seconds just before their unnatural deaths.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Hanging by George Orwell (1931)

(George Orwell (a) Eric Blair was a colonial police officer in British Burma.)

George Orwell (1903-1950)
It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains. A sickly light, like yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard. We were waiting outside the condemned cells, a row of sheds fronted with double bars, like small animal cages. Each cell measured about ten feet by ten and was quite bare within except for a plank bed and a pot of drinking water. In some of them brown silent men were squatting at the inner bars, with their blankets draped round them. These were the condemned men, due to be hanged within the next week or two.

One prisoner had been brought out of his cell. He was a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a thick, sprouting moustache, absurdly too big for his body, rather like the moustache of a comic man on the films. Six tall Indian warders were guarding him and getting him ready for the gallows. Two of them stood by with rifles and fixed bayonets, while the others handcuffed him, passed a chain through his handcuffs and fixed it to their belts, and lashed his arms tight to his sides. They crowded very close about him, with their hands always on him in a careful, caressing grip, as though all the while feeling him to make sure he was there. It was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water. But he stood quite unresisting, yielding his arms limply to the ropes, as though he hardly noticed what was happening.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Aung Moe and Amy: Sanctions' Collateral Damage (3)

Aung Moe's Crime Scene?
Then in 2002 I read about Aung Moe in a popular Burmese crime magazine in a Burmese restaurant in Sydney’s inner west suburb of Strathfield. The short story described Aung Moe’s stabbing murder case as a crime of passion. He basically killed a foreign businessman from South Korea or Taiwan, I couldn’t recall now, in the fight following an altercation outside a karaoke bar in Rangoon’s notorious entertainment strip at the Theingyi Bazzar on the Signal Pagoda Road. 

The story shockingly added that a young Anglo-Burmese escort named Amy who was with the murdered businessman was also injured in the fight. As soon as I got back home from the restaurant I called my friend’s house in Rangoon’s Golden Valley. This was roughly what happened to Aung Moe and Amy, according to my friend.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Aung Moe and Amy: Sanctions' Collateral Damage (2)

By 1997 the writing was on the wall and most foreign business relying on the exports to the biggest market in the world USA were preparing for the worst and ready to get out of Burma. And the exodus of foreign companies especially of the West Bloc from Burma was started by the sudden withdrawal of Pepsi-Cola in May 1997.

Burma Boycott & Shocking Pressure on Pepsi-Cola

FBC's Pepsi Boycott.
It would be hard to explain the beginning of the economic sanctions against Burma without mentioning the particularly shocking case of Pepsi-Cola’s withdrawal from Burma in 1997. This edited extracts from Burma Boycott Quarterly; Summer 1997 by Reid Cooper is self explanatory about the enormous pressure being applied on the Pepsi back then to abandon its much profitable operation in Burma.

“On November 22, 1991, a Pepsi bottling plant in Rangoon formally opened. The plant was joint venture between Pepsi Co. and Thein Htun’s Pepsi-Cola Products Myanmar. Thein Htun had built his business carrier on being a representative for foreign firms in Burma, developing a reputation as a SLORC (military junta) businessman.  

Monday, April 4, 2011

Aung Moe and Amy: Sanctions' Collateral Damage (1)

When I first met Amy in 1995 she was a 14 years old pretty Anglo-Burmese girl working as a young seamstress in my friend’s garment factory in Thin-gann-gyun, a poor satellite township on the outskirt of Rangoon. 

Tall, slim, waist-length brown haired, and very fair with big blue eyes she stood out among the dark-skinned brown-faced Burmese girls and young women around her on the crowded concrete floor of the garment factory.

According to my friend’s wife who managed the factory Amy was an orphan. Amy’s father was an engineer-seafarer who was killed when the oil tanker he worked for caught fire on the high sea when Amy was only 2 or 3. She lost her mother to a hepatitis epidemic in the late 80s and when I met her she was living with her old Anglo grandma in their big old dilapidated colonial house on a small block of ancestral land not far from the garment factory.

Before she joined the garment factory two of them had to survive on a small income from their little makeshift grocery shop at the gate of their block. But now she had a relatively well-paying decent job and she seemed to be happy working hard at her industrial sewing machine 10 hours a day Monday to Saturday every week.