Five years ago this week, Burma’s most fertile region was devastated by a ferocious tropical storm and at least 138,000 people lost their lives. Peter Popham went to one of the villages where life will never be the same.
(Independent on Sunday 5 May 2013)
In few places does Burma look more idyllic than the Irrawaddy Delta.
We’re on the road from Pyapon to Bogale, a single-track lane fringed by banana and rattan palms. There is water everywhere: the stream that runs alongside the road, crossed by bamboo bridges, ponds full of ducks or pink lotus flowers, a river where black water buffalo wallow in mud to their shoulders. The flimsy wooden farmhouses, each with its big glazed pot to collect rain water, are fronted by gleaming padi fields and framed by coconut palms. Everything one’s eye falls on shrieks of life and fertility.
Yet more than anywhere in Burma, this is a place of death.
Two hundred years ago the Delta was a huge malarial swamp, a wilderness of no use to anybody. But after being drained during British times it became the rice bowl and melting pot of the nation, home to hundreds of thousands of Burmans and Karen, and many Hindu and Muslim migrants from the subcontinent as well. Watered by Burma’s greatest river, the immensely fertile soil provided a living to farmers willing to brave its fierce climate and wandering water courses.
But the Delta is too close to the sea ever to be really safe – as its inhabitants discovered five years ago this week.
The cyclone they dubbed Nargis – a Hindi word (and a popular girl’s name) meaning Narcissus – made landfall in the town of Pyapon at 6 o’clock on the evening of 2 May 2008. “We heard the warning on the radio,” said a young man in the office of the opposition National League for Democracy, “just 30 minutes before it arrived. The government said it was travelling at 40 to 50 miles per hour. But DVB” – the Democratic Voice of Burma, an alternative broadcaster based in Norway with underground correspondents all over the country – “said it was moving at 120 to 150 mph. It moved through the Delta like a snake. At 7.30 a huge wave crashed through the town. The eye of the cyclone came swirling through the town…”
It was a disaster for which Burma was strikingly ill-prepared. The poorest country in South-East Asia, it had been ruled for half a century by a military junta whose priority was combating insurgencies on the borders, cutting lucrative secret deals with crony businessmen, and keeping the population in fear and ignorance. Civil defence was a long way down its list of priorities. And massive aid from abroad – the sort of huge, air-lifted operation that had rescued Sumatra and southern Thailand after the 2004 tsunami – was not something Burma’s ruling generals were likely to contemplate. Burma had gone into its shell after the coup d’etat that brought General Ne Win to power in 1962. Now it rivalled North Korea as the hermit of Asia. Yet without aid from outside, Burma would struggle to recover from a blow like this.
The official death toll from the cyclone was 138,000, though many believe the true figure to be much higher. Five years on, I took a boat trip through the Delta’s waterways to hear the tales of Nargis survivors.
At Bogale children bathe in the Gone Nyin Tan river, deep brown with silt, as we board long-tailed boat no. 2013 and head south towards the village of Sat Saw, a two-hour journey through this web of vast rivers. Little has changed here in half a century of military rule. A fisherman throws his net from the stern of his small, sleek rowing boat. More rowers propel a boat stacked with logs upstream. On the breeze comes the smell of burning rice stubble. As we head away from the Delta’s small towns towards the sea, activity both on the shore and the water dwindles. Then at the far end of a narrow inlet, on the southern bank, we see the gleaming roofs of the little village of Sat Saw.
Along the village footpaths – there are no motorable roads and no wheeled vehicles here – we are taken to meet a man called Phoe Swe, aged 50, in the dingy rattan hut that he and his surviving children call home.
“Nargis hit this village at 8pm and it washed many people into the sea,” he recalls. “I ran out of my house with my family to take shelter in a nearby Buddhist monastery, but after an hour another big wave came and smashed the monastery’s pillars, so with one of my kids on my back and two in my arms I climbed a tree. We stayed up the tree all night and when the morning came we saw that everything was destroyed.” Amazingly, eight of his nine children survived up that tree, clinging to each other. Only his wife and their youngest one, 10 months old, failed to make it.
For the next four or five days they survived on coconuts. After that, help arrived from a Buddhist ngo. And the army? “They didn’t help at all,” he says. “We didn’t even see them in the village.” Five years on, he says, “I’m still struggling. It’s hard to get back to a normal life. The year after Nargis we had no rice crop because the fields were soaked in salt water.”
In another hut nearby, Thein Win, 56, tells of his lucky escape. “We were all sleeping over in our hut by the padi field when the cyclone struck,” he said, “the cyclone didn’t hit us there. But our house here was destroyed, and five of our friends who were staying in it all died.” In all 530 villagers, more than one-third of the population, lost their lives. “It’s because our village is so close to the sea,” explains Tun Lin, who owns a store in the village. “We are in the front line. Even now if it rains hard, the children get scared and hide under the blankets.”
The military junta was slow to respond to the disaster, slow to release information – and slow to the point of criminal about admitting the foreign aid agencies that were clamouring to help. They released bizarrely detailed casualty figures, posed in front of Potemkin IDP camps for the cameras of the state-controlled media, but actually bringing aid to the desperate survivors, hundreds of thousands of them clinging to life without food or fresh water – that did not seem a task worthy of their attention.
Instead Burmese civil society, almost wiped out through the decades of army repression, leapt into the breach, with dozens of ad hoc groups organising missions to bring food, water, medicine and other necessities to the devastated communities. The Buddhist monks’ organisation which saved the lives of Phoe Swe and his children were one of many. The most celebrated was the flotilla of boats organised by Zarganar, the nation’s most popular and subversive comedian, which took aid to 42 remote villages. But when, in June 2008, he spoke to foreign media about the plight of millions of survivors in the Delta left to fend for themselves, he was arrested, put on trial and sentenced to 59 years’ imprisonment for “public order offences”.
Some of the larger international agencies eventually prevailed on the generals to let them in, and in the village of Sat Saw, their legacy is plainly visible: solid concrete bridges over the waterways, courtesy of Care International; a new primary school, built on stilts to double as a refuge in the event of another disaster, thanks to UNICEF. The Swiss Red Cross provided mosquito nets, a Japanese ngo gifted a water tank. The NLD, though at the time still a persecuted and semi-legal party, dug a drinking water pond, helped rebuild village houses and concreted the main pathway through the village.
And the military government? What was their contribution? “Nothing,” says Tun Lin, the shopkeeper, who is today the head of the local branch of the NLD, established in December 2012. “On account of Nargis, they didn’t tax the rice harvest that year. But they taxed us double the next.”
‘Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life’ at Tate Britain, 26 June to 20 October 2013
Contrary to the stereotype, Laurence Lowry was of middle-class, not proletarian stock. A Tory voter, brought up in a home straining towards gentility, he collected the paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and painted with the arias of Donizetti and Bellini ringing in his ears. Although he possessed a cloth cap, in every published photograph of him, whether at his easel or pounding the Lancashire streets, he is dressed in a dark suit and tie; out of doors, he wore a trilby. His job of rent collector with the Pall Mall Property Company, which he held down for more than 40 years, placed him squarely on the capitalist side of the class barricade.
Yet it was his family’s sudden tumble down the class ladder that triggered his genius.
It was in 1909, when Lowry was 22, that he, his mother Elizabeth and his father Robert moved from the salubrious greenery of Pine Grove, Victoria Park, to 117 Station Road, Pendlebury, on the north-west outskirts of Salford, on the way to Bolton and Wigan. The move was “for business reasons” – the failing finances of Robert Lowry that were to burden his family with debt after he died. His mother, a gifted classical pianist who had found the means to have her only son educated privately, had no illusions about the humiliation of the move. She “hated the mean streets, the terraced houses, the sight and sound of the busy mills,” Lowry’s biographer wrote. She took to her bed.
To begin with, her son felt the same way. “At first, I detested it,” he said years later. “And then after a few years I got pretty interested in it and began to walk about.”
He described that moment of awakening many times over the years, how his eyes were opened to the landscape in which his family was now embedded. “I was with a man and he said ‘Look’ and there, I saw it. From then on I devoted myself to it. I have never tired of looking. It is always fresh.”
Another time he told a BBC interviewer how, one afternoon in 1916, he missed the train from Pendlebury to Manchester. “It would be about four o’clock in the afternoon and perhaps there was some peculiar condition of the atmosphere…As I got to the top of the steps I saw the Acme Mill, a great square red block with the little cottages running in rows right up to it – and suddenly, I knew what I had to paint.”
Whatever the precise occasion – or if, as is more likely, it was more a drawn-out process than a bolt of lightning – this change of scene was to transform a hobby painter of modest talents who had been turned down by Manchester Municipal College of Art into the most original English figurative painter of the past century. Lowry is also without doubt our most popular 20th century painter – but the extreme accessibility of his work, together with the tightly circumscribed world he chose to paint, has made it easy for critics to relegate him to the status of a peculiar provincial, quite outside the currents of modern art. And they are still at it: in The Guardian – the paper which, as the Manchester Guardian, was for many years his most enthusiastic backer – last November, Jonathan Jones wrote, “Lowry deserves a place in art history, but let’s not go nuts. He is not some British Van Gogh…why can’t Lowry just be ‘the man who painted industrial Britain?’”
There are many ways to damn Lowry with faint praise. Another is to be found on the plaque adorning his final home on the edge of the Peak District: “The paintings of Lowry document the lives of ordinary people in the industrial communities of the North-West.”
In a sense there’s no arguing with that, yet in another it’s quite wrong, and fatally limiting. Lowry himself was in no doubt about it: he knew that, when he turned his attention from life drawings and to the hellish reality in which he was immersed, that something extraordinary happened. And at last that something is to get its reward, in a major exhibition entitled “Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life” at Tate Britain which promises for the first time to give him his due in international terms. It is no surprise that it has taken two top-ranking foreign curators, T J Clark and his partner Anne Wagner, to pierce the miasma of metropolitan snobbery and inverted provincialism that for the best part of a century has obscured the true worth of this compulsive and compelling artist.
One of the things that corrals British art into a dingy corner away from the continental mainstream is our lack of light: that’s why so many artists headed for Cornwall, the brightest spot in a gloomy land. But Lowry made of our painful penumbras a bizarre virtue. His bleached-out skies are reflected in his bleached-out streets. Once he had discovered the colour known as flake white, which he used both for the skies and the streets, he had also discovered a unique way to paint the city. He then set about radically simplifying what he saw.
Gone from the city as he painted it were signposts, wheeled traffic, any remaining vestiges of the natural world, any mitigating features suggestive of culture and civilisation; gone, too, was conventional perspective: very often he views the city from some imaginary scaffold high above it, flattening the entire scene. All that remains are the handful of elements that were his obsessions: block-like industrial buildings, boorishly cheek-by-jowl with others far smaller, with no concern for proportion or harmony; the ubiquitous chimneys belching smoke; pools of effluent in which the buildings may be sinking; and, above all, people.
It has taken a century for critics to get to grips with Lowry’s people: let’s see if Clark and Wagner are up to the job. Michael Howard, art historian and author of an authoritative tome about Lowry’s work, describes his people, weirdly, as “automata”. Nothing could be further from the truth. The conventional term for them is “matchstick men,” so common now that it has been adopted as the name for a Salford pub. Yet that, too, is quite wrong.
The bleached sky, the white ground and the diffused light allow Lowry to abolish shadows, which feature in none of his mature works. This in turn gives him the freedom to crowd his scenes with extraordinary numbers of people, each clearly delineated. Yet if they really were just matchstick men or automata, how unbearably dull these paintings would be! What is amazing, and what confounds all efforts to cram Lowry into boxes marked ‘pessimism’ or ‘nostalgia’, are that all these masses of people, delineated so simply and sparely, are electric with individual life. No two are alike. They are no more realistic, conventionally speaking, than the caricatures in a strip cartoon, yet each of them is alive. Try this as an experiment: look at the figures in these paintings with concentration for some minutes, then turn to look at actual people walking in the street. Suddenly they all look like Lowry people, each instinct with desire, goal, daydream or preoccupation.
The same is true of his cityscapes as a whole. Contrary to the faint praise that would pigeon hole him as a documentary painter, none of these smoky scenes is realistic. Everywhere he went he sketched, in a sketch book or on any scrap of paper that came to hand. But he never sat with his easel in front of one particular aggregation of mills and chimneys to set it down. As he explained, he used what he had sketched as raw material for what he termed his “dreamscapes”: realistic enough to convince plodding critics and curators that these were literal depictions of real landscapes, but in fact quite other than that, with preposterously large aggregations of factory buildings, with chimneys stretching to the horizon, in one case with the cooling towers of a nuclear power station surrealistically installed in the heart of a town. Lowry was fascinated by surrealism, sometimes referring to himself jokingly as “Salvador Lowry”. And in his sly, shy northern way, he was indeed a most unusual English surrealist, happy and amused (though also at times no doubt maddened and tormented) to be dismissed as “the man who painted industrial Britain.”
The reason people were able to make that mistake, despite the glaring fact that his cityscapes are not realistic at all, was that, as with his minimal, dabbed human (and canine) figures, these dense urban aggregations do catch and incarnate something real and alive: they belong to dream but not to fantasy; they succeed in inhabiting both the reality we stare at dully from the tram window and the frightful dream that scares us awake. Nobody else did that. Nobody else even tried.
Salford has become a monument to Laurie Lowry, while at the same time doing everything in its power to erase all traces of the landscape he made famous. The smart new Metrolink tram from central Manchester passes the Matchstick Man pub before arriving at Media Centre UK; a few steps away across the Manchester Ship Canal is the wildly over-expressive Lowry Centre, its porch like an outsize cattle trough, competing in already somewhat dated ostentation with the nearby Imperial War Museum North. Across from The Lowry is a shopping centre called the Lowry Outlet Mall. And so it goes on. Near Salford Central station is the Lowry Fish Bar. Opposite the house in Pendlebury which Elizabeth so hated is Lowry Drive; behind stands the city’s last remaining red brick mill, formerly Newton Mill, now re-christened Lowry Mill, offering “refurbished office space” in this “truly remarkable mill conversion.” Probably more to Lowry’s taste – he was known to cry with laughter at the antics of music hall comics – is the sign stuck up in the unimproved cobbled alley behind the mill: “DANGER: if you must enter these premises uninvited will you please remove your dentures as our dogs find them difficult to digest.”
Manchester may both idolise and trivialise its most celebrated artist, but at least The Lowry complex, alongside its plays and musicals, offers a permanent and rotating (though rather small) exhibition of the man’s work, and actively lobbies on behalf of his reputation. Michael Simpson, head of galleries at the Centre, tells me that it was the Lowry that made the first approaches to the Tate. “The Lowry started talking to the Tate five years ago, the first conversations came from us,” he tells me. “The show at the Tate will be a key moment for Lowry. He is hugely popular with a lot of people but hasn’t managed to get accepted by the art establishment. As an artist whose work appears on a thousand chocolate boxes, he’s completely outside the accepted trajectory of British art. The easiest thing is to box him off as a popular artist whose work doesn’t have much to say to us. The Tate exhibition is designed to rectify that, which is why it is good that they have found such eminent academic curators: Lowry needs to be laid bare, to be tested. That debate will now happen.”
One of the many misconceptions about Lowry is that he was a naïve, untrained painter. Yet although turned down by the local art school, he studied drawing and painting part time for many years, life study in particular. Most crucially, he studied for a time with an obscure French impressionist called Adolphe Valette, known to his witty Manchester students as Mr Monsieur. Valette, , who taught life drawing at the Manchester School of Art where Lowry was a student, was the first artist to turn his attention to the wet, gritty, smoggy, metropolis in which he had landed. Lowry was loth to admit Valette’s influence but Michael Howard is in no doubt about. “The most significant shaping factor on Lowry’s style was undoubtedly…Valette,” he writes in his monograph “Lowry: a Visionary Artist”. “His shift from traditional Corot-like landscapes…could only have come through his assimilation and reinvention of Valette’s paintings.”
The curators of the Tate Britain exhibition reach the same conclusion. “The show,” says the Tate, “aims to reveal what Lowry learned from the strange symbolist townscapes of his French-born teacher…and demonstrates important parallels with late 19th and early 20th century French painting.”
Lowry’s pride, and perhaps also his lack of self-confidence, led him to disavow any continental influence, thereby making it easier for him to be seen subsequently as a solitary provincial eccentric. But thanks to Valette, and thanks to Lowry’s Pendlebury epiphany, he became the first British artist to devote his sustained attention to the city and the meaning of the city – and because this was already a French preoccupation, he was picked up by Parisian galleries and collectors long before London showed any interest in him.
As Michael Simpson puts it, “He was accepted in Paris because they French artists, unlike English ones, were interested in modern life.” Yet with Lowry’s relegation by British critical watchdogs to the ranks of the popular and provincial, his international reputation failed to develop; Simpson recalls how he recently saw with excitement that Christie’s had sold a Lowry to an “overseas” buyer – only to learn that it was going no further than Jersey.
Lowry painted many other subjects besides the cityscapes of the industrial north. Perhaps under the inducement of his mother, who refused to have those pictures in the living room – “it’s bad enough living here without you bringing it home,” she used to moan – he painted vivid scenes of sailing boats and bathers in Lytham St Anne’s, where they went on holiday. In his later years he turned away from the city to paint vast empty green rural landscapes and equally empty, turbulent seascapes. He made funny and disturbing drawings of the grotesque figures who had often been found in his urban crowds, and erotic drawings of busty, puppet-like young women which were only discovered after his death.
But if Lowry is ever to get onto the international map, it is with his paintings of the industrial city that he will do so. Places like this were unknown until Britain invented them. It was to Manchester that Friedrich Engels, co-author of the Communist Manifesto, came to study the appalling conditions in which the working class lived, predicting from his observations “the grim future of capitalism and the industrial age.”
Lowry recorded all that, unflinchingly, but he also saw how humanity survived in these grim streets; how, despite poverty and deracination and the death of nature, the humanity of these people was irrepressible, erupting in fights and larks and processions as well as in the rituals of football matches and Whit Sunday. We gave the world the industrial poison; here’s the antidote.
published in The Independent on Sunday, 21 April 2013
The bizarre spectacle of the man who once bestrode Pakistan fleeing from an Islamabad court room before being arrested and locked up was of a piece with the rest of Pervez Musharraf’s career. Gifted, courageous and strong willed, he has made a habit of riding his luck too hard and too far, until fortune collapsed into disaster.
In Pakistan’s incessant game of chicken between politicians and the army, he was promoted to Chief of Army Staff because it was thought he was the one general who would never stage a coup. He was seen as a man with no political connections or axe to grind, merely a tough former commando, a hands-on soldier. Another reason was because he was a mohajir, a Muslim born in what is now India under the Raj who emigrated to the Muslim majority areas with his family in the chaos of Partition, a stigmatised and discriminated-against minority within the new Islamic Republic.
But the man who gave him the top job, prime minister Nawaz Sharif, fatally misread and under-estimated him. General Musharraf was a turbulent and mischief-making head of the army, who refused to go along with his civilian boss’s attempts to mend fences with India. While Nawaz was grinning his way through border diplomacy with his Indian counterpart Atal Behari Vajpayee, Musharraf was plotting war, and bounced Pakistan into a wildly ambitious attempt to wrest possession of Indian Kashmir.
The Kargil mountain war in the summer of 1999, the first Indo-Pakistan conflict for 28 years, saw the two bitterly antagonistic nuclear-armed neighbours come to the brink of all-out war. It ended when the US forced Nawaz into a humiliating climb-down. It was the first of many demonstrations of Musharraf’s recklessness and lack of judgement.
The coup d’etat the same year that saw him drive Nawaz into exile and seize power came out of the blue, but few Pakistanis shed tears for the departure of their incompetent elected leader. Military power grabs have been so frequent in Pakistani history that there was neither surprise nor shock at this latest one. I covered it for The Independent and I recall the eerie quietness of Islamabad after the event, the streets empty both of soldiers and civilians and a sense almost of general relief that the other shoe had dropped.
What sort of man was Pakistan’s new generalissimo? The architect of the Kargil fiasco now tried to re-invent himself as a grinning, secular family man, Pakistan’s ‘Chief Executive’, photographed with his fragrant wife and the family lapdog at home, where it was widely rumoured that (like many upper-class Pakistanis) he was not at all averse to a drop of whisky. Pervez Musharraf once again demonstrated what a poor reader he was of his situation, creating an image that baffled and alienated devout Pakistanis while failing to win over the outside world, which refused to see him as anything but another Pakistani usurper.
Surrounded by flatterers and subordinates, Musharraf was already, it seems, dreaming of converting his brute military power into popular celebrity and a landslide election victory. It is a fantastic dream that has possessed him ever since. It is the infatuation of a man of extraordinary vanity.
In the mean time, however he found himself in a mine field, with India which hated and feared him on one side and Islamist militants growing ever more resentful on the other, as he tried to rein them in. When I interviewed him in June 2002 he had survived more than one assassination attempt and was said to be forced to remain in his small, well-guarded corner of Rawalpindi simply to stay alive. He denied it robustly. “That’s absolutely untrue,” he said, “I move in accordance with my plan of movement, in accordance with what I want to do…I keep going around here in ‘Pindi and Islamabad, I go and have a coffee in Marriott or PC [Pearl Continental Hotel]. I’m moving very comfortably around.” The idea that taking coffee in Islamabad’s poshest hotels was a way of rubbing shoulders with the real Pakistan shows what kind of a bubble the Pakistani elite inhabited, Musharraf included.
The terror attacks against the US in 2001 made Musharraf’s position exquisitely difficult, as he attempted to persuade President Bush that he was a reliable ally against al-Qaeda while hanging onto the loyalty of the military and the support of ordinary Pakistanis, many of whom were convinced that 9/11 was an Israeli plot. The only solution was to be very economical with the truth – by denying that Pakistani still supported the Taliban and promoted terrorist attacks in Indian Kashmir. Perhaps it was the smoothness with which he carried off such lies that convinced Musharraf that he was a natural-born democrat.
When the Supreme Court insisted in 2002 that elections must be held, Musharraf took off his uniform and attempted to re-make himself as a politician, wearing gleaming starched sherwani jackets and turbans and addressing thousands of bussed-in farmers at election rallies.
But although a party that supported him won the general election he called in October 2002, Musharraf has never enjoyed mass support: rallies in Islambad boosting his candidacy drew pitifully small crowds. Yet such was his vanity that the penny never dropped.
He served as President until 2007, then to hang on to power declared a state of emergency, sending troops into the Supreme Court to arrest the judges and seizing control of the mass media. But this latest manifestation of his attempt to have it both ways – to pose as a democrat until things went awry then to show the iron fist – was his undoing. In 2008 he was forced to stand down under threat of impeachment and went into exile in London.
His return to Pakistan last month in the hope of regaining the Presidency was the most Quixotic episode yet in his long and strange career. The idea that he might out-Benazir the Bhuttos in terms of popular support was deranged. “Musharraf evidently overestimated his popularity,” commented Raza Rumi, a political analyst. “There are certainly people in urban Pakistan who think that things were better under his tenure, but the majority do not find him a credible leader. He ruled on the strength of his uniform. Now that uniform has gone, and Pakistan has changed.” By humiliating and incarcerating Pakistan’s most senior judges Musharraf had made powerful enemies, and he lacked the mass support that might have enabled him to browbeat them into submission. At the age of 69, his swaggering days are done.
World View column in The Independent, 26 April 2013
China has long been serenely confident of its centrality, and this will be bolstered even further by the news that Stephen Schwarzman, an American billionaire, has set up a $300 million scholarship scheme for students from all over the world to study in the country.
The scheme will be based at Shanghai’s elite Tsinghua University, alma mater both of the new Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his predecessor. Designed to rival and perhaps eclipse the Rhodes Scholarships that sent the likes of Bill Clinton to Oxford, it will bring 200 students from around the world for a one-year master’s programme, all expenses paid.
But what might the Schwarzman Scholars actually learn? What does China, in its present mighty manifestation, have to teach us?
‘Uses of a redundant ideology’ would be one fascinating module. Besides Deng Xiaoping’s pithy “to get rich is glorious”, is there a more inflected explanation of how the class struggle culminated in the re-establishment of the Chinese bourgeoisie, this time around as the clients of the Communist Party? And if so, could it be taught in Shanghai without both teachers and students risking imprisonment?
Other items on the syllabus might include:
Managing minorities: the Chinese approach to Tibet seems to be closely based on how the Americans dealt with their Indians, but the American pioneers could at least claim that they were strangers in a strange land, and that some of the Redskins were armed and dangerous. The Tibetans and the Chinese, by contrast, have been neighbours for millennia, and while Tibetans did once, very long ago, invade Han China, Tibet was for several centuries a sort of guru country to China, the role it once played for Mongolia, too. Nor are Tibetans renowned for their aggression: the Chinese have difficulty persuading the outside world that self-immolation – more than 100 Tibetans have set themselves alight in the past four years – is a terrorist act.
China’s Tibet policy is pitiless, relentless and apparently unstoppable, so for any students wishing to acquire those attributes it would surely repay close study.
Futurism, Chinese-style: the Chinese have always taken a far longer view than the rest of us, thanks to extreme venerable age of their civilisation. So what do the modern Chinese sages see when they gaze into their crystal balls? Once they have dammed every river, covered the countryside with new cities and airports; once the one-child policy has borne its final fruit in a population where the aged vastly outnumber those of working age; and once the few, or few hundred million, young people that remain prefer swanning around Beijing’s chic Sanlitun Road in their Maseratis to assembling i-pads at Foxconn – then what? Where will China go from there?
Foreign policy: the point of foreign countries is to bring tribute to the central kingdom. If they don’t do that, they might as well not exist. That, in a nutshell, has long been China’s view of foreign affairs. The question everyone wants to know, from President Obama down, is whether, with the creation of a so-called “string of pearls” – a network of hospitable ports - in the Indian Ocean, with the on-going spats over the Spratly and Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and with the rapid expansion of the Chinese Navy, that ancient and largely passive posture is set to change. Everyone hopes not.
But undoubtedly the most useful lesson China has to teach is enshrined in the Schwarzman scholarship itself. It is said to represent one of the biggest single educational endowments in the world, and one of the biggest philanthropic gestures China has ever received. While Mr Schwarzman is giving $100 million of his own money, other big donors include Boeing, Caterpillar, the bulldozer people, JP Morgan Chase and Credit Suisse Banks, BP, and the personal foundation of Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York. The scholarship’s advisory board includes Henry Kissinger and the ubiquitous, if not-yet-knighted, Tony Blair.
None of these people or institutions is known for chucking money around carelessly. All have or desire a stake in China’s future, and know how to go about getting it. In the old days, excellent presents and the kow-tow were required to obtain the Emperor’s attention. Today $300 million will probably suffice.
Terrible news from Italy: that old fox Berlusconi has done it again. He may have failed to get elected either as President or Pope, but the deal stitched up this week between his party and the centre-left Democratic Party ensures that he will continue to bulk large in Italian politics, at least for as long as the new government survives. He will be there, as he has been ever since his debut in 1994, to protect his and his family’s and his companies’ interests, and those of the tax-dodging, state-hating business world in general, and to continue his long and remarkably successful campaign to stay out of jail.
He will also be better poised than ever to quietly and charmingly eviscerate what remains of Italian social democracy, which he calls Communism. Cutting deals with Berlusconi has been the fatal temptation of the left for 15 years and more; Massimo D’Alema was the first to succumb, flunking the opportunity to pass a conflict-of-interest law as the price of his friendship with the Cavalier. It will be argued that Italy’s gaping governmental vacuum had to be filled with something. But never have comedian Beppe Grillo’s warnings about the stink of corruption from the ancien regime seemed more apposite.
published in The Independent, Monday 22 April 2013
The anti-Rohingya violence in Burma last October was not a spontaneous eruption of communal rage but a carefully planned and coordinated assault, involving Buddhist monks, Burmese security forces, Arakan nationalists and the general public, according to a major report released today by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The report, which entailed interviews with more than 100 people on both sides and visits to all the major camps where displaced Muslims are living, concludes that there was compelling evidence of official involvement. “The absence of accountability against those to blame lends credence to allegations that this was a government-appointed campaign of ethnic cleansing in which crimes against humanity were committed,” the authors write.
This week the European Union is due to eliminate all the trade and economic sanctions on Burma – except the arms embargo – which were suspended one year ago. But in light of the report’s findings, David Mepham of HRW in London told The Independent, “Lifting all the sanctions on Burma is premature and unjustified. European governments are relinquishing their leverage over Burma when concerted pressure is most needed to investigate anti-Muslim violence and crimes against humanity.”
The spark for the violence in the far west of Burma last June was the rape and murder of a 28-year-old Arakanese Buddhist woman by three Muslims. Tensions between Buddhists and Muslims that have simmered and periodically erupted for generations quickly exploded in an orgy of violence in which lives and homes on both sides were destroyed.
But when violence returned in October 2012, it was in the form of simultaneous attacks on Muslim communities in nine of Arakan’s 21 townships. “On 22 October,” says the report, entitled “All You Can Do Is Pray”, “after months of meetings and public statements promoting ethnic cleansing, Arakanese mobs attacked Muslim communities in nine townships, razing villages and killing residents while security forces stood aside or assisted the assailants. Some of the dead were buried in mass graves, further impeding accountability.”
In July President Thein Sein, the former general who was building a reputation as a democratically-minded reformer, had appeared to approve the plan to expel Rohingyas from Burma. “We will take care of our own nationalities,” he said, “but Rohingyas who came to Burma illegally are not of our nationalities and we cannot accept them here…They can be settled in refugee camps…If there are countries that would accept them, they could be sent there.” That proposal was echoed in crude pamphlets distributed in the state. Once of them was baldly headed, “Arakan Ethnic Cleansing Program of bad pagan Bengalis…taking advantage of our kindness to them.”
HRW documents other attempts during the summer of 2012 to inflame the fear and hatred of the majority community against the Muslim minority, while security forces demolished mosques and homes abandoned during the June violence, making the return of the Muslims to the areas where they had previously lived problematic.
Then on 22 October came the coordinated assault. “Carrying machetes, swords, spears, home-made guns, Molotov cocktails and other weapons, sizeable groups of Arakanese men simultaneously descended on Muslim villages in several townships in a coordinated fashion,” the report describes. “Far from being a brief flash of violence, the carnage lasted over a week in nine of the state’s 17 townships….Most of these areas had not experienced violence in June.”
In perhaps the worst case, in Yan Thei village in the township of Mrauk-u, Arakan’s historic capital, the day-long massacre led to the deaths of 70 Rohingyas of whom 28 were children, 13 of them under the age of five.
The upshot of the violence today is that, with the rainy season about to descend, around 120,000 Rohingyas are living in hastily improvised camps around the state, barred from returning to their homes or to go anywhere else. Many of the most desperate have fled: the United Nations refugee agency estimates that some 13,000 people, including Rohingyas and Bangladeshi nationals, took to the Bay of Bengal in flimsy boats during 2012.
After October’s murderous attacks, President Thein Sein softened his rhetoric. In a letter to the UN Secretary-General last November he promised that “once emotions subside on all sides” his government was prepared to “address contentious political dimensions ranging from resettling of displaced populations to granting of citizenship.” But suspicion that this more emollient tone was aimed at the ears of President Obama on the eve of his historic visit to Burma in November were heightened when the Foreign Ministry released a tough statement the following month, referring to them as “so-called Rohingyas” and “Bengalis” and denying that the government had played any part in the attacks on them.
INSIDE ARAKAN STATE: comment by Peter Popham
Sittwe, the capital of Arakan state, is little more than a sleepy, dusty, overgrown village. Time appears to have stopped not long after the British left in 1948. Opposite the town’s golden zeydi, its Buddhist stupa, are the green-painted ruins of a mosque, but today there are few other obvious signs of last year’s violence. The great bulk of the town’s Muslim population has been banished to the outskirts: a long line of fishermen’s shacks, succeeded by a sprawling camp where 7,000 men, women and children live under canvas. Army roadblocks hem them in, but a bazaar has sprung up selling provisions of every sort. Life in the camp is basic, but the population is not being starved.
Seen from afar, the violence in Arakan was shocking and incomprehensible. Up close it remains shocking, but one begins to understand what lay behind it.
As in other border areas, there is longstanding resentment at the dominant position of Burma’s largest ethnic group, the Burmans. The Arakanese nationalists who now control the state parliament look back nostalgically to the years before 1824 when the Burmans conquered the state, and dream of independence. During the half-century of military rule, the generals knew they were hated, and deliberately kept Arakan in a primitive state of development in response. Meanwhile the population of impoverished Rohingyas, many of whom came in during the British time, grew rapidly, threatening the numerical superiority of the Buddhists.
This was the local variant of the game the junta played on other borders, keeping estranged local populations poor, anxious and paranoid about the future and the military’s intentions. Elsewhere the result was bitter civil war; here it was the twin fears, as one local nationalist put it to me, of Burmanisation and Islamisation, which resulted in frequent attacks on the Rohingyas over the years. In 1977 200,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh; repulsed there, 12,000 of them starved to death.
Last year’s violence was particularly widespread and atrocious because Arakan state, like the rest of Burma, is at a very challenging moment. 2010’s elections put 45 Arakanese nationalists in the state parliament, and the lifting of censorship allows them to publish any vile propaganda they choose, whipping up the chauvinistic feelings of a badly educated majority population which is just as poor as it was under military rule. With 2015’s general elections in view, the local nationalists and the military’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), are in a race to the bottom to harness local chauvinistic emotion. The startling rise of militant Islam in neighbouring Bangladesh, with which Arakan shares a long border, only heightens the mood of paranoid hysteria, making it easier to stigmatise local Muslims as “terrorists”. The Rohingya, as ever, are the fall guys.
The West needs to maintain pressure on Thein Sein to reject chauvinism and seek an inclusive solution. But his vice-president Sai Mauk Kham probably hit the nail on the head when he said, “Only when the socio-economic life of both sides [has] improved can the two societies stay together.”
by Peter Popham in Meiktila
IN A wilderness of scorched rubble, twisted corrugated iron and smashed pots, the woman with wilted jasmine flowers in her hair was trying to locate what was left of her life.
Two years after Burma began its trek towards democracy, one year after Aung San Suu Kyi’s by-election triumph, Ma Khin Aye, 48, lost her home and all her possessions when a fanatical anti-Muslim mob – including Buddhist neighbours with whom she had been friendly for years – set it on fire along with all the others in the block. Armed with sticks and iron bars they then stood in a line in the street, threatening to murder the terrified residents as they fled.
She escaped the flames with her aged mother, who was almost comatose with shock, she braved the mob, got her mother onto the back of a scooter and took her to hospital. Now, one week later, she had come back to the ruins, rooting through the rubble to see if anything could be salvaged. While she did so, youths were brazenly looting the neighbourhood of anything of value that remained, loading up with metal buckets, wheel hubs and other saleable scraps. Meiktila has been under army lockdown for a week, but neither soldiers nor police were there to stop them. When my translator asked if we could talk to her, a Buddhist woman of the neighbourhood came up and screamed that we were only interested in one side of the story.
“I have no enemies, I have been living here for a long time,” Ma Khin Aye, an unmarried woman who sells toys in a local market, told us in the shelter of our car. “Our communities have always been friendly: nothing like this has ever happened. At Thingyan [Burmese New Year] they would invite us into their homes, we would invite them into ours for Eid.” Who started the attacks? “Some of them were strangers – but when they wanted to find the homes of the ‘kalar’ [Muslims], it was local people who brought them here. They stood there with sticks, shouting, ‘Come out, kalar, and we will kill you…’”
The anti-Muslim violence took at least 43 lives in Meiktila, central Burma, and left thousands homeless. It raged for days and was only quelled when the President declared an emergency and sent in the army. And it is not over yet: unlike the anti-Muslim eruptions last year in Arakan state, on the border with Bangladesh, where hostility has been simmering for decades, the Meiktila attacks came out of nowhere. And when the army stamped them out, Muslim communities in fifteen towns and villages to the south came under attack, with mosques and homes demolished.
Then on Monday night the flames arrived in Rangoon: 15 children and youths died from smoke inhalation when the madrassa where they were boarding students caught fire. The government was quick to say it was an accident, blaming an overheating transformer, but Muslims I spoke to, including a leading politician, claimed it was a deliberate attack, pointing to evidence of petrol burns inside the building. And the following night it almost happened again: five men were apprehended carrying petrol cans into a mosque near the city centre. A group of Buddhist monks spotted them before they could do any damage, and arrested two.
It is just two years since Thein Sein, a former General, became Burma’s first civilian president for decades and began rushing through reforms. The progress since then has been exhilarating, with the country suddenly on the move again. But the anti-Muslim wave has suddenly thrown all that into question. The tension is palpable.
One theory is that the riots are simply due to the sudden release of the Burmese from 50 years of authoritarian rule: destructive urges held in check all these years are being given vent. But as Kyaw Zwa Moe, Editor of the Irrawaddy news website points out, religious riots also occurred under military rule. “In past decades, many Burmese people believed rulers of the Socialist and military regimes used religious tension as a political weapon to distract the public from anti-government movements,” he wrote. “When opposition protests took place, religious riots often occurred as well, and many were convinced this was no simple coincidence. Today, with the Meiktila violence, people are coming to the same conclusion.”
The one certainty about Meiktila is that it was instigated by outsiders. Everyone I spoke to in the town, including members of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and citizens from the majority community who lost their homes, made the same point: it was “travellers”, “strangers” or “outsiders” who led the attacks. It’s disturbing enough that ordinary citizens were so easily prompted to attack their neighbours’ homes. But the opaqueness of the inspiration for the attacks causes darker fears.
There is no doubt that Theravada Buddhism has the potential to incubate chauvinistic feelings: in Sri Lanka, whose variant of Buddhism is very similar, some of the most vehement anti-Tamils are Buddhist monks. In Burma, a movement known as ‘969’, urging Buddhists to shun Muslim shops and businesses, has gained momentum in recent months. But the monk who heads the movement, known as Wirathu, denies blame. “We’ve just become scapegoats because no culprits were found after the Meiktila riots,” he said. “Within our circle, 969 is not violent.”
What seems most likely is that, as under military rule, religious hatreds are being manipulated for political ends. Although Thein Sein was handpicked for President by former army strongman Senior General Than Shwe, the speed of his reforms is said to have left some of his old army colleagues aghast. In contrast to the general election of 2010, which was blatantly rigged, the by-elections one year ago that brought Suu Kyi and more than 40 of her NLD colleagues into parliament were free and fair. The old soldiers who run Thein Sein’s party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), fear that the NLD will win the next general election, due in 2015, with a landslide, and that their party will be wiped out.
Under the 2008 constitution, the military holds one quarter of seats in parliament – but two weeks ago Thein Sein gave his approval to a move to modify the constitution. Even the military’s grip on Parliament may be weakening.
For those accustomed to the Army running Burma like their own private concern, these are challenging times. The sense is growing that Thein Sein’s reforms are close to the tipping point. Soon there will be no going back. The days of army tyranny will be no more than a memory.
Last week, President Thein Sein went on state television to appeal for an end to the unrest. “We must expect these conflicts and difficulties to arise during our period of democratic transition,” he said. “…We must rise above sixty years of historical bitterness, confrontational approaches, and a zero-sum attitude in solving our differences. I want to call on all citizens to rise above these previous erroneous methods.”
He also threatened to send in the army again if the unrest recurs. “I will not hesitate to use force as a last resort to protect the lives and safeguard the property of the general public,” he warned.
But Thein Sein’s reforms are based on the assumption that the Burmese have the potential to co-exist peacefully and chart a common future. If the attacks in Rangoon’s tight-packed, boiling hot, multi-ethnic streets were to get out of hand, it would be an invitation to the army to stage a coup – “to save the nation”. And Burma would be back in the deep freeze.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace laureate and heroine of Burma’s democracy struggle, came to her father’s home town last week to open a new school.
Fifteen years of house arrest have left no visible mark on her: 67 now, she would pass for 20 years younger. As slim and elegant as ever, she wore a traditional cream Burmese outfit, two strings of pearls and pearl earrings. The red and white flowers in her hair wilted somewhat in the heat, but she herself, as pale as her blouse, was glassily composed.
Once she had snipped the ribbon, she was ferried to a stage at the far end of the school’s soccer ground and made a speech. Nothing new here, either: she has given hundreds, perhaps thousands of speeches since her launch back in 1988. What was different was the crowd, and the response.
At any point between her barnstorming tours in 1989 and her stump by-election speeches one year ago, Suu Kyi would draw thousands and thousands – sometimes hundreds of thousands – of passionate supporters. They would wait for hours in the full heat of the tropical sun for her. When she cracked jokes they all roared. When she chided them for chatting or asked them to sit down, they did as they were bid. Ma Suu, Mother Suu, the Lady, carried all before her.
Not so last Thursday. She herself was unchanged, improvising effortlessly as usual, talking of her famous father’s great achievements in winning Burma’s independence from British rule, urging the children in the crowd to emulate him. But the crowd numbered no more than 500. They were there because she was famous – still the most famous personality in Burma. But where was the voltage, the sense of anticipation, the excitement? The mood was tepid, the applause dutiful. She went her way in a convoy of party SUVs in a cloud of dust.
There can be few things tougher than sitting out year after year of detention, with no idea of when it will end. But Suu Kyi has discovered that real politics is an altogether more slippery challenge.
One year ago today [1 April], Suu Kyi won a landslide victory in the election for Kawhmu, a poor township south of Rangoon, Burma’s commercial capital. Five months before, on her first visit to the country, then Secretary of State Clinton had warned her that politics was a different game from activism. How right she was.
The Member of Parliament for Kawhmu now spends much of the year in Burma’s gigantic new capital, Naypyitaw, where her home is a nondescript grey cement bungalow, number 6332 Rose Valley, in an estate of other identical homes. Now for the first time she has official status in the country, and travels abroad without fear of being barred from returning – but the demands of politics have robbed her of her distinctive voice.
In the past year Burma has seen repeated murderous attacks by Buddhists, the majority population, on the Muslim minority. It has seen renewed hostilities by the army against an ethnic minority in the far north, the Kachin, including aerial bombardment for the first time. It has seen villagers and monks who protested against a polluting, Chinese-owned copper mine hospitalised after heavy-handed policing. Further attacks on Muslims have occurred in the past two weeks, with more than 40 dead.
As a worldwide symbol of the struggle for human rights, there has been hope and indeed expectation that Suu Kyi would speak out on any or all of these issues, to play the role of moral guide and teacher which she fulfilled so admirably inbetween her bouts of detention. Instead there has been an uncomfortable silence.
Suu Kyi herself has refused all media requests for months, so we cannot ask her why she has fallen silent. The most likely explanation is that, intent on winning election as President in 2015, she is taking care not to alienate the mass of voters – overwhelmingly Buddhists, and of her own Burman ethnicity – on whose support she will depend.
In the mean time she is taking care not to fall out with the ex-generals and serving soldiers by whom she is surrounded in parliament. Burma’s transition from military tyranny to democracy is only half accomplished. She needs these still powerful men to be sure that they can trust her if she herself obtains power. That may be why she was photographed last week sitting next to the head of the Burmese army at the annual Armed Forces Day parade – a photo op that enraged many of those who used to idolise her.
Yet it is too soon to conclude that Suu Kyi has betrayed her cause. Her role in the struggle over the copper mine suggests she is playing a long game.
After the protest was crushed, she visited the victims in hospital. Then, when President Thein Sein asked her to head a commission of inquiry into the mine, she agreed.
Last month the commission delivered its report – in fact she herself brought it to the protesters’ village to explain it to them directly. Her report said the copper mine should stay, but locals should be better compensated, and environmental controls should be tougher.
At the village meeting, reaction to the report was furious: Suu Kyi was photographed in heated arguments with protesters who felt she had betrayed them. Her standing in the world rankings for right-on activists took yet another dive.
But clearly Suu Kyi is not interested in those rankings. She is more interested in getting her people to understand what is possible and what is not possible. Burma needs to exploit its resources – responsibly. The people have to understand that, including the people directly affected. That was her lesson – an unpleasant one. It was bitter medicine to swallow.
But swallow it they did. When this reporter visited the village last week, he was shown a letter that had just been drafted by the heads of the villages affected by the mine, addressed to the authorities, endorsing Suu Kyi’s proposals. Aung Zaw Oo, a former local headman, told me, “Our first desire is for the mine to close. But if that is not possible, we accept Aung San Suu Kyi’s report as a basis for dialogue.”
It was one small victory on a long, hard road.
A paperback edition of The Lady and the Peacock: the Life of Aung San Suu Kyi by Peter Popham is published in the US this month from The Experiment.
World View: The Independent, 28 March 2013:
Burma’s biggest city is spooked this week: many in Rangoon, a hot, sprawling, messy, splendid melting-pot of a city, fear that the contagion of communal violence which killed dozens in the central Burmese town of Meiktila last weekend is heading their way.
The Meiktila massacre prompted headlines around the world, and condemnation by the US and British governments and others. Less noticed is the fact that, while the Burmese army eventually stamped out the problem there, it has already popped up in three other towns closer to Rangoon, with mosques reportedly bulldozed to the ground in what appeared to be well-planned assaults. The mayhem seems to be heading our way, hopping towards the nation’s biggest and most important city via the hills around Pegu, traditional holdout of bandits and insurgents.
Downtown Rangoon is as multi-cultural and multi-ethnic as you would expect of a post-colonial port city, with Hindus, Muslims and Christians from the Indian sub-continent sharing the tight-packed streets with Burmese Buddhists and Chinese and many who are mixtures. But the fear – once again directed specifically at Muslims by members of the majority community – is palpable. Rumours of imminent attacks have prompted many Muslim shopkeepers to pull down their shutters.
A top young media executive here poo-poohed the idea that Rangoon could go the way of Meiktila. We’re far too inter-mixed here he assured me, we know how to get along with each other, we’ve been in each other’s laps for generations. I told him that when I was in Sarajevo in late 1991 people told me exactly the same thing. Six months later the city was engulfed by civil war.
The situations are not wildly different. Like Yugoslavia then, Burma is in a moment of violent flux, and the elite that has exercised hegemonic control, Milosevic and his Communist Serbs there, the Burman-dominated armed forces here, risks losing it all in the convulsions of change. So they try to fix the game, they play dirty, they work on the nastiest, chauvinistic fears and instincts of their own people, inflaming their hatred of communities traditionally considered the Other – Muslims in both cases.
One reason to hope for a better outcome in Burma is that President Thein Sein, though himself a former general, gives every indication of having a calm, wise head on his shoulders: most things positive that have happened here in the past two years are traceable back to him. It’s been a remarkable and totally unexpected performance. Though there is every likelihood that his party will be supplanted by the National League for Democracy in the general elections of 2015, the idea that, having pushed through so many important reforms, he would now conspire to bring the roof down on them, doesn’t make any sense.
Other generals, some of them very powerful not long ago, are another matter – and the subject of noisy rumours. But there is another factor which in my view makes a violent implosion unlikely. Yugoslavia in the early ‘90s was a basket case. Burma by contrast is clearly on the cusp of an economic boom. One gets the strong sense that many powerful people – some of them far from savoury – are expecting to get extremely rich here in the next few years. These former junta cronies and their like have no wish to see their plans go up in smoke.
But the fact that Burma, having opened up so significantly in the past two years, is now witnessing such shocking communal violence, is a reminder that nation building is a delicate task, and the prospects of success depend a lot on how clever and lucky you are at breaking with old habits. Communal tensions seethed behind the respectable façade of Tito’s Yugoslavia, masked by communist rhetoric. The Burmese army played the communal card over and over again to distract the people from their appalling standards of governance, driving home their vision of a state permanently dominated by Burmans and Buddhists.
However good your intentions, any Buddhist will tell you that you cannot dodge your karma. All actions have consequences. Neither democracy nor prosperity wields a magic wand, and bad rulers throw very long shadows.
For people like me whose memories go back a long way, it is strange to see Kim Jong-un’s threats to fire nuclear-armed missiles at the US cause barely a stir. Barely out of short trousers, I remember listening wide-eyed with alarm as news of the Cuban missile crisis came in. While nuclear weapons are more widely distributed than ever, the acute fear they generated back then seems to have gone away. I’m not sure this is a good thing.
And although North Korea is a pathetic little state, its links to the Cold War compulsions of nuclear threat and counter-threat run deep. It was born in the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Americans itched to use the bomb to end the Korean war – creating Kim Il-Sung’s hunger to possess it himself. And in a way he was right – without the bomb and the blackmail it enables, the Kims would already have gone the way of Ceausescu.
Kim Jong-un’s threats must be taken seriously: in his desperate folly he might go so far as to push the button. Somebody needs to get to him soon. As both his wife and the wife of China’s President Xi are famous singers, I wonder if some backstairs songbird diplomacy might be the best place to start?
Sir Geoffrey Hill New Statesman 7 Dec 12
It was in Afghanistan nearly eleven years ago that Geoffrey Hill came back to me. The war was the biggest story in the world: I was the Independent’s South Asia correspondent, and as the Taliban fled Kabul I filed seven days a week. Meanwhile colleagues were dropping like flies – four killed coming down with the Northern Alliance, a personal friend and three others butchered on the road from Jallalabad. And all this among the untended debris of former wars, the blocks of buildings so shattered and hollowed by bombs and mortars that only their crippled skeletons remained. Everything – the treeless hills, the hovels in which people lived, the smashed-up university, the ubiquitous weapons – compounded the impression of a land degraded and debased by centuries of abuse by mischievous foreigners. And here we were, glad forward party for the next lot.
In all my years out of England I had never been homesick but now I got it bad. And nostalgia attacked me in an odd way – peppering my brain with snippets of half-remembered verse by the poet who, with blazing eyes, had lectured us on Shakespeare when I was an undergraduate at the University of Leeds.
Autumn resumes the land, ruffles the woods/with smoky wings, entangles them. Trees shine/out from their leaves, rocks mildew to moss-green;/ the avenues are spread with brittle floods.
Platonic England, house of solitudes,/rests in its laurels and its injured stone,/replete with complex fortunes that are gone,/beset by dynasties of moods and clouds… [from ‘The Laurel Axe’]
Never had poems brought such balm, balm and longing combined. I discovered that I was desperate to get out, to get home, and the desire stood before me in the form of Hill’s words:
November rips gold foil from the oak ridges…/The tributaries of the Sheaf and Don/ bulge their dull spate, cramming the poor bridges… [from Damon’s Lament for his Clorinda, Yorkshire 1654]
Fast forward ten years. My 18-year-old son is trying to interest me in Game of Thrones. He has read all the doorstopper novels and watched the television adaptations and is evangelical about how good they are.
Slowly I find I’m getting hooked. In this medieval fantasy world, parts of which strongly resemble northern England, everyone is closer to the edge than we, 60 years into the great EU Peace, will ever understand. Torture and death are just around the corner; honour, courage and loyalty face the sternest tests.
Then, with the harrowing public execution, in sight of his young daughters, of the good Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, as sturdy a northerner as ever strode through the Dales, I was back with a jolt in the world of Geoffrey Hill:
Processionals in the exemplary cave/Benediction of shadows. Pomfret, London./The voice fragrant with mannered humility,/With an equable contempt for this world,/‘In honorem Trinitatis’. Crash. The head/Struck down into a meaty conduit of blood… [from Funeral Music]
Hill sings peerlessly of England but it’s never just “immaculate music”, as it has been called. Terrible things happened in our green land, too, things we are ever more brilliant at forgetting – “a nation with so many memorials” as he writes in The Triumph of Love, “but no memory”.
Game of Thrones is only an elaborate fantasy, but it plays cutely on those notes of pain, guilt, doubt and dread of which Hill is master. And his vocation is to make us see that we don’t escape the nightmares of our history simply by surviving and forgetting them: we trample the earth where these things happened, our mouths are filled with the words that justified and consecrated them.
“A field/After battle utters its own sound/Which is like nothing on earth, but is earth” he writes in Funeral Music of the Battle of Towton (1461), known as the bloodiest battle in Engish history. “Blindly the questing snail, vulnerable mole emerge, blindly we lie down, blindly among carnage the most delicate souls/Tup in their marriage-blood, gasping ‘Jesus’.”
This month [Oct] Hill returned to Leeds and gave a reading, to mark both his 80th birthday and the gift of his archive to the university library. The poet who wrote and published so little 40 years ago has been replaced, rather wonderfully, by an old poet of stunning fluency. “I used to write seven poems a year,” he boasted, “now I write seven poems a week.” Lack of time is one reason: “In the past I would wait 20 years for a line,” he said. “I can’t do that any more.”
For decades scholars have been describing Hill as the best living British poet, so it is strange how few people seem to know his work. The standard explanation for this is that he is difficult; being difficult, his harshest critics go on to call him an elitist and hence, in an ugly leap which usually involves dragging in Ezra Pound, a bit of a fascist. Attacks of this sort have built a firewall between the poet and his potential readership.
This is a pity. If a wider readership were merely missing out on some colossal old bore, the ‘elitism’ stigmata wouldn’t matter. But Hill is a wonderful poet, unsurpassed in his earlier years for his lyric gift, and ever richer, funnier, denser, more acerbic in the volumes that have flooded from his pen recently.
The ‘elitism’ argument is a tragic hangover from the age when our national culture was under the sway of a sort of prescriptive populism, a condescending compulsion that produced the New English Bible and figures like Philip Larkin, whose reactionary politics went hand in hand with an insistence on being instantaneously understandable to everybody.
But why should we demand to understand poems at a single sitting, as if poetry were under the jurisdiction of the Plain English Campaign? We think nothing of exerting ourselves to learn a language or master a new software programme – why should it be regarded as anachronistic to demand a fraction of such effort to understand a poem? If a poet has something to teach, poetry lovers should be prepared to make the effort to learn.
Hill has never worn his politics on his sleeve, but he is clear about the dangers of deliberate simplification, quoting the dictum that “tyrants always want a language and a literature that is easily understood.” “Tyranny requires simplification,” he maintains. “Genuinely difficult art is truly democratic.”
All of which is to erect another discouraging firewall between Geoffrey Hill and a wider audience. But in an age when a little light research is as easy as saying ‘Google’, when a book-length annotation of Hill’s most difficult (and amazing) long poem “Speech! Speech” is available for nothing on the Internet, we really have no excuse for not diving into this amazing man’s oeuvre.
This week President Obama became the first serving US president to set foot in Burma. But did he come too soon?
Obama comes to Burma: published in The Daily Beast, 19 November 2012
Aung San Suu Kyi was an author before she became a politician and yesterday, on what many would describe as the crowning moment of her amazing career to date, she produced a powerful image of the peril Burma might now face, just as hopes of democratic transformation are approaching a crescendo. “The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight,” she told journalists, standing alongside President Obama in the garden of her villa. “We have to be very careful that we are not lured by the mirage of success.”
Was this a quiet rebuke to the President? A way of hinting that perhaps Mr Obama himself had been fooled by the pace of Burmese change? We know that she was less than enthusiastic when the idea of his visit was first mooted. But the fact that her doubts were ignored or over-ruled is confirmation of what we first saw signs of six months ago, with the rolling back of US sanctions on the country: Suu Kyi and Obama are no longer on exactly the same page.
Their body language in Rangoon gave every evidence of affection as well as respect; at one point they looked a little like Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in the Gone with the Wind poster. The contrast with the photos of President Obama with Burma’s President Thein Sein, the latter extending his hand like a soiled dishrag, could not have been starker. But now the world knows what Aung San Suu Kyi has known for many months: her interests – the interests of the Burmese masses – and the interests of their most powerful ally no longer coincide.
For the Americans, this quick-in, quick-out Burma spur to the President’s South-East Asia trip had so much in its favour. Coming right after his election triumph, it drove home the sagacity of his decision to engage with Burma way back in 2008 when there seemed little or nothing to be gained from it. Coming before his arrival at the East Asia summit in Phnom Penh, it helped to remind his Cambodian host Hun Sen of how far the latter has fallen short in the democracy stakes. Equally, it constituted an amiable shot across the bows of the Chinese leaders he will shortly be meeting in that city, a reminder that the Obama “pivot” to this part of the world is here to stay. Then there are the more obvious gains of the trip, the reminder that, with sanctions gone or going, this resource-rich, cheap labour country is now open for American business.
But that’s exactly where Suu Kyi’s doubts must be concentrated. After all, the sweat shops of repressive Cambodia and communist-ruled Vietnam are booming: an Asian country needs only to be levered open an inch or two for that sort of business to pour in, and all too often it’s a race to the bottom in terms of labour costs and conditions.
When Aung San Suu Kyi is President of the country, of course, she will be free to change all that; but that “when” is a hostage to fortune. The general election that brought Thein Sein to power exactly two years ago was monstrously rigged; the hope is that the next one, in 2015, will be run as decently as were the by-elections of April this year that put Suu into parliament – but that’s only a hope. And even if the 2015 election is fair, any successor government to the present one will be hamstrung by the allotment of one-quarter of parliamentary seats to soldiers, and the sweeping powers, under the present, iniquitous constitution, of the military council to declare emergencies and seize power again at will.
The revolution, in other words, is only half made: the key element – reforming the constitution – has barely begun. In addition, there is no end in sight to either the ugly civil war in Kachin state, in the far north, or the persecution of the Muslim Rohingyas in the far west. If Mr Obama is serious about Burma having the true lineaments of a democracy, and not merely the label, he needs to start listening to his Burmese friend again.