In my second recent visit to Burma, I went up to Mandalay—its second largest city. We decided not to fly in order to experience the landscape, people and living conditions while driving along the road from Rangoon.
I missed Mandalay—its pagodas, the walled city with its beautiful moat, the horse carts and famous Zecho market, as well as its friendly people and hill-tribes who venture down from the Shan plateau. When I was young, my family would sometimes travel upcountry to meet relatives in Sagaing, Mandalay and Mogoke.
Burma’s King Mindon built Mandalay from the ground up in 1859 when he moved his capital to this new settlement at the foot of its namesake hill from the old stronghold of Amarapura.
The reason behind the relocation was tactical from a military perspective, but the proud king never admitted this publicly. The old capital was on the Irrawaddy River and exposed to foreign invasion if colonialist gunboats arrived. By this time, the British had already occupied Lower Burma.
Mindon was a “reform-minded” monarch—he built modern factories, sent young Burmese scholars to study in Europe and even developed a national Morse Code. The king also dispatched ambassadors to establish diplomatic relations and sign agreements of amity with his neighbors and powerful Western nations.
He published the first newspaper and introduced what became considered one of the most enlightened media laws in Southeast Asia. The king famously once said, “If I do wrong, write about me. If the queens do wrong, write about them. If my sons and my daughters do wrong, write about them. If the judges and mayors do wrong, write about them. No one shall take action against the journals for writing the truth. They shall go in and out of the palace freely.”
The king and his court subscribed and read newspapers published in Lower Burma, then under British control, and were quite sensitive to criticism. When the Rangoon Gazette reported the poor state of roads in Mandalay, Mindon’s seat of power, its ministers immediately ordered their repair.
However, despite the king’s embrace of a free media, criticism of palace scandals in the royal court of Mandalay never made its way into the Yadanabon Naypyidaw—launched with Mindon’s blessing in March 1875.
Mandalay was full of rich stories including the brutal palace coup, which saw Prince Thibaw ascended to the throne in 1878 after Mindon’s death.
According to the history books, Thibaw and his powerful Queen Suphayalat seized power by killing their rivals—including several princes and princesses plus other close relatives. Under these Burmese monarchs, the lifespan of the new capital lasted only 26 years.
Under the British, Mandalay saw a new life—Thibaw was to spend the rest of his days in exile. Ministers who served under the king retired or became advisors to their new foreign bosses. Loyal soldiers went to the jungle to begin the rebellion against colonial rule.
It was no longer Burma’s Naypyidaw (abode of kings) but rather a small, upcountry town where the British renamed the walled inner city surrounded by moats as Fort Dufferin. Burma’s capital now moved to Rangoon.
The British, like in Rangoon, even introduced a six-mile-long tram service. This was very popular with the residents of Mandalay as it offered clean and efficient transportation. But when nationalist fever hit the country in the early 1900s, local trishaw drivers targeted the tram and the service finally went bankrupt.
Mandalay also hosted many prominent figures such as Burma’s literary guru and respected “peace laureate” Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, who was studying in the city during the fall of the Thibaw dynasty.
There were also many left-wing writers, the respected journalists Ludu U Hla and Ludu Daw Amar, U Razak, a headmaster who became a government minister and was assassinated along with independence hero Gen Aung San, and renowned British author George Orwell who produced Burmese Days based on his experiences as a police officer in the 1920s.
During World War II, Mandalay suffered heavily from Japanese bombing. Gen Slim, head of the British 14th Army, retook the city in 1945 after Allied forces crossed the India-Burma border and seized the garrison town of Meikhtila before encircling historic Mandalay.
Historian Thant Myint-U wrote in his 2011 book Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia that, “The 14th Army was a combined force of British, Indian, Gurkha and African troops—the African troops included Idi Armin, the future tyrant of Uganda, as well as a grandfather of the future US President Barack Obama.
“The Allied air forces pummeled the Japanese while three divisions of the 14th Army encircled Mandalay and then fought street-to-street, the now desperate Japanese snipers aiming straight for the heads of British officers.”
After Burma regained its independence from the British, Mandalay was rebuilt but it never again regained its former prominence.
As under the British, Burmese troops remain stationed at the palace and Mindon’s walled city. I remember visiting the palace in the 1980s and seeing soldiers around the dilapidated buildings and lake where kings and queens would once rest and play. Nothing has been done to restore the palace and Burma’s past glory—not even to promote the attraction to tourists.
The dictator Gen Ne Win made frequent visits to Upper Burma and would stop in Mandalay to spend time in the palace. Aside from meeting military commanders and local officials, he would also invite prominent intellectuals to meet him in the city. They included one young editor called Win Tin, now a senior member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, who then published the region’s Hanthawaddy newspaper.
I wanted to capture Ne Win’s thoughts at Mandalay Palace. He was one of the independence heroes who fought against the British and Japanese, but is better remembered these days for his cocktail political system “The Burmese way to Socialism”—a mixture of Marxism and Buddhism—which proved disastrous for the nation.
Ne Win himself became a deeply unpopular leader and feudal warlord. He was superstitious, paranoid, believed in numerology and eventually became extremely secluded—not trusting anyone and shutting the door on the outside world.
Ne Win’s legacy in modern Burmese history is as a tyrant. An army officer told me that he once had to fix the air conditioner in Ne Win’s room in Mandalay Palace as the general was having trouble sleeping. The noise from the unit bothered Ne Win so much that he abused his officers and walked out. Troops were put on alert and army technicians were immediately called to fix the air conditioner so that the dictator could finally doze off.
But Mandalay has a history of being alert and politically aware. I remember that during the 1988 uprising in Rangoon, students immediately looked to their counterparts in Mandalay to join in. Although Mandalay was at first unhurried, sleepy and disconnected, they finally came through. It was a full-blown uprising—residents and monks in Mandalay showed their courage and defiance. Ne Win left power in disgrace that July.
But this was not good news either. Ne Win’s subordinates were just as tough, shortsighted and oppressive—lacking governance skills and boasting an alarming culture of brutality.
Some of the generals who came to power saw Mandalay as a useful tool to promote nationalism and oppose the foreign imperialists. They decided to rebuild the old palace—much to the dismay of historians—and over a few years many historic buildings were restored in concrete with thousands of civilians and prisoners forced to contribute labor to beautify “Golden Myanmar” by restoring Mandalay’s iconic moat and walls.
But Mandalay was rebellious—in the early 1990s monks defied the generals and refused to receive alms from those in the Burmese armed forces. The furious military hierarchy ordered a raid on more than 130 monasteries in the city and many clergymen were defrocked and imprisoned.
I see Mandalay with nostalgia—a city that could easily recall old spirits and ghosts to share stories of the past. There are many tales to be told for those that scrape beneath the surface. But times are moving forward and great change is afoot.
When we checked into a small hotel in downtown, I saw a sign promoting tourism written in both Burmese and Mandarin. There were several Chinese visitors sitting in the lobby, and I noticed that the girls at reception spoke Chinese as well as their native tongue.
Later I met the Burmese writer Nyi Pu Lay, the son of Ludu U Hla and Daw Amar, who spent 10 years in prison for political crimes and was released a few years ago. He told me that the new Chinese immigrates who arrive in the city tend to live in expensive gated houses and do not integrate with the locals.
Apparently, many come from southern China and have bought Burmese IDs. Especially in Lashio, Shan State, the Chinese have been accused of taking over the town. This is a common sentiment in Upper Burma these days—perhaps indicative of the latest stage in Mandalay’s chequered history.
Beijing has heavily invested in several hydropower projects in Shan and Kachin states and is also building a gas pipeline and railway across upper and central Burma from Arakan State to China’s southern Yunnan Province.
Burmese President Thein Sein received plaudits at home and abroad when he suspended the controversial Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State, but he will not dare touch the billions of dollars-worth Shwe Gas projects. On our way to Mandalay we saw the pipelines up close. Several battalions were deployed to protect the construction process.
A brawl recently broke out between Burmese and Chinese people in Mandalay. Several local residents and artists I met told me that everyone is afraid of a backlash.
In my 24-hour stay in Mandalay, I could not escape from the debate on China and its prominent influence in Upper Burma. Even when I met the famous comedy Par Par Lay troupe they joked how China robs Burma of teak trees and other resources. I can see that there is a danger of a brewing xenophobic sentiment amongst the younger generation aimed at their booming northern neighbors.
Many questions remained unanswered. What does the future hold in the next decade? How will Burma’s sovereignty and territory be preserved? Unfortunately, spending an evening in a restaurant talking with young Burmese residents over beers makes it difficult to have a sound night’s sleep in Mandalay.