Category Archives: Blog

Season’s greetings

December 24, 2014

As I said yesterday, I’m heading to New Zealand today for nearly two weeks of tramping – can’t wait. When I return to HKU in early January, I’ll take on a new role as Vice-President and Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Teaching and Learning) – quite a mouthful. It promises to be immensely stimulating, and also quite time-consuming. So there will be no more regular blogging for me next year, though I guess I may still put up the occasional post. We’ll see. As 2014 draws to a close, I’d like to round things off by sending out traditional season’s greetings – happy holidays, and all the very best for 2015!

Solvitur ambulando

December 23, 2014

Stepping out of my apartment block a couple of weeks ago I ran into visiting colleague Dai Hounsell, an emeritus professor at the University of Edinburgh. As we chatted about the benefits of a brisk morning stroll, Dai quoted a Latin aphorism I hadn’t come across before – solvitur ambulando. Usually translated as “it is solved by walking”, the phrase is variously attributed to a nameless student in the class of pre-Socratic philosopher Zeno, to the ancient Greek Cynic Diogenes, or to the early Christian theologian St Augustine. It has been picked up by any number of modern greats – a terrific August 2013 post by Arianna Huffington takes the title “Hemingway, Thoreau, Jefferson and the virtues of a good long walk”, and also cites the contemporary science behind this timeless piece of wisdom. As for me, I need no proof beyond my own experience. I mention all this now because I’m getting ready to head down to New Zealand tomorrow afternoon for a little shy of two weeks’ tramping. Whether or not anything gets solved in the process does not matter. It’ll simply be great to drink in the beauty of South Island once again.

Global Yangon

December 22, 2014

The exhibition “Global City: Yangon’s Past, Present and Future”, on display at the Yangon Heritage Trust office on Pansodan Street through to March next year, looks fascinating from many perspectives. I’m certainly looking forward to seeing it. However, with so many historical images now uploaded to Facebook on a daily basis (above all by the wonderfully irrepressible Lin San Letpanpya), the main interest may not lie there. I guess that by now many of us have seen photos of then US Vice-President Richard Nixon in full Burmese dress during his December 1953 visit to Rangoon. Rather, it will be in turning to the future that the exhibit has most to say. Writing of this, the Irrawaddy report notes that a large conceptual rendering of the city’s riverfront “envisions neatly trimmed green terraces and walking paths, with a shimmering, distant pocket of high-rise office towers trumped in skyline prominence only by the Shwedagon Pagoda”. Changes are coming to that part of the city, through a gradual redevelopment of port facilities, the recent reopening of a commuter train service along Strand Road, and so on. But realization of the YHT vision would take things to a considerably higher level.

Death railway tourism in Mon State

December 19, 2014

It’s good to see from a recent Irrawaddy report that Mon State officials plan to build a museum dedicated to the Burma-Thailand “death railway” constructed by Allied POWs held under Japanese command during World War II. “‘We have historic pictures and we have [made] statues of the soldiers, and we will recreate scenes [from the Death Railway] – we also already have an old steam engine,’ said Toe Toe Aung, the Mon State minister for civil development, adding that he expected the museum to be completed by June.” The location is Thanbyuzayat Township, which hosts one of three Myanmar sites maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I’ve not been down there, but having visited the very poignant Taukkyan War Cemetery on the outskirts of Yangon I fully intend to make the pilgrimage one day.

Kachin in the 1930s and 1940s

December 18, 2014

Also interesting in Merrill’s Marauders is some of the background analysis. I didn’t know, for instance, quite how small even important Kachin communities were in the latter stages of colonial rule. This is from page 22, and must draw on the final census completed and fully reported by the British: “In 1931 Myitkyina, the largest town, had only 7,328 people in comparison with Mandalay’s 134,950 and Rangoon’s 398,967. Localities named on maps in territory where the Marauders operated might turn out to be less than hamlets; Lagang Ga has fewer than five houses, and Inkangahtawng, only a jungle clearing, has not a single basha (hut). The settlements usually consist of from 12 to 100 or more huts, built of timber uprights and bamboo.” Myitkyina today has in excess of 150,000 residents – in some 80 years, a more than 20-fold population increase.

Writing the history of World War II in Burma

December 17, 2014

One thing I really like about Merrill’s Marauders is its brief discussion of the problems facing anyone trying to write about World War II in Burma. This is the litany given on page vi: “Few records were available because the Marauders restricted their files in order to maintain mobility while they were operating behind the Japanese lines. During the second mission a Japanese artillery shell scored a direct hit on the mule carrying the limited quantity of records and maps kept by the unit headquarters. During the third mission the heavy rains made preservation of papers impossible for more than a day or two. The unit’s intelligence officer was killed at Myitkyina, and his records were washed away before they could be located.” In 1944-45, when this narrative was compiled, it was possible to interview veterans of the Burma campaign – which, thankfully, did happen to some degree. Still, much was lost to history, and already at this remove no substitute sources will ever again be available.

Merrill’s Marauders

December 16, 2014

A few weeks ago I posted consecutively on The Burmese Harp and The Stilwell Road. It thus seems appropriate to follow yesterday’s post on Fires on the Plain with a piece about Merrill’s Marauders – officially the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) of the US Army under the command of Brigadier General Frank D Merrill. The unit was active in northern Burma in roughly the first half of 1944, and played a key role both in recapturing Myitkyina on August 3, and in clearing the way for construction of the Ledo Road – which, as previously explained, was ultimately renamed the Stilwell Road. So something of a pattern is visible here, even if it’s somewhat sketchy. My source is a book of little more than 100 pages originally published in 1945 by the Historical Division of the US War Department. Its title: Merrill’s Marauders: February – May 1944.

The narrative draws mainly on interviews conducted with soldiers in late 1944 and early 1945 – and what a narrative it is. The Marauders, at most totaling 2997 officers and men, worked behind enemy lines to harass and annoy the hell out of Japanese forces with far superior numerical strength. Mostly they did so in close coordination with troops from the Chinese 22nd and 38th Divisions. Their sphere of operations was the notably difficult jungle of northern Burma, where heat, humidity and disease generated great difficulties. Their effectiveness relied on speed and flexibility. Their supplies were minimal, replenished from time to time by air drop. Nevertheless, in five major and 30 minor engagements, the Marauders succeeded in defeating the Japanese 18th Division. The impact of these foot soldiers on the course of the war was therefore highly significant. All in all, it’s a fabulous tale of derring-do.

Following the fall of Myitkyina, the Marauders were reorganized on August 10, 1944 as the 475th Infantry Regiment of the US Army. In no more than a few months, they had already secured for themselves an important place in the history of the Burmese theatre during World War II.

Fires on the Plain

December 15, 2014

With The Burmese Harp still playing in my mind, I decided to watch Kon Ichikawa’s other great World War II movie, Fires on the Plain (Nobi). Based on Shohei Ooka’s 1951 novel of the same name, the film was released in 1959 and runs to around 105 minutes. Though enjoying no more than a fraction of the instant success of its predecessor (and not picked out by the Academy for an Oscar nomination), it is now well regarded and has a solid place in this legendary director’s canon.

Like The Burmese Harp, the film is shot in black and white and focuses on remnants of the Japanese Imperial Army struggling through occupied, and formerly occupied, territory in the closing stages of the war. Whereas the earlier film was set in Burma in July 1945, the later one is located in the Philippines in February 1945. Again one ordinary soldier, in this case Private Tamura, is the focus of attention. Again the journey of a single foot soldier through alien territory provides the central narrative thread. Again a corpse-strewn landscape plays a critical role, and the story laced through it is told in spare and direct terms. In key respects, then, the movies are paired.

In other ways, though, the films are almost polar opposites. Where The Burmese Harp is lyrical and elegiac, Fires on the Plain is visceral and brutal. It opens with a sharp slap to the face, and soon finds Tamura, stricken with tuberculosis, sent away from both his unit and a hospital to fend for himself. In contrast to Mizushima in The Burmese Harp, Tamura makes no attempt to bury the bodies of the Japanese war dead he encounters. Rather, he joins other wandering troops in scavenging, and ultimately becomes a witness to cannibalism. In the picture of humanity set before us in this film there are, then, few redeeming features.

Still, there remain some. Tamura recoils from the degraded state into which some of his comrades have fallen, and throughout is visibly on a quest to escape the hellish situation in which he finds himself. Looking in the final frame at some of the fires on the plain, he says this: “There are farmers around that fire. I know it’s dangerous to go there, but I want to see people leading normal lives.” In many respects repellant, this film thereby ultimately joins its predecessor in making a humanistic, anti-war statement.

Welcome to Karen

December 12, 2014

At 11:00 tomorrow morning, Tamalar’s one-man show “Welcome to Karen” will open at Yangon’s Nawaday Tharlar Gallery. In the late 2000s, the artist visited the Shan Hills and produced a superb series of landscapes well known to all lovers of contemporary Myanmar art. In 2012, he returned to his Karen homeland, traveling through villages in the neighbourhood of Hpa-an. The paintings in the current show result from that trip. From a sneak preview earlier this week, I can say that they are again stunning. In short, this will be another great Nawaday Tharlar exhibit, running for just five days until Wednesday 17 – not to be missed!

Finnish Lessons

December 11, 2014

A week or two ago my friend and former colleague David Skidmore posted a link on Facebook to a review that appeared in the New York Review of Books nearly three years back. The book is Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? by Pasi Sahlberg. The review, published in March 2012, is by Diane Ravitch. The description that comes across is of an education system diverging in fundamental ways from the global mainstream, and at the same time consistently recording some of the best results found anywhere in the world.

The key departure made by Finnish policymakers is a rejection of standardized testing and the data-driven competition built on it. In short, the entire new public management philosophy of professional accountability is pushed to one side. In its place is put of philosophy of professional responsibility. In Sahlberg’s words, Finland has spent the past 40 years devising an education system focused on “improving the teaching force, limiting student testing to a necessary minimum, placing responsibility and trust before accountability, and handing over school- and district-level leadership to education professionals”. Instead of working towards standardized tests, students are encouraged “to know, to create, and to sustain natural curiosity”.

Central to the system is committed investment in teacher education, which at a minimum spans five years and can be longer. All teachers must complete a broad-based undergraduate degree in a standard discipline, and then a masters degree in education. Just eight universities are allowed to offer elite teacher education programmes and competition for places is fierce, with only one in ten applicants gaining places. The teachers who emerge from this system are respected professionals invested with responsibility to teach as they see fit. They have wide discretion in framing their classes, and are never assessed on the basis of student scores.

This is, then, an educational nirvana. As Ravitch writes, “the central aim of Finnish education is the development of each child as a thinking, active, creative person, not the attainment of higher test scores, and the primary strategy of Finnish education is cooperation, not competition”. Will reformers in Myanmar want to learn from these Finnish lessons?