Saturday, May 26, 2012

27-5-2012 Bridge to Burma

The sunday express : Sun May 27 2012, 02:47 hrs
As the Indian Prime Minister arrives in Myanmar today, The Sunday Express looks at ties between the two countries, talks to the Burmese community in India and revisits the coastal town that hosted the last king of Burma
Rakesh Sinha

Anawratha, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya. Across India, these names don’t ring a bell. But in the border state of Manipur, the three warrior kings of Burma, separated by centuries and long gone, remain etched in the collective memory of a people.

In the 11th century, Anawratha founded the Pagan empire in the Mandalay region, unified the Irrawaddy Valley and immersed his people in the teachings of Theravada, the oldest surviving school of Buddhism. His successors extended the Pagan empire as far as the Chin Hills running into Manipur.

Five centuries later, Bayinnaung stretched the western limits of the Toungoo dynasty to Manipur. But Manipur’s nightmare was to be Alaungpaya, founder of the Konbaung dynasty which ruled Burma till it was overrun by the British in 1885.

In 1758, two years after his army first devastated Manipur, Alaungpaya showed up in Imphal, installed a puppet and carried away captives. Among them were Manipuri horsemen who formed the Cassay Horse, the elite cavalry corps of the Royal Burmese Army.

The Cassay Horse served with distinction—The Great Chronicle of the Konbaung Dynasty records how King Thibaw, seven years before he was banished from Mandalay to Ratnagiri by the British, watched the Manipuri regiment’s “skill in weaponry and horsemanship such as cutting banana stems, lime fruit and water pot with swords, spears and lancers while riding at high speed”.

Today, Anawratha, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya are the names of corvettes in the Myanmar Navy, Bayinnaung the largest agriculture produce trading market in Yangon. And Mandalay the final destination of a proposed bus service from Imphal, the original home of the Cassay Horse, 580 km away.

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrives in the Myanmarese capital Naypyidaw on Sunday on a three-day visit—the last visit by an Indian Prime Minister to the country was in 1987, during Rajiv Gandhi’s term—infrastructure building along the 1,600 km that Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh share with Myanmar will be high on the agenda.

In a little over a year, from the time President Thein Sein took charge in March 2011, Myanmar has stunned the world with the pace at which it is opening up, promising to end years of isolation. As world leaders and businessmen scramble for a share in resource-rich Myanmar, New Delhi hopes to connect with its “bridge to South East Asia”. The country has been awarded the ASEAN chair for 2014.

In the BIMSTEC region—Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation—Myanmar’s major trading partners are Thailand and India. Exports to India include farm produce such as pulses, beans and forest produce like the prized Burma Teak. India sends it pharmaceuticals, electrical appliances and transport equipment.

Two months ago, the India Product Show brought 19 Indian companies to the country with wares that included home appliances, textiles and garments, pharma products, automobile spare parts, medical equipment, CNG cylinders, even poultry feed.

Underlining that Myanmar is “integral to India’s Look East policy”, Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai says “the new political environment” in Myanmar provides “opportunities to take bilateral ties to a new plane”. In his priority list, security, connectivity and infrastructure building rank high.

Engaged in more than a dozen projects in Myanmar, India is involved in upgrading and resurfacing the Tamu-Kalewa-Kalemyo road—it was inaugurated in 2001 when the NDA government’s External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh travelled across the Manipur border—and upgradation of the Rhi-Tiddim road.

The ambitious Kaladan multimodal transport project involves the construction of a deepwater port at Sittwe washed by the Bay of Bengal, dredging of the Kaladan river to let cargo vessels move from Sittwe to Mizoram, construction of a river port and upgradation of roads. Once complete, it will connect the Indian Northeast to the Sittwe port. The road component is delaying the project, targeted for completion in 2013. Mathai says there are “logistical and infrastructure challenges” but work is on.

In a country where internet penetration is very low owing to severe restrictions—most users are in Mandalay and Yangon—Telecommunications Consultants India Ltd (TCIL) has been called in for an asymmetric digital subscriber line for high-speed data link in 32 cities.

But it is the energy sector that is drawing in the big guns. Oil and gas-rich Myanmar is being tapped by ONGC Videsh Ltd, GAIL and Essar. Jubilant Energy of the Jubilant Bhartia group has been awarded an onshore oil and gas block. Group co-chairman Hari S Bhartia is in the delegation of 15 CEOs who will be in Myanmar for the Prime Minister’s visit. The delegation is being led by Sunil Bharti Mittal of Bharti Enterprises and Rajya Vardhan Kanoria of Kanoria Chemicals and Industries Ltd.

Myanmar has a fairly large Indian community, the origin dating back to the mid-19th century when the British arrived. According to a 20-year-old census, persons of Indian origin number an estimated 4.3 lakh and 2.5 lakh are stateless PIOs. In the cities of Yangon and Mandalay, many are engaged in the export and import of goods. To them, as to the rest of the world, the winds of change promise a new Myanmar on the road to Mandalay and beyond.

Khao Suey, anyone?
Burmese cuisine may be one of the few unexplored Asian foods in the country, but chances are many people would have heard of Khao Suey. This noodle concoction is believed to have originated in South China before making its way to the mountainous Shan state of Burma, where it took its present Burmese avatar. The dish, a complete meal, consists of rice or noodles in coconut milk topped with meat, fried onions, garlic, peanuts and fried eggs.

Burmese food is influenced by Chinese, Indian and Thai cuisines. A typical Burmese meal consists of rice, accompanied by various vegetables and meats cooked in stews or batter-fried, and a variety of pickles. While the noodles in Burmese cuisine are a clear influence of Chinese, the India-inspired dishes include mostly breads, snacks, desserts and even a Burmese take on the samosa. Ohn no khaw swe (similar to the Khao Suey), a concoction of noodles in coconut milk broth with curried chicken, fried bean fritters, sliced raw onions, chillies and slices of hard boiled eggs, is a popular dish.

Restaurants in Delhi like Side Wok (Khan Market, Connaught Place, Chanakyapuri) and Soi 46 (Defence Colony) offer a few Burmese dishes including Khao Suey. At The Kitchen in Khan Market which has been serving Khao Suey for seven years, there has been a surge in the dish’s popularity—it is their most ordered dish. Masquerading as a soup and main course, Khao Suey’s popularity is often attributed to its a-meal-in-a-bowl appeal. And to cater to all palettes, Indian eateries offer different versions of the Khao Suey, including the traditional, spiced up and even a Bangkok version.

The best way to educate oneself in the cuisine is probably to explore Vikaspuri in Delhi which is home to a large Burmese population and where traditional Burmese ingredients can be found in local shops. You could also start with the Burmese food festival that opens in June in the lanes of Bodella in Vikaspuri.

Little Burma in Vikaspuri--Deepu Sebastian Edmond
After 20 years, the Burmese of Vikaspuri sense the endgame is nigh.
Kim looks at his identity card, issued by the Delhi office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “So, what happens after 2015?” the campaign coordinator for Burma Centre mumbles. It is a coincidence, but Kim’s card is valid up to April 2015, the year elections to Myanmar’s parliament are scheduled to take place. It is widely expected that the country will move closer to being a sustainable democracy.

But for the Burmese of Vikaspuri, as 2015 approaches, it is time for some tough decisions. At Vikaspuri, home to an estimated 10,000 refugees from Myanmar for 20 years, there is no sense of closure. “There is a serious mistrust about what is going on back home. No one is even thinking of returning yet. There is so much work to be done before 2015,” says Kyaw Than, a founding member of the All Burma Students League (ABSL) who was part of the first group to settle in Vikaspuri.

According to the UNHCR website, there are 9,576 refugees and asylum seekers from Myanmar living in India as of April 2012. If the first refugees were from cities like Rangoon and Mandalay, almost every Burmese refugee who has arrived in Delhi since 2000 has been from the underdeveloped Chin state that’s contiguous with India. The Saffron Revolution of 2007 and the famine of 2008 increased the pace of arrivals into India.

Bodella village in Vikaspuri is no Majnu ka Tila, Delhi’s Tibetan refugee colony. There are no flags, no food shops that mark out territory. There are few Burmese faces among the people who throng the locality’s Thursday market. The explanation for their absence is the story of their penury. “Our women wait for closing time to go to the market. Vegetables are cheaper then. But the later it gets, the more difficult it is for us—we get a complaint of harassment almost every market day,” says Chhery, who is in charge of the Burmese Women Delhi’s ‘Violence Against Women Cell’.

The phrase ‘devil and the deep sea’ and its various derivatives were repeated by many refugees to describe their situation as 2015 approaches.

Despite being here for more than a generation, India is not home to the Burmese as the country has not signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. For them, therefore, India is in the middle of this devil-and-deep-sea analogy. Kim, the campaign coordinator for Burma Centre, describes Vikaspuri best. “This is a hotel,” he says. “This is a place of transit. India is between home and the Third Country.”

It was not meant to be so. Kyaw and his comrades, survivors of the failed 1988 students’ uprising, came to Delhi in 1990 to seek legal help for their collaborators who had been arrested in Imphal. “It was supposed to be a five-six year exile,” says Kyaw, sitting on a sofa in his rented house in Vikaspuri, now a guesthouse as well as the office of the left-leaning ABSL.

The first Burmese at Vikaspuri had fled fearing persecution. “Delhi was the ideal place to begin a campaign. I began writing letters to members of the Indian parliament,” says Kyaw, for whom George Fernandes’s 3, Krishna Menon Marg residence soon became a second home. It also helped to have friends like the late C P Prabhakar, who was then in All India Radio’s Burmese service, and the Burmese Indians in the nearby DDA Janta flats.

The UNHCR began resettling Burmese refugees in India to a third country around 1994. Resettlement—the possibility of rebuilding their lives in a better place—acts as a magnet for refugees. Thirty-three of the 34 who were arrested 13 years ago in the aftermath of Operation Leech in the Andaman and Nicobar islands have been in Vikaspuri for a year after their release and will leave for the Netherlands next month. Even those like Kyaw and Kim are now considering resettlement.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel, but we are still in the tunnel,” says Tint Swe, a physician and member of Burma’s government-in-exile who had to flee soon after the 1990 parliamentary elections.

Real change or not, Mizzima is going to Myanmar. The founded-in-exile news agency is gradually expanding its presence in Myanmar, taking advantage of the increased media freedoms. “We are cautious....we are taking a chance, but we want to be part of the changing political process,” says Thin Thin Aung, a co-founder of Mizzima.

The last king lived here--SUNANDA MEHTA
The setting sun casts long shadows on the old walls in the durbar hall. A wooden stairway leads to the terrace from where you get a magnificent sweep of the Thibaw Palace—acres of gardens ahead, the faint roar of the Arabian sea beyond and the Ratnadurg fort crowning the majestic view. It was in this palace that the last king of Burma spent his last years after being exiled by the British after Burma’s defeat in the third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885. King Thibaw and his wives were first sent to Madras and then to Ratnagiri where they lived from 1886 till his death in 1916.

Burma’s links with this coastal town in Konkan, some 250 kilometres from Mumbai, lie scattered in the majestic Thibaw Palace, in the neglected tombs of the king and his daughter Phaya and in the over 100-year-old Outram bungalow where the royal family in exile lived before moving to the palace in 1911.

Memories of Burma’s royal family live on in some corners of Ratnagiri, preserved by the king’s descendants. Pradeep Bhosale, grandson of Tu Tu, Thibaw’s granddaughter, is one of them. Bhosale, a travel agent, lives in a modest two-storey house with his wife and his son. The 53-year-old has a few photographs and some blurred memories of his grandmother Tu Tu who spoke to them of Burma, whipped up Burmese dishes occasionally and taught them a few words of the language. “She would make French toast and Burmese kebab and talk of her lone trip from Ratnagiri to Burma,” says Bhosale who talks only in Marathi.

King Thibaw had two daughters—the older, Phaya, fell in love with and married Gopal Baburao Sawant, a gatekeeper at the Outram bungalow in Ratnagiri. One of the couple’s children, Tu Tu, married a mechanic, Shankar Pawar, and stayed on in Ratnagiri while the others went to Burma. Tu Tu, who was the last from the royal family to visit Burma, had seven children. One of them was Pramila, Pradeep Bhosale’s mother.

“The first link between the king and Ratnagiri was Outram bungalow where they lived in the initial years and which is now the home of the Ratnagiri DSP,” says Bhosale. Behind the bungalow stands a Buddhist worship area where visiting Burmese still come to offer prayers. A few kilometres away in Telecom Colony lie two tombs—one holds the king’s remains and the other was made for his daughter Phaya but never got to hold her remains. Phaya died in Burma in 1935 and was cremated there. While her remains were brought to India, they were kept at the office of the collector for years and were eventually lost when the office was relocated.

A few kilometres away from Outram bungalow stands a dilapidated structure that was home to Tu Tu for over 40 years. “She had laid claim to the place having lived there for so long but it never happened. Journalists from all the over the world would visit her. Even Pandit Nehru met her when he came to Ratnagiri in 1965. But she died penniless in 2001 at the age of 95,” says Bhosale.

“We know their lineage but no one treats Bhosale or his siblings as descendents of the Burmese royal family,” says Shashank Gandhi, a businessman whose great grandfather bought a sofa, a lounge chair, a dining table and a lamp from Thibaw to settle a loan the latter had taken from him. Gandhi also has a few of the king’s papers in which Thibaw had recorded the loans he had taken and listed the furniture he sold.

According to Marathi writer Urmilla Pawar who wrote many chapters on King Thibaw’s stay in Ratnagiri (her hometown) in her autobiography The Weave of My Life, the British made arrangements to send fresh fruits and ice from Mumbai twice a week to the king, got two old bungalows renovated for him and his entourage and also built him a palace spread over 23 acres.

But Thibaw’s life in Ratnagiri was far from happy. The allowance given to him by the British kept decreasing—it started with Rs 100,000 a month but was reduced to half after a few years. When he died in 1916 at the age of 57, he was on a monthly allowance of Rs 25,000.

Thibaw, the only king in Burmese history to obtain the highest degree in Pali, spent his last years in loneliness. He remained confined to the vast palace that is spread over three floors. After his death, the palace was converted into a polytechnic college and a hostel and rapidly declined in upkeep. Tu Tu then apparently drew the administration’s attention to it. Today, as a state protected monument of the Maharashtra government, it houses a regional museum. Plans are also afoot to restore the palace for which a Rs 2.25-crore proposal is pending at Mantralaya in Mumbai.

The nowhere people--Naveed Iqbal
I learnt Hindi from the Hindi movies I used to watch back home,” says Mohammad Salim, sitting under a saree that’s stretched to form a canopy in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj. Salim came to India eight months ago from the Muslim-dominated Arakan or Rakhine state in Myanmar, fleeing the junta regime.

Salim is among the 2,500 Burmese refugees who had been camping in Delhi since April 9, seeking refugee status in India. All of them had identity cards issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that referred to them as ‘asylum seekers’, but they said these cards didn’t give them access to healthcare and schooling for their children. Some of them had been living in India for the past two years and had come to Delhi from Uttar Pradesh, Jammu, Rajasthan and other parts of the country.

Salim says he came to India with his brothers Ayas and Ilyas. The brothers reached India through Bangladesh, paying their way through the border. Salim says he paid around 2,000 Burmese kyat to the soldiers at the Myanmar border and about 100 Bangladeshi taka to cross over to Kolkata. From Kolkata, they took a train to Delhi.

The 26-year-old says life was tough under the junta—Muslims were not allowed to migrate to other parts of the country and their land was “forcefully taken away by the army”.

Talking about his disputed nationality, Salim says, “The British took our ancestors from India to Myanmar and they settled there. But now both countries (India and Myanmar) refuse to let us stay. Are we citizens of the sea then?”