Cover image for The trouser people : a story of Burma--in the shadow of the Empire
The trouser people : a story of Burma--in the shadow of the Empire
Marshall, Andrew, 1967-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Washington, D.C. : Counterpoint, [2002]

Physical Description:
xii, 307 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm
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DS527.7 .M37 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Marshall lives in Bangkok, Thailand, and writes about Asian topics. Here he recounts the adventures of Sir George Scott (1824-1948) as he bullied his way through uncharted jungle to establish British colonial rule in Burma. Annotation copyrighted by Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Beginning with an unusual Burmese monk who keeps a cell phone in his robes and negotiates with Thai border police regarding arms smuggled to the insurgent army fighting Burma's military regime, Marshall recounts his adventures in Burma over a five-year period, inspired by the diaries of late-19th-century Scottish adventurer Sir George Scott (The Burman). Scott furthered the interests of the British colonials (aka the trouser people) by mapping and photographing remote areas of Burma. As Marshall, chief Asian correspondent for British Esquire and coauthor of The Cult at the End of the World, follows in Scott's footsteps, he provides an informed history and his own observations of a country where most people "have never known true peace or true freedom." Burma is ruled by a brutal military dictatorship, and its democracy movement is symbolized by the house arrest in Rangoon of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi. Marshall retraces Scott's steps from Rangoon to Mandalay in 1880, when the despotic rule of King Thibaw, a reign that mirrors current political conditions, was coming to an end. All of the author's adventures will hold readers' interest, but his difficult journeys to tribal villages of the Shan Plateau, through drug-trafficking territory where head-hunting only ended in the 1970s, are particularly enthralling. Although Marshall's sardonic humor may not appeal to all, this is a valuable firsthand look at areas and living conditions in a country relatively unknown in the West. Avid readers of travel literature will love it. (Mar. 31) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One In the dead hours of a tropical night, a television set in a Rangoon electrical shop switched itself on and began showing a football match live from the World Cup finals in France -- the USA-Iran game, by my calculation. It was the summer of 1998, a Sunday. Ten minutes later the television exploded. Blood gushed from its shattered screen. There were screams, and cups and glasses spinning through the air, and light bulbs popping like Chinese firecrackers. Afterwards, when everything was a bit calmer, sobbing could be heard in the darkness.     Or so went the electric turnouts that crackled across the city's synapses at daybreak. Were they true? It didn't really matter. By mid-morning a crowd was gathering outside the shop, which was called Golden Land. One man, who was almost certainly from Military Intelligence, tried to photograph the shop front, but an unseen force wrenched the camera from his hands and smashed it on the ground. The same force knocked off a policeman's hat, much to the delight of the onlookers.     The monks were summoned. They said mantras and sprinkled holy water on the televisions, but the water sprang back in their faces. They dabbed their chins with a dry corner of their robes and declared that the spirits were not Buddhist, they were Muslim. But an imam's prayers had no effect either. That night, strange markings appeared on the walls of a nearby tea shop, and some people said they heard the unmistakable noise of thousands of marching feet.     These spirits would not easily be appeased. They were unimpressed by the usual rituals. Everyone in the swelling crowd knew why.     Ten years before, to the very day, thousands of students had been marching into downtown Rangoon to join a pro-democracy demonstration. They had got as far as Myenigone market, just opposite the Golden Land shop, when armed police and military units attacked. An army truck pulled up, crushing two schoolchildren beneath its wheels, and soldiers opened fire. Students scattered into the alleys around the market. A pitched battle began. The soldiers fought with Bren guns and assault rifles, the students with bricks and stones, or with sharpened bicycle spokes flighted with chicken feathers and fired from home-made catapults. Over eighty protesters died in Rangoon that day, the bloody culmination of a week of angry demonstrations against military rule. No last rites were held for the dead. The bodies were loaded on to army trucks, the weight of the dead finishing off the still living, and driven off to be burnt like old rubbish.     That was ten years ago. As every Burmese who recalled the massacre understood, the restless spirits of 1988 had returned.     The haunting was never mentioned in the state-run media, but the news spread anyway. It was whispered in the mouldering teak mansions of Golden Valley, and in the candlelit shacks along Pazundaung Creek. By now over a thousand people had assembled outside the Golden Land shop. The road was blocked with cars as motorists slowed down to stare. Such a crowd was a rare sight in Burma: street gatherings of even a handful of people were illegal. It was curiosity that had drawn many onlookers to Golden Land. But now the crowd was something else. It had become a demonstration by default, a defiant act of remembrance for the thousands who had perished in the summer of 1988.     The soldiers came a few days later, with assault rifles and water cannon. They meant business. The great crowd quickly evaporated in the gathering heat. The people who refused to move -- many were relatives of the dead students -- were arrested. So was the unfortunate owner of Golden Land. Then, as with the students' corpses, except with more care, the soldiers loaded the unbroken televisions on to their trucks and drove them away, and that was that.     Soon a rumour began circulating that the military was 'testing' them at an army laboratory. But everyone knew that a few colonels would now be watching the World Cup on a new television. While all this was going on I was two miles across town, perched on my friend the diplomat's antique sofa, watching beads of sweat drip from my forehead on to his finely polished parquet floor. It was dusk, and the power was down -- again. The diplomat's bungalow -- I was staying there while he was on leave -- was dim and stifling. The electric ceiling fan had spun to a standstill, and mosquitoes were nibbling experimentally at my ankles. The dead air was thick with jasmine and frangipani. It was too dark to read; soon it would be too hot to think. I was about to make what would feel at the time like an important decision: I would drink all the beer in the fridge before it got warm.     I had been in Rangoon for a week already, but had yet to hear an adequate explanation for the nation's catastrophic power shortages. Different reasons were given depending on who was speaking to whom. The generals lied to the diplomats that energy was being diverted to drive Burma's spectacular industrial progress. The bureaucrats assured the businessmen that the cause was only a temporary lack of spare parts for the British-built hydroelectric dams. Everyone else in Rangoon told each other various things while believing none of them. A drought had brought the dams to a standstill. (Drought? It was the monsoon season, and immense curtains of rain swept operatically across the city every afternoon.) Or else ethnic insurgents had felled the electricity pylons with high explosives. Or whatever.     The government didn't acknowledge the national energy crisis, so officially there wasn't one. Burmese who could afford it bought Japanese-made generators. The rest of us simply noted when the lights usually went out each day, tried our best to deduce a pattern (in Rangoon, about eight hours of electricity every day; in Mandalay, about eight hours every three days), and rearranged our lives and businesses accordingly. It was like some massive, nationwide initiative test.     I cracked open a beer, feeling as if I'd passed.     On the George Scott front, however, I was having less success. I had come to Rangoon to see if I could find out anything about his early days in the city. This was proving harder than I'd thought. I wandered the hot, claustrophobic streets of old Rangoon, where only the faintest breeze from the river penetrated the lofty colonial tenements, hoping to find some physical trace of his life here -- a forgotten back alley once named in his honour, perhaps, or a dead-eyed bust in a grimy niche of a public building. I consulted two distinguished Burmese historians, who smiled blankly when I mentioned Scott's name and referred me to a distinguished librarian, who referred me to books I had already read in London or Bangkok.     It was (I was slow to realize) a bad time for a single white European to be wandering around Rangoon asking questions -- any questions, even harmless ones about dead Scotsmen. The tenth anniversary of the great pro-democracy uprising of 1988 was approaching. Burmese exiles and foreign activists had been predicting that people would again take to the streets, and the atmosphere in Rangoon was tense. Tanks had been spotted entering the city by night. The intersections were clogged with teenage soldiers cradling assault rifles with fixed bayonets; whenever I caught their eye they would grip their weapons a little tighter and stare back with blank hostility. Students had briefly clashed with police outside Aung San Suu Kyi's house, while her supporters were being swept into unmarked vans in pre-dawn raids and jailed until they recanted their allegiance. Rumours sprouted in the darkness and ran rampant in the tropical heat. Superstition was rife. When an earthquake occurred on the Thai-Burma border, some people said it was a portent of the regime's imminent collapse. (Tellingly, the state-run media did not report it.) It was as if the country was slipping into a darker age, an impression the power blackouts only reinforced.     A rumour spread that Ne Win was on his deathbed. General Ne Win, the grisly old tyrant himself, the architect of the 1962 military coup -- dying at long last! This kind of rumour needed no encouragement; the whole of Burma wanted to believe it. Ne Win was a man so superstitious, so addicted to power, that he once married a woman called Daw Kyar San -- meaning 'The One Who Would Stay in Power Longer'. Recently, it was said, he had summoned nine monks to his heavily guarded lakeside compound to pray for his health; nine was his lucky number. BBC radio reported the rumour as fact, and, if the BBC said Ne Win was dying, then nothing could persuade the Burmese people otherwise -- not even the truth, which was that he was tucked up in bed with a cup of cocoa and the latest copy of Octogenarian Despot Monthly .     By day, Rangoon did a good impression of normality. It was my second time here, and I had spent a leisurely few days getting to know the place again. The downtown area was the same mixture of bustle and sloth. The young men idled at street-corner tea shops, smoking, blethering and nibbling greasy samosas. Shrugging off Indian money-changers, who cruised the streets with bricks of Burmese currency tucked beneath their armpits, I negotiated crumbling pavements crowded with stalls. Many sold only a single product: toothpicks, perhaps, or posters of Leonardo DiCaprio, or an ingenious new method for choosing a more propitious name. On Mahabandoola Street I would sit in a tea house and watch the traffic cops wheedling bribes from blameless motorists, admiring the way they palmed the notes as adroitly as tableside magicians. As dusk approached I left the frenetic city centre and strolled home through the old colonial quarters, where dark, dilapidated mansions with baroque spires hibernated amid rioting tropical vegetation, and where fresh flowers on a spirit shrine outside were the only indication of life within. Near the diplomat's house I stopped to say good evening to an elderly Burmese man walking his pet goat on a leash.     I had spent most of my twenties in Asia, first as an editor in Tokyo, then as a feature writer roving the Far East, but Burma had always fascinated me. One reason was purely professional. Very few journalists went there, and when they did they rarely left Rangoon. Once their articles had been published they were blacklisted by the Burmese government and refused re-entry; their first story about Burma was usually their last. I had long been eager to explore the country in more depth. I was also fascinated by the Burmese Conundrum -- the contradiction between the 'land of fear' I had read about in press reports and the surface normality of places like Rangoon. To the thousands of tourists who visited Rangoon every year, I reflected, the city must seem like simply a nice place with lots of soldiers. Its colonial architecture wept with neglect, but there were no slums. Its leafy university campuses were oases of tranquillity. The traffic on its roads was blessedly light compared to that of Bangkok or Jakarta, and a disproportionate number of cars were Mercedes. Not many capitals in South-East Asia (or in Europe, for that matter) could boast the same.     But, you know, it's an odd thing. Mature totalitarianism is invisible to outsiders; only its absences betray it. Rangoon had no slum-dwellers because they had been moved at gunpoint to a swamp across the river. The universities were tranquil because most had been closed since 1988 to prevent further protests erupting on campus. The comparative lack of traffic indicated how far Burma's isolated economy had stagnated while the rest of South-East Asia had boomed. And the Mercedes -- well, they all belonged to the generals. Frustrated by my lack of progress on Scott, I went to see the Doctor. A medical man by training, now retired, the Doctor was an amateur historian, a passionate Burmese democrat and, as I'd found after meeting him through a mutual friend on my previous trip, an ornate but reliable barometer of the political atmosphere. He lived in a wooden house which, like the good doctor himself, was in an advanced state of dishevelment.     'Lies,' growled the Doctor. 'Lies, lies, lies.'     We were sitting in his study, with the comforting smell of mouldering literature emanating from a large, murky storeroom nearby, which was liberally sprinkled with mouse droppings. I had just asked him about a recent government pledge to reopen the universities. 'Lies!' he exclaimed, his unshaven jaw rigid with indignation. 'The government is determined to keep all the students off the campus. They want to keep the people ignorant, you see? It suits their purposes.'     My conversations with the Doctor were always a bit disjointed. As we talked, he would be reminded of some book or document and dart into the storeroom to rummage for it. Whatever he emerged with ten minutes later usually bore no relation to our topic of conversation. I suspected the Doctor didn't know much about Scott either, but he was an expert at fudging things he didn't know much about -- a talent which, as a journalist, I could only respect.     'That book of Scott's, The Burman , it has many mistakes in it, you know,' he said. Mistakes? 'Oh yes. Particularly the chapter about sacred white elephants.' Then he plunged once more into his back room, crashed around for a while, and emerged five minutes later with a painting of a rare medicinal flower.     The Doctor clearly had other things on his mind. He expected violent demonstrations during the anniversary period, and was secretly stockpiling medicines to treat injured protesters. There was trouble ahead, he believed, and the death of Ne Win would be the catalyst.     'But is the old man really dying?'     'Oh yes!' cried the Doctor. 'I can even tell you when.' A solar eclipse was due to occur the following month, he had calculated, and, when the shadow passed over the sun and the birds fell strangely silent, Ne Win would clutch at his heart and fall strangely silent too, because in Burmese ne win means 'brilliant like the sun' -- a dictator eclipsed.     'What a coincidence,' I marvelled.     The Doctor narrowed his eyes and said, 'There are many such coincidences in Burma' -- meaning, of course, that there were none at all. Rangoon had always been a city bubbling with events and portents. When Scott arrived here in the 1870s it was on its way to becoming the busiest rice port in the world. The harbour was packed with country boats ferrying the paddy downriver to be processed at smoke-belching mills and loaded on to European steamships or 'ditchers', named after their homeward route through the Suez Canal. On the bustling wharf, past the timber yards where elephants dragged immense logs of valuable teak, a row of monumental colonial buildings rose above the treeline. Beyond them, hovering ethereally in the heat haze, was the magnificent gold chedi of the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most venerated Buddhist temple in all Burma. 'It is a revelation,' observed Scott over the well-oiled tips of his magnificent moustache. 'Majestic, impregnated with the worship of countless centuries, the great golden stupa rises high into the serene and thrilling blue with an infinite grandeur impossible to put into words.'     Scott was a handsome man, a bit on the short side perhaps (he was not much more than five feet tall), but with a street fighter's build and brown, borehole eyes -- a small but perfectly formed Victorian. 'He was always in good condition, for he was sparing in what he ate, and continually exercising,' wrote his third wife and hagiographer, Geraldine Mitton. 'He could ride, wrestle, shoot, play football and cricket, row and swim. His bright brown eyes went questing everywhere. Never was a man more alive. No department of human life but was interesting to him. His broad nostrils, firm chin and high forehead showed his quality both in intellect and pugnacity. He was ever a fighter.'     Scott would have been well aware that Rangoon was still trying to shake off an unwholesome reputation. For, while its commercial significance was growing fast, as a place to live the city stank, and not just because the task of refuse collection fell largely to an imported army of highly temperamental Madrasi street sweepers. Rangoon was a notorious sinkhole for criminals from other parts of the Empire, yet had only 300 miserably paid policemen for a population of over 100,000. There were lugubrious opium dens and rowdy bars, and a burgeoning community of Eurasian children to testify to the popularity of thriving brothels. Built on a swamp, the town was hot and humid the year round, and visited by all the nastier tropical diseases. Cholera epidemics were annual events: Scott would describe how the Burmese would shout and beat their roofs with sticks to frighten away the malignant demon that caused them. 'The Government officials are helpless against the superstition,' he noted, 'and English police-inspectors have simply to stand by foolishly with their hands to their ears till the clatter and clamour dies down.' Rabid dogs with a taste for English ankles patrolled the streets ('all eastern dogs have a maniacal hatred of white men'), and in the dry season whole neighbourhoods were devoured by fires, one of them caused by an amateur alchemist spilling mercury in his crucible. 'For greater secrecy, and because his horoscope said it was a favourable time, he was working at three in the morning,' recalled Scott. 'When day dawned the whole of Edward Street -- one of the wealthiest inhabited by Burmans -- was a heap of smouldering ashes.'     Arriving at Rangoon harbour, Scott might have reflected on an already peripatetic life that had begun at another port over a decade before. At the age of thirteen he stood on a windswept pier in Leith with his elder brother, Forsyth, waiting to board a steamer for the Continent. Scott had grown up in the small weaving community of Dairsie in Fife, where his father was the Presbyterian minister. The Revd Scott died when George was nine, and his mother decided that her boys would be educated in Stuttgart, for reasons that would always mystify them. ('I don't know where my mother heard of the place,' wrote Scott.) They were schooled in German, and by the time war between Austria and Prussia forced the Scott clan back to England, in 1866, George spoke the language fluently -- one of seventeen foreign languages he would master.     Mrs Scott's German gamble paid off. Forsyth was accepted at Cambridge (he would become the university's vice-chancellor), while George won a place at Oxford. But then, disastrously -- fatefully -- Mrs Scott went broke. A close relative squandered the family's moderate wealth on a mining scheme in Scotland, a woefully ill-conceived venture that Scott would sum up with the dry observation 'Uncle Robert had great ideas of coal-getting.' And so -- Bob's your uncle -- George was forced to abandon his studies to find work to support his mother and brother. He would characterize this setback as an early example of the 'cursed bad luck' which he was convinced dogged his entire life -- an odd obsession for a man rescued from certain death in the Burmese jungle on more than one occasion by sheer good fortune. And perhaps it was no setback at all. For this was the high noon of the British Empire, when no adventurous young man was wholly without prospects -- particularly one born in the year of the Great Exhibition. And by this time, we learn, George Scott had heard 'the call of the East'.     Scott's first taste of Asia came as a war correspondent for the London Standard . In 1875 he joined a British punitive expedition to the Malay state of Perak, where the resident had been slaughtered by the sultan's henchmen. It was 'a most desperately jungly country, full of cane-brake and wait-a-bit thorns and creepers', wrote Scott. 'Everything, too, seemed festooned with leeches suffering from abnormal thirst, and with the expanding capacity of a toy balloon.' The young Scotsman's buccaneering disregard for personal danger made him popular among the troops. But theirs was an inglorious campaign -- a 'butcher and bolt', in British army parlance -- with the soldiers shooting wildly into the jungle. Nobody knew how many of the sultan's rebels had been hit, if any. Nevertheless, the expedition commander 'gave a most flamboyant account of the affair', wrote Scott, 'and explained all the operations so admirably that none of the force recognised [it]'. Scott's similarly flamboyant account for the Standard launched his journalistic career.     When Scott arrived in Rangoon he took a job as a teacher at a missionary school, St John's College, to supplement his journalistic income. He immersed himself in Burmese culture. A natural linguist, he soon spoke Burmese fluently. Unlike less adventurous colonials, he ate the oily and pungent local food with his hands, just as the natives did, and often wore a Burmese longyi or sarong. His early years in the city were eventful. One day Scott felt the streets shudder with a powerful earthquake; on another occasion a disoriented tiger swam the Rangoon River and briefly terrorized the population until a police chief shot him. There was even a famous haunting. Hundreds of people flocked to a house on 21st Street, supposedly built on a pagoda destroyed by the British, where poltergeists were throwing stones, setting clothes on fire, and pinching onlookers so hard that many fled with ripening bruises on their arms.     As colonial postings went, however, Rangoon had few social diversions. There was the stifling decorum of the Gymkhana Club, a laughably ill-stocked museum that nobody visited, and, if you were lucky, a military band in Fytche Square of a Sunday. The only other option was to go stark raving mad -- and, judging by the number of colonial records marked 'Lunacy' which I later unearthed, many people took it. A gregarious man and an all-round athlete, Scott set about organizing more vigorous outdoor entertainments. Boat races had been banned for encouraging gambling until Scott organized, and rowed in, a regatta on Rangoon's Royal Lakes in 1881. Over 10,000 people came -- possibly the biggest gathering since the 'Rangoon Pet' had wrestled the 'Moulmein Slasher' in a bout at the Shwedagon Pagoda five years before. Scott also attended Rangoon's biannual horse races, which attracted champion jockeys from Bengal, fleet-footed ponies from the Shall states, and every high-rolling gambler for 100 miles or more.     But it was a sport still not widely played among even his own compatriots which Scott would introduce to Burma with the most astonishing success. Even before the Football Association was established in England in 1863, wherever the Brits went in the world the beautiful game went with them. British railway engineers took the sport to Argentina; Scottish textile workers taught the Swedes; the Russians learned it from English cotton-mill managers. And one day in 1878 George Scott strode on to the bumpy games field next to St John's College with his curious students, punted a football through a blue afternoon sky, and the Burmese game was born.     The first organized football match ever played in Burma took place at St John's College around 1879. Scott captained the St John's team, whose opponents were a scratch eleven from the southern port town of Moulmein. The game began inauspiciously, reported the Singapore Free Press : In the punt-about just before the match the ball collapsed, and Scott and the present writer got into a gharry and tore all about the town to raise a bladder, even should it extend to the purchase and immediate slaughter of an animal. How Scott did bang the back of that gharry-wallah with that bust football to urge him to greater speed ... A bladder was got from some fisherman or other at last, and the historical game played.     Matches were soon drawing large crowds, not only in Rangoon but across British-occupied Lower Burma. There was some concern at the passion the game aroused among the natives, but also relief that Association rules had been adopted. 'To think of hot-headed Burmans engaged in the rough-and-tumble of Rugby excites lurid imaginings,' shuddered one colonial official. For the British, football was a way of communicating ideas of fair play and respect for authority. For the Burmese it was something else: a rare opportunity to thrash their colonial masters at their own game. (Continues...) Excerpted from The Trouser People by ANDREW MARSHALL. Copyright © 2002 by Andrew Marshall. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.