Robert Gordon, Former British Ambassador to Burma and President of the Britain-Burma Society provides us with our blog today, as he answers a few questions about the extraordinary country we now know as Myanmar. In 2011, Gordon also became Chairman of Prospect Burma, a charity which gives some 90 scholarships a year to young Burmese students so they can continue with their studies abroad. It’s fair to say that Gordon knows a thing or two about this fascinating land and he will be accompanying Aegean Odyssey when she heads back there on several sailings this winter.
You are President of the Britain-Burma Society. Could you tell us more about the society’s aims and activities?
The Britain-Burma Society recently celebrated its 60th anniversary. The Society is non-political and aims to foster friendship and understanding between the peoples of Britain and Burma, especially through cultural and social exchanges. It typically arranges half a dozen lectures a year at the Medical Society in London, exploring a range of historical, political and social themes. Every October, it holds a reception to welcome Myanmar newcomers to the UK as well as its regular membership.
Should we call it Burma or Myanmar?
When the military junta changed the country’s name (in English) from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, many resisted using the new name until such time as the country returned to democracy and a freely elected parliament could confirm or reject the change. In November 2015, the country held its first free elections for many decades and Aung San Suu Kyi – the de facto head of the current government – says she is content to accept either form, although in practice most people now use Myanmar (pronounced Mee-an-mar).
Why do you think Burma holds such a special place in the popular imagination?
The country has been nicknamed ‘The Golden Land’ for the many golden pagodas dotting the landscape. I think this offers a clue to why Myanmar exerts such a special fascination for foreigners, who have long been drawn to its unspoilt beauty, the diverse cultures and traditions of its many different races, its spectacular Buddhist monuments and its natural treasures such as rubies, teak and jade. In my experience, most tourists come away enchanted by their first exposure to the Burmese, who are among the friendliest and most welcoming of peoples.
What are your most precious memories of Burma?
When I was working in Burma in the late 1990s, Britain’s relationship with the then military dictatorship was not easy. We were nevertheless allowed to travel around the country relatively freely. Many of these trips we remember fondly: an overnight voyage by fishing boat, threading through the Mergui archipelago to Myeik; hill treks with our wonderful guide Tommy Aung in the wooded landscape around Kalaw on the Shan plateau; visiting the temples of Mrauk-U; for my wife, a rickshaw ride through the paddy fields of Rakhine State in which she ended up swapping places with the driver; epic journeys by rickety railway through Kachin State; a day-long elephant ride through the forests and along the river-beds of Alaungdaw Kathapa national park. A particularly evocative moment for me was to bring my father – a former Chindit – to see his old Second World War battlefield of ‘White City’ straddling the railway line between Mandalay and Myitkyina.
What is your favourite depiction of Burma in art and literature?
I can recommend Amitav Ghosh’s masterful The Glass Palace. For those interested in Burma’s royal past, F. Tennyson Jesse’s The Lacquer Lady presents a unique insight into the final decades of court life in Mandalay in the 1870s and 1880s. An excellent overview of Burmese history can be found in Thant Myint-U’s River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma; and his Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia explores Burma’s strategic location between Asia’s two emerging giants. Peter Popham’s The Lady and the Peacock is a highly readable biography of Aung San Suu Kyi. George Orwell’s Burmese Days gives a somewhat jaundiced view of the colonial period, though it has some fine descriptive passages of Burmese landscape and customs.
You were British Ambassador to Burma from 1995-1999. How challenging was that role, and what changes have you witnessed in the country since?
While we had a difficult relationship with the military junta, we made many Burmese friends and had the particular privilege of getting to know Aung San Suu Kyi and her family. For a decade after we left, Myanmar remained stuck in a time warp until a new president Thein Sein began to open up the country in 2011. Since then, there have been many changes; mobile phones have swept the country, large numbers of high-rise office and apartment blocks have sprung up in Yangon, and the traffic there has exploded. Yet, for many Myanmar peasant farmers in the countryside, life continues much as before. Democracy has begun to take root, and the new government under the de facto leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi is trying hard to address Myanmar’s many challenges. But there is still a long way to go.
Is it right to visit Burma in the light of the Rohingya crisis?
We have all been shocked by the persecution of the Muslim Rohingya in the north of Rakhine State, which has been particularly acute since last August. Several hundred thousand are now in makeshift refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. While not wishing to minimise their plight, it is worth pointing out that the affected areas are far from the main tourist sites, and that most of Myanmar remains safe for foreigners to visit. Indeed travellers have a role to play in alerting their Myanmar friends to the damage done to their country’s reputation abroad and in finding out more about the root causes of this tragedy.
If you had to recommend one Burmese dish for visitors to try, what would it be and why?
I would recommend a dish called Ohn No Khauk Swe, which is a mild curried chicken broth made with coconut milk and noodles, topped with hard-boiled egg. Burmese cuisine is less fiery than the curries of their neighbouring India or Thailand, but it can be equally delicious.
Robert and his wife Pamela, also a diplomat, will be accompanying Aegean Odyssey’s 20-day Beyond Burma & the Malay Peninsula cruise from Singapore to Colombo, departing 23 January 2019. This itinerary includes Yangon (and optional excursions by air to Bagan or Mandalay), along with Malacca, Penang, Phuket and the Andaman Islands. You can view our entire collection of South Africa, India and Southeast Asia sailings on our website.