Wartime in Burma: a diary, January to June 1942
THEIPPAN MAUNG WA (U SEIN TEIN)
Wartime in Burma: a diary, January to June 1942
Translated by L. E. Bagshawe and Anna J. Allott
Athens OH: Ohio University Press, 2009
240 pp. ISBN 978-0-89680-270-4 US$24
Reviewed by Kyaw Yin Hlaing
City University of Hong Kong
Theinppan Maung Wa is one of the most respected literary figures of Myanmar. Although he passed away in the first half of the 20th century, Myanmar citizens still remember him as one of the country’s best storytellers and essayists. The new literary style, known as khit-san, which he and his colleagues invented, has influenced several generations of Myanmar writers. Since the 1950s no young Myanmar student would have graduated from high school without studying the essays written by Theinppan Maung in the 1930s. The topics in his essays were mainly culled from his personal experience whilst touring the country as a member of the Indian Civil Service. Despite the fact that he held a prestigious post in the colonial bureaucracy, his essays frequently touched upon the lives of ordinary people in Myanmar. Theinppan Maung Wa’s essays vividly describe the scenery and the inner voices of the different characters so much so that readers would feel as though they were personally witnessing the lives of ordinary people in colonial Myanmar.
The diary consists of his observations and experiences following the Japanese bombing of Rangoon in early 1942. In most of the diary, he described the disruptive and depressing scenery caused by the war. He also touched on the suffering of the residents of Rangoon including himself and his own family. As Japanese planes bombed Rangoon, the sounds of siren, plane, anti-aircraft gun fire and bomb explosions were all the people in Rangoon heard. While his beloved Rangoon was reduced to ashes, Theinppan Maung Wa had to perform his duty at the Ministry of Home and Defence Affairs. However, many people, including several of his subordinates, had fled war-torn Rangoon. When the colonial administration was relocated to Mandalay, Theinppan Maung Wa and his family moved there. However, frequent Japanese bombing had destroyed large parts of Mandalay and made it impossible for the colonial administration to function. Thus, Theinppan Maung Wa and his family moved northwards. Although they wanted to go to Myitkyina, the war put a halt to their plans and they ended up taking refuge in a small town, Kanbalu. Theinppan Maung Wa and his family were not there alone. Many of his colleagues in similar positions following the fall of the colonial administration were also taking refuge in Kanbalu. The presence of his colleagues and the difficulties they experienced rendered the accounts in the diary more colourful and interesting. As there was no functioning administration, thieves and dacoit gangs constantly harassed helpless people. Theinppan Maung Wa expressed his fear of unruly dacoit gangs by noting that local criminals were more dangerous than the Japanese. His fear was justified as he was killed by a marauding dacoit gang in the guesthouse where he had taken refuge.
Readers of the diary should note that Theinppan Maung Wa did not write it for a wider audience. It was simply a private account of that which he went through. Accordingly, sentences sometimes ended abruptly. This diary belies the fact that he was a great storyteller. Indeed, the readers might find certain parts of the diary boring. To me, the war diary is a repository of data for several essays Theinppan Maung Wa did not get a chance to write. In 1984, I had the privilege of attending the late poet Tin Moe’s lecture on Theinppan Maung Wa and his wartime diary. Tin Moe advised us to think of Theinppan Maung Wa’s anecdotes as though they had been written for a wider audience.
This diary is more than an account of Myanmar during World War II. It is also a repository of the views of one of Myanmar’s most influential literary figures. It covers his opinions of his people, his job, his country as well as the pain he and his countrymen experienced as victims of war. Through this diary, readers are able to see Theinppan Maung Wa as more than an influential writer and intellectual. In his entries, readers are able to discern that he was also a very responsible administrator, a good husband and a good father. Those who wish to learn about the life of a Myanmar intellectual and the suffering of the Myanmar people in the Second World War should read this book.
The review will not be complete without expressing gratitude to the translators. As a person who has read the Myanmar version of the book many times, I can attest to the accuracy of the translation. Nothing was lost in translation. Sayagyi L.E Bagshawe and Sayamagyi Anna Allott have done a great service to scholars of Myanmar studies.