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More Than a Game in Burma

By Bertil Lintner

The Trouser People, by Andrew Marshall. Viking. $26

ANDREW MARSHALL'S The Trouser People towers above all other contemporary books on Burma--whether they be travelogues, biographies or scholarly texts trying to explain the complexities of the country's tangled politics. Marshall's book is personal without being egocentric, beautifully written, and tells us more about Burma's past and present troubles than most academic writings.

During the British era, the colonial rulers were called the "trouser people" by the country's sarong-wearing citizens. Most Burmese still wear sarongs, or longyis, and the only ones who stick to trousers these days are the new overlords: the ruling military.

Little has changed in other respects as well, despite independence from Britain more than half a century ago. To illustrate similarities and differences between colonial and military-ruled Burma, Marshall retraces the footsteps of George Scott, an unsung Victorian adventurer who hacked his way through the Burmese wilderness to help establish colonial rule in the country. Scott met the head-hunting Wa ethnic minority--today the rulers of the biggest drug-producing area in Asia and perhaps the world--dined with Shan princes in the hills, and documented local customs and beliefs.

He also introduced soccer to Burma. This is still the country's national sport, almost an obsession. Also, a soccer match is one of the few occasions when ordinary Burmese can give vent to their anger and frustrations. Marshall attends a soccer match in Rangoon where the audience, in unison, shouts "ayu, ayu, ayu, ayu," or "fool, fool, fool, fool," at a portly colonel who is there to present a trophy to the winning team. When Marshall asks a fellow spectator how they dare to do this, the reply is simple: There are too many people taking part in this open ridicule. Gatherings of more than five people are technically illegal in Burma, but at a soccer match disgruntled civilians can sit together and scream abuse until they are hoarse. And unless the authorities want to arrest 5,000 rowdy fans, there is little they can do to stop the ridicule.

Despite its popularity, Burmese league soccer is of a very low standard. The Burmese would never make the World Cup tournament and their national team is possibly the worst in Southeast Asia. It is, like everything else in Burma, also subject to government censorship and interference by the ruling military. A couple of years ago, when Burma was trounced in a match in Brunei, all reporting about the national squad was banned after a disgusted general declared that he "didn't want to hear another word about it." Later, when Burma conceded a crucial goal during a nationally televised game against Indonesia, the state-run TV Myanmar went off the air for a few minutes--in shame, apparently.

It is, however, Marshall's forays into the Wa Hills that make this book unique. He manages to find the sacred lake in the mountains where the Was believe they came from, turning from tadpoles into human beings. He also travels to Mong La on the Chinese border, where drug lords run their own fiefdom complete with casinos, striptease joints, transvestite shows, and even an "opium eradication museum."

The contradictions and absurdities of colonial and contemporary Burma form the setting for one of Southeast Asia's great human tragedies. Given its mineral and natural wealth, Burma could have been one of the most prosperous countries in the region. Instead, it still struggles to keep itself together. Drugs seem to be its only major export, and Scott's legacy--soccer--is the main means of escape from the bitter realities of everyday life.

Despite the tragedy of Burma, this is not a pessimistic book. It is full of humour, and even the most deprived of its citizens manage to laugh at themselves and the situation they are in. Some are even optimistic, because of a fundamental Buddhist belief in anicca, or impermanence: Nothing lasts forever. Not Scott's colonial empire. Nor today's military rule.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, June 06, 2002

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