Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Cold War Comes to Burma

Given the present interchange between Russia's Vladimir Putin  and President Obama, the following true story from 1961 may be of interest.

2 p.m. February 15, 1961: Squadron-Leader Tin Maung Aye, accompanied by the commander of the 5th Kachin Rifles, Major Aye Win, were flying reconnaissance in a Burma Air Force Cessna southeast of Kengtung. Over the Mong Hpayak area, they spotted a field with strips of cloth laid out to spell “D Z” and realized that the Kuomintang forces were preparing a supply drop zone. They returned to Kengtung airstrip and sent up three BAF fighter planes with orders to force any KMT aircraft they encountered to land at Kengtung. The squadron patrolled the area for about a half-hour with no success. Then, just when they were about to return to base, they spotted a green four-engine plane enter Burmese airspace from the south and make two air drops. Squadron-leader Maung Thein radioed the intruder to identify itself but got no reply. The three Burmese Sea Fury fighters closed in and were fired upon but not hit. When they fired back, the intruder made a U-turn, heading for Thailand. In a second pass, both the intruder and one fighter were damaged and crashed just inside Thai airspace. The Burmese pilot, Noel Peters, died in the crash. One of the other fighters managed to reach Kengtung with part of its tail shot away, the third fighter was undamaged..
The Burmese army and the KMT often fought on the ground but this was their only air battle, at least during the years I lived in Kengtung. The KMTs, of course, were the remnants of General Chiang Kai Shek’s anti-Communist Chinese forces supported by Taiwan. They had had little effect on the Chinese Communist army since the 1949 Communist takeover, but often harassed the Shans and mountain people of Kengtung State.
Radio Voice of America that night announced that the Burma Air Force had shot down an unarmed plane bearing relief supplies to refugees in Northeast Burma. I could see the damaged fighter parked beside the local airstrip, and the Burmese newspapers were full of reports of the battle and the death of Pilot-Officer Peters. I knew VOA had it wrong, possibly misinformed by Taiwan, its ally in the so-called “Cold War” of communism vs. democracy in the mid-twentieth century.
By the time Burmese officials could inspect the wreckage across the border in Thailand, KMTs had stripped the four-engine plane of identifying markings and equipment. It appeared to be a modified World War B-24.
A Taiwanese group calling itself the Free China Relief Association acknowledged chartering the plane to supply “Chinese refugees.” Taipei news editorials compared the overflight of Burma to America’s use of U-2 spy planes over Russia, said the flights would continue and “if we are caught, we are caught.”
A week later the Burma Air Force flew military attaches of the United States, India, Indonesia and Thailand to Kengtung to inspect the damaged BAF fighter, and then on to Mong Paliao near the Laotian border, where they had recently captured a KMT base. There, reporters saw 75 mm guns, machine guns, mines, ammunition, radios and fuel drums, all bearing United States markings. The Nation, an English-language Rangoon newspaper, printed a photo of one label: “Commanding Officer, Erie Ordnance Depot, Port Clinton Ohio, TO: Officer in Charge, Air Freight Terminal, Travis AFB, California”. A Burmese reporter noted the American officials paid closest attention to equipment several years old, and said it could be bought by anyone at any surplus store. The reporter said they made no comment on items manufactured within the past year.
Burma had enough trouble fighting its own insurgent armies in those years without involving itself in conflicts between world powers. It wanted no part either of the United States and its allies, or of China and the Soviet Union. It declined foreign aid from either side whenever possible, and distanced itself from both. References to the “American Way of Life” made little impression in Burma. Burmese could read reports of American racial problems as well as anyone else, and were familiar with Russian maneuvers as well. No one could prove the United States knew what Taiwan was up to. But some thought that if it didn’t know, then of what use was the CIA?
In any case, there were protest demonstrations in front of the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon. A crowd of 3,000 demonstrators got out of hand. Before police controlled the riot, two demonstrators died and fifty three were hospitalized. Things quieted down until two months later, when U.S. Senator Fulbright publicly declared that he didn’t think it a good idea to send American boys to the jungles of Laos. The terrain was not suited to them, he said; better for them to fight in Vietnam, Thailand, or Burma.
Russia showed the world that it could make equally bad foreign relations blunders. In April 1959 TASS, the official Soviet news agency, implied that a prominent Burmese newspaper editor was in the pay of the U.S. Embassy. The TASS correspondent must have been dismayed when many Burma newspapers published front-page blasts against him personally and started two lawsuits for libel, pointing out that the source he quoted didn’t even exist.
About the same time, the Russian military attaché entered Rangoon General Hospital and, according to news reports, tried to pass along information (nature unknown) to Burmese Intelligence. He then jumped from a hospital window in an apparent escape attempt. His Russian comrades caught him and hustled him back to the Soviet Embassy, and from there to the airport at Mingaladon. Several reporters tried to question him there while he was being put aboard a plane, and his Russian escorts beat them up. Even pro-Communist Burmese newspapers then united with other Burmese to denounce the Soviet Union, and about forty reporters gathered at the Soviet Embassy to hurl tomatoes. The Russians emerged armed with broken chairs and joined battle. Police soon stopped the fight, but the Burma press gleefully pointed out that in Russia, May 5th is celebrated as “Freedom of the Press Day.”
It is not surprising that for many years Burma’s attitude toward the world powers was, in effect, “A pox on both your houses!”

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Shan Christmas Greeting

My Internet connection has been shut down for three days for something in the regional system, but is apparently fixed tonight. I have been working on a new book during the past two months, and have had few new posts. While working on the new MS, I shall bring a few stories from the past for your interest: the following is a Christmas letter home from Kengtung in Myanmar's Shan State, that I wrote fifty-five years ago - a different slant on the holiday.

Christmas in Kengtung December, 1960
Merry Christmas to all of you! There is no snow and few Christmas trees in Kengtung, but we are all looking forward to a pleasant time. Here, everyone visits everyone else and the Shan Christians are holding open house for the whole city, whether Buddhist, Animist, Christian or Muslim, and have bought more than one ton of noodles to feed the crowd. (Shans' favorite dish, called hkao sein, is a sort of spaghetti and meat sauce, though the spices and flavor are different from the Italian kind.) At the same time, they will have exhibits and movies in the church to tell non-Christians about the birth and life of Christ.
Susie, Patsy and Johnny are very impatient for Christmas to come. Already Susie is getting suspicious of the Santa Claus theory, though she is only six. The trouble is that all her playmates have been skeptical from the start, since they'd never heard of such an idea till Susie told them, and certainly had never ever experienced a visit from Saint Nick. Susie is also in the school pageant, and Patsy would very much like to be, just as she always wants to go to school, but she is too little for either. John, at the age of two, still takes things pretty much as they come.
Christmas Eve brings to mind the unsettling experience we had last year of being serenaded by a large number of drums and Scottish bagpipes at three in the morning. (At that hour, even one of each is a large number but there were more than that.) We awoke to the crashing strains of "For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow" outside our window, led by a bandmaster who kept time by loudly clapping his hands to the beat. Presumably, some of the Regimental Band members whose children had been treated at the hospital got together to celebrate with a few drinks and decided, "Let's go serenade the Doc." At three a.m., I'm afraid I could do nothing more cordial than pull the blankets over my head and pretend I was sleeping through it--quite an illogical pretense now that I think of it.
Everyone in Kengtung enthusiastically celebrates any holiday, including Christmas. No one refuses an extra chance to celebrate, especially one with all the pageantry the Burma Christians put into their celebration of Jesus' birth. Electricity is limited, but Christians decorate the outside of their houses by hanging dozens of lighted candles inside colored cellophane cylinders, to rival the Buddhists' October festival of lights.
Everyone holds open house. No one could possibly attend everything. One Christmas we were fed at seven different homes, and regretfully turned down an equal number. And that's only in Kengtung. We try to spend Christmas eve or part of Christmas day with our colleagues Paul and Elaine Lewis, seventeen miles up the mountain at Pangwai, and there are more invitations from neighbors there.
Many groups come caroling; some know little more than "Merry Christmas To You," (same tune as the birthday song). Others try an American melody or two when they get to our house, maybe in tune, maybe not. One group offered, "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones you used to do," and then faded into confusion as they tried to recall what rhymed with that. The older students at the school which Susie attended stay up all night, warming themselves around a fire, serenading neighbors and gratefully accepting cups of hot tea or cocoa from those who were still up.
The gifts are sometimes embarrassing. We have so much more of material goods than most of our neighbors, and are given so much more. People bring us baskets of oranges, eggs, or a live chicken on a bed of rice. We reciprocated with baskets of cookies or banana bread, and held a dinner for the hostel students. The ruler, Sawbwagyi Sao Sai Long himself, stopped by with a basket of avocados one Christmas, and our next-door neighbors sent us a live fish all Christmas-wrapped. (There was no doubt of its freshness at least). We put it in a tub of water where Susie and Patsy watched it wave a fin at them as it swam lazily back and forth.)
The more cosmopolitan mission compound church holds Christmas morning services in simultaneous translations into Burmese, Shan, Lahu and Chinese, but its main event is the Christmas pageant. Susie was in the angel chorus one year, her blond head standing out among the little Shans and Lahus, and Lois and I of course had to attend all three performances that season. The first night, the pageant ended very impressively, with people of all the ethnic groups of Kengtung bringing their gifts to baby Jesus as the music built to a climax. The second night, when VIP arm chairs had been assembled and the first two rows were filled with invited city elders and assorted officials, the pageant director seemed to feel that more was needed.
The curtain drew to a close on the final scene. Moments later it opened to reveal four schoolteachers, each with one foot propped on a chair, guitars at the ready. I had a premonition of disaster, which was confirmed when the quartet broke into a spirited version of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm" complete with sound effects. I don't know what the visiting officials thought. I privately thought the director had lost his mind.
Christmas is also a time for reflecting how many people here have still not been reached by God. The thirty-year-old man dying of cancer, the boy half-crazed with fear after threats of torture by rebel soldiers, the woman who believes her disease is an evil spirit eating her insides--what do you tell them? The idea of a loving God who cares for them is so foreign to all they have been taught, and seemingly is refuted by the very situation in which they find themselves. It's not easy to try to explain, even in one's own native language. Still, it's not all discouraging. This week, a ten-year-old boy opened his eyes to see for the first time in three years, after getting the vitamin A he had so badly lacked. A middle-aged clerk, out of work for seven years because of his swollen draining tuberculous knee, now walks free of pain because of what, with God's guidance and help, you and I have done for him. The salvaged are rather few, but we must continue to do what we can. May God bless you all during the coming year.