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From the edge of darkness, a diary of wartime Burma

by David Burleigh

“Theippan Maung Wa” is the pen name under which a Burmese member of the Indian Civil Service wrote stories about his work for the British administration in the 1930s. The 150 tales that he composed, in a new and simple style, were popular contemporary reading and are still admired, some having been translated into English. But the author did not survive to enjoy his reputation.

WARTIME IN BURMA: A Diary, January to June 1942, by Theippan Maung Wa (U Sein Tein). Translated by L.E. Bagshawe and Anna J. Allott. Ohio University Press, 2009, 216 pp., $24 (paper)

The remarkable U Sein Tein was born in Lower Burma in 1899, and Theippan Maung Wa was one of dozens of names under which he wrote, adopting different styles and attitudes. There was a tradition of using pseudonyms in the Burmese literary world, and Sein Tein wrote prolifically. Though not opposed to the colonial administration, as a member he could not write about it under his own name. Educated at the new University of Rangoon, he studied Burmese literature rather than English, though he also attended the University of Oxford before taking up a coveted position in the ICS.

The events recorded in this diary were set in motion by the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Japan’s entry into the war. When the diary opens, at the beginning of 1942, Japanese forces have already swept through much of Southeast Asia and started to bomb Rangoon. Many people are fleeing the city for safer locations up-country, but the writer has returned to attend to his work: “Before lunch went with Myint [his wife] to look at all the damage that a bomb had done to our house in Rosebank Road. Myint was very unhappy and shocked by the sight.” Later that day the couple must take refuge from the bombs, while the diarist observes: “Bright moonlight used to be something to be happy about, but not now.” There are frequent returns to the air-raid shelter, which is infested with mosquitoes: “For them the siren is like a dinner gong calling them to a banquet.” This sets the good-humored tone of the author’s gentle observations, also apparent in friendly encounters on boat trips up the Irrawaddy and descriptions of his children.

In the compelling story of escape that follows, Sein Tein gives us a clear and detailed account of the difficulties that beset them. Dutifully he moves to Mandalay when the government offices are relocated there, taking his family by car and having to deal with breakdowns and the increasing scarcity of petrol and other goods. For the moment they still have enough food, and can depend for hospitality on Sinn Tein’s extensive range of friends and acquaintances in regions where he previously worked. But when Mandalay is bombed and they have to retreat further north to Shweibo, the risks and anxiety increase.

Food can still be had, and medical help is forthcoming from the Indian doctor who opens up his home to them and other refugees, but the hot weather aggravates every difficulty. There are brief intervals of holiday and play, especially for the little ones, but the writer ominously notes, in April, that “Shweibo is looked upon as a center of unrest and lawlessness.” A week later he says: “In this present crisis, what everyone is afraid of is not so much the Japanese enemy as the criminals among our own people.”

As the Japanese steadily advance and the house that the family are resting in is damaged in a bombing raid, they negotiate a move even further north, to Myit-kyina by train. Before reaching that uncertain destination, they are diverted to a smaller place, where they and others set up at a forest rest house. There is a gap in May, and the diary then ends abruptly in early June when Sei Tein is killed by dacoits who attack the house. An account of his murder is supplied by someone else. Even though we know how it will end, this firsthand account is absorbing in its detail and immediacy.

History is full of the silences of those who have been forgotten or expunged, but here for once we have a voice.