He was anxious for the health of his wife and their unborn child. More than a few of the old courtiers had already advised him to flee to the villages of his ancestors. Others told him to give in. But his generals, severe in their lacquered helmets and green and magenta velvet coats, promised they would do their best to hold back the advance of the enemy; some even voiced confidence of final victory. They reminded him of the imposing fortifications that had been built up and down the valley, and of the royal steamships and smaller boats that would soon be scuttled to make the passage upriver as difficult as possible. Even the underwater explosives his young engineers had been busy developing would soon be ready for use. Too many soldiers were tied down fighting renegade princes in the eastern hills, but there were still enough men to put up a good fight.
The high crenellated walls of the royal city of Mandalay had been built in the days of his father for exactly this situation. The vermilion ramparts formed a perfect square and were each over a mile long, backed by massive earthworks and preceded by a wide and deep moat. If the invading army could be drawn into a long siege, he could direct a guerilla operation from beyond the forests to the north.
The rains had just ended, and in the brilliant sunshine he could see his cavalry practising in the muddy fields not far from the palace. But whatever his generals said, in his heart he knew that in the last analysis his little army was no match for the force assembling just three hundred miles to the south. But what was the alternative? Surrender? His more worldly ministers, men who had travelled to the West, told him to compromise, stall for time, open negotiations. He should avoid a military conflict at all costs and agree to all their demands if necessary. But did he trust them? There were rumours that the enemy would bring his elder half brother, now eight years in exile, and place him on the throne. The kingdom would become a protectorate. Perhaps this is what his noble advisers wanted. His wife told him to stand firm and prepare for war.
The above is an excerpt from the opening chapter of Thant Myint-U’s excellent if idiosyncratic The River of Lost Footsteps, and hints at my next side project, which shall not be fully disclosed until I’ve actually painted something up.
Although unacademic and at times personal, the book does give a highly readable overview of Burma’s history that never fails to remind us how colourful it has often been. Who remembers that a Kurtz-like 17th Century Portuguese adventurer actually attempted to carve out his own private kingdom at Syriam, or that while the rest of South-east Asia was mired in dictatorship the Burma of the 1950s was a functioning democracy with internationalist ambitions?
I did manage to catch Mr. Myint-U’s lecture at the Siam Society last year, and was impressed enough to read his book. What I found most interesting of all was his suggestion for moving the country forward out of its present state of benighted pariahdom. It is thought-provoking and, coming from a man who’s unhesitant to denounce the military’s despotic rule, wholly unexpected.