Tea with the junta

To my surprise… in came the members of Myanmar’s military junta.

I hardly ever mix politics with prehistory, but I feel on this occasion I must. My interest in Burma, as it was when I grew up, began with tales from my father, who lived there for a decade in the 1930s. Twenty-one years ago, an opportunity came to visit what had become Myanmar. News emerged that a Bronze Age site had been found, the first in a country where archaeology had and still does concentrate on the historic period of the Pyu and Bagan states. The Myanmar authorities decided to publicise this find by inviting a group of specialists to visit the country and travel to the site. Nyaung’gan is located well up country, beyond the Chindwin River, so it sounded like a fascinating journey when my invitation arrived. With my wife Polly, we travelled to Bangkok and met the team. There was Ian Glover, the Director of the Thai Fine Arts Department, my colleague Nancy Tayles, and a dozen others. My first impression of Rangoon (now Yangon) was that it had hardly changed since dad was there. There were broad boulevards, colonial buildings, and few modern vehicles. We were welcomed by our chaperone for the week’s stay, Daw Nyi Nyi Mint. She was an elegant lady with perfect English who was or had been the mistress of U Nu, the military strongman of his day. She was treated by her retainers like royalty.

We were lodged in a luxurious hotel with a view over the Shwedagon temple. With Ian, we visited it the following morning, and were approached by a young man who told us that he had been a university student, but was now at a loose end, because student protests against the military junta had led to the closure of all universities. The following day we flew up to Mandalay and then boarded a bus that took us to the provincial town of Monywa, and then on to a volcanic upland and the site of Nyaung’gan. For a specialist in the later prehistory of Thailand, it was fascinating to see at first hand the similarities and differences between a Bronze Age site separated by about 900km from those I have excavated. The dead had been interred in an extended, supine position, associated with many pottery vessels, stone bangles, and the occasional bronze spears, axes, and points. One of the problems of fully evaluating this site, is that all the burials were left in place to present something of interest to any visiting tourist. My trowel hand was itching to get into some of the large pots to see if they contained – as in Thailand – infant remains and mortuary offerings.

At Nyaung’gan, we found that the prehistoric cemetery was now under a roof, the skeletons untouched so as to provide something for tourists to view.

It was indeed a most interesting site, and there was much to mull over as we departed for Mandalay and a visit to the reconstructed Royal Palace of the last Burmese kings, Mindon and Thibaw, before the British seized it in 1885 and turned it into Fort Dufferin. It was razed to the ground by bombing during the Second World War and rebuilt in the 1990s. Daw Nyi Nyi Mint also took us to the Mahamuni temple to view the bronze statues taken first by the Thais from Angkor Wat in 1431, and then by the Burmese following an invasion in 1564.

An unexpected audience

On our return to Yangon, we were all taken to a sumptuous pavilion beside a lake for what was described in advance as the ‘opening ceremony’. We trooped into an auditorium and our allocated seats in the second row from the front. It was filled with political stooges. Then, to my surprise and I suspect that of our entire delegation, in came the members of the military junta. Everyone stood as they shook our collective hands to a background of flash photographs, and then we all sat down to listen to a series of welcome speeches, and presentations from some of we guests. When this opening ceremony was over, refreshments were served.

For some unaccountable reason, perhaps a case of mistaken identity, Polly and I were ushered into a private room to sit down to afternoon tea with the junta. I was seated between General Khin Nyunt (military boss number 2) and the Minister of Education. The number 1, Than Shwe, was otherwise engaged that day. I’ve seen it estimated that Khin Nyunt was responsible for over 10,000 arrests, torture, farcical show trials, and decades-long prison terms. He was later arrested, imprisoned, and now apparently sells souvenirs from a coffee shop. My conversations brought home to me the simple fact that these military men lived in a hermetically sealed bubble. The Minister of Education told me that he couldn’t comprehend what the outside world found so distasteful about his regime.

The following morning, Polly and I found a copy of a newspaper called New Light on Myanmar in our hotel room. The front page of this appalling rag made it very clear that the junta had used us and our hand-shakings as evidence for world approval of their regime, detailing where we all came from amid our happy smiles as we met the military.

RIGHT In Mandalay, I bought a captive falcon and released it into freedom, hopefully a good omen for Myanmar.
In Mandalay, I bought a captive falcon and released it into freedom, hopefully a good omen for Myanmar.

Every cloud has a silver lining, however. The warm welcome given us by Burmese archaeologists, starved as they were of outside contacts and cooperation, led to some of our team returning to undertake fieldwork in a country so strategically located with its open corridors of communication with India and China, not to mention the rest of South-east Asia. Jean-Pierre Pautreau, for example, who had been excavating in North-east Thailand, moved west and initiated the French-Myanmar research project in the Samon Valley. This led to identifying numerous prehistoric sites that laid the foundation for understanding, in particular, the social changes that took place with the Iron Age prior to early state formation. I first became acquainted with Oliver Pryce when he joined me as a site supervisor at Ban Non Wat about 15 years ago. He has since become the leading archaeometallurgist in South-east Asia, with unparalleled new results from the analyses of lead isotopes from prehistoric bronzes. He is now based in Paris and is the Director of the French Archaeological Mission to Myanmar.

I follow his excavations with great interest and have even contributed to his results by funding some of his radiocarbon-dating initiatives. At the site of Oakaei, which lies just south of Nyaung’gan, he has opened a remarkable cemetery with graves laid out in precise rows, as well as settlement and production sites for ornaments in agate, carnelian, and nephrite. One grave contains a socketed bronze axe that matches closely those from Ban Non Wat. There is a transition there from the Neolithic into the early Bronze Age, and an opportunity, therefore, to see if the adoption of copper- base metallurgy follows the established chronology for Thai sites, which places the earliest bronzes in the late 2nd millennium BC. It is most reassuring to find that the Oakaei transition is dated to about 1000 BC. Not only that, but some of the copper from these early Myanmar sites was, according to the lead-isotope ratios, mined over 1,000km to the east at Vilabouly in upland Laos. More recently, the Franco-Myanmar team transferred to the remarkable early city site of Halin, where the historic occupation lies atop a deep prehistoric sequence stretching back to the early Neolithic farmers.

Everything in the French mission was going with a swing until 1 February. Plans were well in hand to return to the field. I was keenly anticipating further news until another military man, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, entered centre stage. At a stroke, this benighted country has been returned to the same breed of tinpot dictators as I encountered two decades ago. How well I remember the students I met, suffering from the closure of universities, and then their relocation to remote backwaters with no facilities. And the man I met in Mandalay who quietly told me of the deep well of silent protest against the junta. I had there encountered a woman selling captive birds. I bought a beautiful falcon that sat immured in its cage, and released it into the azure sky. It soared up and alighted on the cross atop the spire of a church. I hoped that this might be a good omen for Myanmar, and briefly it was, but now the military is killing its own people again. It reminds me of Rome as it declined. If an Emperor had the support of the Praetorian Guard, he was secure. If Min Aung Hlaing can bank on his awful army, young men doubtless fed clever propaganda and a comfortable life, it is hard to see a way out of this morass. There is so much suffering, and archaeology is just one minor key.