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Myanmar's turmoil and its key historical connection to Kenya

By XN Iraki | March 21st 2021

Myanmar has been in the news for the last one month for all the wrong reasons, a military coup that toppled an elected government. The country was formerly called Burma, but the name was changed in 1989.

I came to hear of Burma as a young boy. Some of my neighbours were veterans of the Second World War (WWII) and fought against the Japanese in Burma. I have three relatives who luckily came home. Unfortunately, we never chronicled their experiences in this far away land.

By a strange twist of events, one of them ended up in detention during Mau Mau despite fighting for the Empire and serving as a chief.

Some veterans brought artefacts from Burma such as boxes and folks. I hear one veteran brought home a posho mill.

I was lucky to capture the experience of late Mburu Mwikonyi, a veteran of the British campaign in Burma. Know of any veteran alive? Talk to me. Some Kenyan soldiers who fought in Burma did not return and are buried in this far away land. A search on the Commonwealth Graves website did not disappoint.

I found the following buried at Ragoon, Myanmar; Kipsongok arap Chuma, Kimaiyo Kogo, Kithome Mue, Munyao Kilonzo, M’Thirare Kimbui, Karira Gathu, Kimandi Nzau and Kimutai Chuma. Do their children or grandchildren know where their father or grandfather rests in peace?

To buttress the importance of our sons left behind in Burma, we quote a letter written by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded modern Turkey in 1923 and fought in Dardenelles, the strategically narrow channel that links the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.

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The letter dated 1934 is to Australian mothers whose sons fought and died in Turkey during the First World War (WWI).

They are buried there. Australia and New Zealand celebrate ANZAC day on April 25, when their soldiers landed in Gallipoli, next to Dardenelles in WWI. Controlling access to Russia through The Black Sea was the allied force’s strategic objective in WWI.

He wrote: “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives ... You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore, rest in peace.

"There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours... You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.”

This should apply to Kenyans buried in Myanmar and other countries. Do we appreciate the importance of history and its makers?

Does it strike you to learn that your relatives fought in a world war and on the winning side? Does that inspire you in school and the workplace? Or you are more inspired by action movies? The British fought the Japanese so hard in Burma in WW II for the same reason Americans fought in Vietnam.

They feared that if Burma fell, then India, the Jewel on the British Crown would fall too. Americans feared that if Vietnam fell, then lots of neighbouring countries would fall to communism, the so-called domino theory. The British recruited up to 600,000 African soldiers to help fight in Burma and other parts of the World.

The British rule lasted in Burma from 1824 to 1948. It was administered as part of India till 1937. Read “Burmese Days” by George Orwell?

He is more famous for his “Animal Farm “and “1984.” Orwell worked as a policeman in Burma from 1922 to 1928.

Rudyard Kipling, an English journalist, short-story writer, poet, and novelist also worked in India, where he was born. Remember British India originally included Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma.

Burma has had lots of political turmoil since 1947 when General Aung San, the father to the deposed leader and 1991 Peace Nobel laureate and Oxford graduate Aung Suu Kyi was assassinated.

From 1962 to 2011, Myanmar has been ruled by the military who nationalised most industries leading to the impoverishment of the population.

A coup toppling an elected government has put Myanmar in the news yet again. Yet coups are becoming rare as democracy flourishes elsewhere: even Africa, once the playground of coup plotters, has seen the light.

Myanmar was also in the news in 2019 for expelling 700,000 Rohingya Muslims who live predominantly in Rakhine State.

They are Burma’s main group of stateless people. They fled to Bangladesh. The country's population is 57 million and urbanisation is only 31 per cent.

It’s home to one of the world’s longest river, the Irrawaddy. It’s not only an agricultural lifeline with lots of rice grown along it but also a major transport route.

The country was a British colony till 1948. Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) composition is as follows in 2017; agriculture 24.1 per cent, industry 35.6 per cent and services: 40.3 per cent. Compare with Kenya’s.

China is her key trading partner and shares a long border. Why so much political instability? Population density and poverty might be driving coups and political instability.

The predominance of the military in the economy which curtails competition may be the country’s undoing. The military culture is not open to innovation which could contribute to economic underperformance.

But in Western countries, the military lead in spawning innovations which with time trickle down to the masses from the Global Positioning System (GPS) to your mobile phone.

The military is for the protection of the country from external aggression not against civilians who fund it with taxes.

Myanmar and South Korea have the same population.

But very different growth trajectories. Once democracy flourishes, it sets our minds free to innovative. That is what happened in South Korea.

Innovation is reflected in economic growth as we start new firms and expand existing ones. You also attract investors with new ideas while a good image leads to a bigger market beyond the borders. Myanmar has suffered enough, and it is time for democracy to flourish and the economy too.

Kenyans fought in Myanmar to free it from the Japanese. Can we use this historical connection to help Burmese free themselves from military rule?

Can we help democracy flourish in this beautiful country by the Indian Ocean where some Kenyans soldiers rested.

-The writer is a professor at the University of Nairobi

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