The Soul of a People

Harold Fielding Hall

In the book The Soul of a People (1898), written when Myanmar was part of the British Empire, Harold Fielding Hall gives a description of the character of the Burmese people. This description is quite opposed to the intolerant and even murderous predispositions nowadays attributed to them in the West and Arabia.

Harold Fielding-Hall (1859-1917) was born in Ireland. He went round the world in a sailing ship, 1878. Coffee planting in Upper Burma 1879-1885. In government service as political officer for a district, 1887-1891, and became district magistrate 1901; organized rural banks in Burma 1904-1906. Retired 1906 and returned to England.

In his book The Soul of a People (1898), Chapter XVIII ‘Manners’, p. 222-228, starts as follows:

‘A remarkable trait of the Burmese character is their unwillingness to interfere in other people’s affairs. Whether it arises from their religion of self-culture or no, I cannot say, but it is in full keeping with it. Every man’s act and thoughts are his own affair, think the Burmans; each man is free to go his own way, to think his own thoughts, to act his own acts, as long as he does not too much annoy his neighbours. (…)  He has a very great and wide tolerance towards all his neighbours, not thinking it necessary to disapprove of his neighbours’ acts because they may not be the same as his own, never thinking it necessary to interfere with his neighbours as long as the laws are not broken. (…) He never desires to interfere with anyone. Certain as he is that his own ideas are best, he is contented with that knowledge, and is not ceaselessly desirous to prove it to other people. And so a foreigner may go and live in a Burman village, may settle down there and live his own life and follow his own customs in perfect freedom, may dress and eat and drink and pray as he likes. No one will interfere. No one will try and correct him; no one will be for ever insisting to him that he is an outcast, either from civilization or from religion. The people will accept him for what he is, and leave the matter there. If he likes to change his ways and conform to Burmese habits and Burmese forms, so much the better; but if not, never mind.’

Jan-Philipp Sendker

More than a hundred years after Harold Fielding Hall the soul of the people of Myanmar has been described in a breath taking way in three novels of German author Jan-Philipp Sendker.

Between 1990 and 2005 Jan-Philipp Sendker (1960) was correspondent of weekly Stern in USA and Asia.

In 2002 he published Das Herzenhören (The Art of Hearing Heartbeats), in 2012 its sequel Herzenstimmen (A Well Tempered Heart) and in 2017 Das Geheimnis des Alten Mönches, Märchen und Fabeln aus Burma. (The Long Path to Wisdom. Tales from Burma). The other day he finished his new book about Myanmar after 2007, Das Gedächtnis des Herzens, (The Memory of the Heart), to be released September 3.

In the past years he also wrote three books about China.

George Orwell

George Orwell (pseudonym of Eric Arthur  Blair, 1903 – 1950) described in Burmese Days (1934) life of the British colonials. Because of his latter works Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) in Myanmar Orwell is often called ‘the prophet’. They see parallels between Animal Farm and the Ne Win government 1962 – 1991, and between Nineteen Eighty-Four and SLORC after 1991.

Buddhism and the State

The report Buddhism and State Power in Myanmar (September 2017) by the International Crisis Group, I find an admirable capable and clear report, considering it will have been composed and written by non-Burmese and non-Buddhists. As far as I can see it offers a wonderful survey of the ‘soul of the people’, one hundred and twenty years after Harold Fielding’s book (see above). Those who are more familiar with Buddha-Dhamma than the authors of the report, will undoubtedly be able to assess it rightly.

There is so much fallacy about Myanmar. Already in 2013 in Time weekly, not hampered with any knowledge, the monk U Wirathu was named the Bin Laden of Myanmar. How the seeds of hate are sown! However, while a monk is not a politician and vice versa, he is at the utmost the Geert Wilders or Marine le Pen of the country – even their most convinced adversaries will not compare them with Bin Laden. So let us at the utmost call him a sower of fear. And please see the man in his context: he was in prison from 2003 to 2012 because of incitement and got a six month gag order in 2017.

For those who notwithstanding keep having difficulties with the difference between facts and their own opinions, I have some other news: the attack by the ARSA terrorists August 25 2017 is seen in Myanmar as their 9/11. This report might be helpful to get accustomed to it.