Night of the junta

Despite a sham election, Aung San Suu Kyi’s imminent release offers hope to Burma.

The only party displaying posters here - and then only a handful - is the Union Solidarity and Development (USDP), the main proxy of the military junta, and the only party with the resources to campaign all over the country. Its victory is a foregone conclusion and, when it comes, it will be greeted by millions of Bur­mese with a sneer and a shudder.

“I don't like it," said the driver of the taxi I hailed outside the British embassy. "The regime is lying to the people and to all the world. They don't know what democracy is. This election is a lie." The prominence of the USDP throws into strong relief what a weird election this is. Its parent organisation has long been notorious among Burma-watchers for one thing: the attack on Aung San Suu Kyi and a convoy of supporters on 30 May 2003 at Depayin in the north of the country, north-west of Mandalay. Late at night in an isolated area, the opposition leader's car was ambushed by a large crowd of thugs armed with sticks, clubs and knives. More than 50 members and followers of her party were massacred that night and her number two suffered a severe head injury. Aung San Suu Kyi, the back window of her car smashed in, escaped death thanks only to the courage of her driver.

Democracy develops as a way of sublimating warlike instincts into more constructive ends, but it is clear that, for Burma's generals, war
is war, whatever other fancy names people give it. When Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Burma's first leader after independence, stood for election in 1990, it was taken as a declaration of war against the regime: a war that, humiliatingly, her forces won without firing a shot.

Rise without a trace

For the generals, Burma's history over the past 20 years is the story of the military's campaign to reverse that loss - first by putting the opposing army's commander out of action, and then by rewriting the rules to give its profoundly unpopular proxies an advantage. The most cunning and decisive move was to ban from the election political parties with convicts in their membership - thus requiring Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy either to expel its leader or to suffer liquidation. Prompted by her, it chose the latter.

Victory in an election will be the crowning achievement of the Than Shwe years. The short, portly, inarticulate and poorly educated former postal worker who came to power in 1992 is the Zelig of Burma; the man without qualities who climbed to the apex of the military largely because nobody could bring themselves to believe that he posed a threat. Though Than Shwe is an object of ridicule for Burma's democrats, his hagiographer will not find it difficult to construct a heroic narrative from the events of the past 17 years.

Slowly and fitfully, but with clear evidence of a grand design, Than Shwe has buried democracy's hopes of coming to any sort of credible fruition in his country - establishing a National Convention in 1992 to write a new constitution, setting a so-called seven-step road map to democracy 11 years later, fixing a referendum on the new constitution in 2008 (92 per cent purportedly voted "Yes"), and now the keystone: an election that will cement in place the military's right to rule the country (they will hold 25 per cent of parliamentary seats, occupy the key ministries and retain a veto on legislation) with a window-dressing of what they call "disciplined democracy".

But Than Shwe's most distinctive achievement, one that even his swaggering predecessor Ne Win could not match, has been to build himself a new capital, Naypyidaw, hundreds of kilometres north of Rangoon. The city is adorned with statues of ancient kings, and its name translates as "the royal capital" or "abode of the kings" - a nod to where Than Shwe's megalomanic instincts are tending.

Yet uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. The worst problem, as in so many other post-colonial countries, is legitimacy. After centuries of coercive rule, how does a home-grown leader persuade his people that he has the right to demand their obedience? Democracy alone may not be enough; in the admirably democratic years of Prime Minister U Nu, the country was practically torn in pieces by contending insurgencies. Seizing power in a coup in 1962, Ne Win fell back on military might.

The failure of the military's earlier proxy, the National Unity Party, to gain more than ten seats in the election of 1990 exposed the huge gap between the army's claim on power and what the people were disposed to grant it. The army, as that result showed, no more enjoyed the affection of the population than the British before them. And in Aung San Suu Kyi, whose father founded the Burmese army and negotiated independence from the British in 1947, it had found a person with a far more persuasive claim to legitimacy.

Than Shwe has devoted himself to constructing an edifice that would loom over Aung San Suu Kyi, rooting the army's claim to power in the nation's traditional iconography. That this is a hopelessly atavistic endeavour goes without saying. It threatens to leave Burma becalmed in a settlement in which the people's demands for the most miserable basics of life continue to be ignored, and in which border wars drag on.

The only ray of hope is that the end of the reigns of Burmese rulers - Than Shwe is 77 - are always moments of uncertainty; and Aung San Suu Kyi is finally due to be freed on 13 November. The consequences are utterly unpredictable.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Israel divided

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The Somme and modern memory

My father was 16 when he enlisted in the army in September 1914. Within nine months he was fighting on the Western Front.

On 30 June 1916, the day before the Battle of the Somme began, my father’s regiment, the Cambridgeshires, were 40 miles north at Richebourg-Saint-Vaast. What happened the next morning was a great acceleration of attrition along the front. My father’s diary – a black hardbacked book, fraying at the edges 100 years on, but with his immaculate pencil handwriting still legible – records that the Royal Sussex Regiment, in the line in front of his, launched an attack but “had to retire with great loss leaving hundreds of dead and wounded behind”. The Cambridgeshires also suffered; 28 were killed or wounded.

The next morning was a “lovely day, very hot”. Relieved in the afternoon, his company “passed graves of men who fell on the 30th. It was a sad sight to see the rows of dead waiting to be buried, with a chaplain reading the burial service over them.” He was 18 years and six months old: 2578 Signaller James Heffer, 1/1st Cambridgeshires, had enlisted on 7 September 1914 at the Hills Road recruiting office in Cambridge, aged 16 years and eight months, two days after the Kitchener poster was published in the press. He had lied about his age, claiming to be 19, the minimum at which one could be sent abroad. He was a tall, healthy lad and the recruiting sergeant might just have been taken in. He was on the Western Front by May 1915 and served there for most of the rest of the war as a signaller (he was fluent in Morse code even in old age) and despatch rider before manning the first tanks. The war, and particularly the Somme, coloured the rest of his life and cast a perspective on everything. If you could survive that, you could survive anything.

I was a child of his second marriage. He was widowed in his late fifties and was 62 when I was born. I recall the Saturdays before Remembrance Sunday in the 1960s, when he would drive to Cambridge for his regimental reunion. He came back uplifted: he was in no doubt about how awful the war had been, how duped the people had been, and what a terrible price men such as those with whom he served had been called upon to pay for the mistakes of politicians. Yet he made friendships in the trenches that lasted for life; the Cambridgeshires had their share of losses but were not devastated in the way that some other regiments were.

James Heffer and his three brothers all served on the Western Front for over three years and came back in one piece. When I was a child, he would take out some maps he had of the front, used so often that their seams were patched with brown Sellotape. He had marked the trenches on them and would talk me through passages in the diary with reference to the maps and recall long-dead men whose names he had noted. Visiting war cemeteries in the 1990s, many years after his death, I found some of them. For him, remembrance was never abstract.

***

In July 1916, word went up the line about how well things were going further south. “British and French still making good progress in the Somme – 9 villages taken,” my father wrote on 3 July. There was no mention of the inconceivable number of dead and wounded on that first day. As a signaller, he received information to which most in the ranks had no access, and in keeping a diary he was in breach of King’s Regulations. It seems that the men at the front were told only good news: villages captured, huge numbers of prisoners taken. However, as they met those who had been in the thick of it, the truth could not be contained. After a month just outside Lens, the Cambridgeshires were relieved by the East Yorks. “By what they said,” my father noted on 10 August, with commendable understatement, “the Somme ­offensive is not at all a success.”

James Heffer spent the next week just outside Arras, learning a new form of visual signalling and being trained in attacking enemy trenches. Both skills were felt to have been deficient in the great battle and the next wave of soldiers had to be better. “I had seen better attacks made by Boy Scouts,” he wrote on 18 August. Within five days, he was on the front line of the Somme battlefield, country he knew well, as the regiment had been there in October 1915. As they neared Pozières, he noted a bombardment of unusual force and duration. By 26 August he was at Thiepval, where Lutyens’s great monument now crowns the battlefield. “Everywhere you looked there were guns and they were keeping up their fire. I had no idea we had so many guns. I bet they give the Germans a merry time.”

The bombardment continued all night, most of the following day and all the following night. James remained standing in mud and water, even though the hot weather had persisted. The rations had deteriorated. This was a harshness of warfare he had not experienced in his 15 months in France. A gas attack was launched on the night of 28 August; the following day, a British plane was shot down in no-man’s-land. “Both airmen killed: they lie just the other side of the trench riddled by the Germans’ bullets.” By 30 August, after four days of non-stop shelling and comrades being picked off around him, he was “tired and miserable”. A high point was the arrival of a German deserter, who admitted that things were no better on the other side.

On 3 September, he wrote: “At 5am every man was ordered to get into the trench as bombardment was about to commence.” However, three signallers – including James – were sent to a fort in the trench system to establish communications with another unit of the regiment. “The sky was coloured blood red by the rising sun and everything shook and trembled when all our guns opened out.” Looking through clouds of smoke, he wrote: “[The town of] Albert could be seen, with its shattered towers looming faintly above the smoke. It was a splendid but yet awful sight when you think of the lives to be lost and this bloody conflict through a country’s greed for territory.”

Eventually James went forward: “The rest of us made for trenches across country under heavy shelling. Reached communications trench, which was blocked up by dead and wounded. It was hell itself . . . The bottom of the trench was a mixture of blood and mud while it rained iron from above. Just missed getting buried alive several times by large shells.” There was no respite. He was sent back with a signal and “had to crawl over dead and wounded getting back. Some had awful wounds. What with the smell of blood, no food, no sleep it took me all my time to get along.”

He discovered that the rest of his battalion had been forced to retreat by the huge German bombardment. They managed to hold their original position until the Hertfordshires relieved them.

The next day they were back in the line, under a torrent of German gas shells. “Kept this up for six hours. Put on gas helmets. Had about 6,000 over with one on the top of the dugout. It was enough to send one mad when tired out as we were.”

The staccato nature of the writing reflects his exhaustion and, perhaps, an attempt to keep a distance from the constant horror. When the bombardment ceased he sustained a minor wound: “I got through with just one small knock from shrapnel,
bringing dead in.” He and his surviving comrades spent the whole of the next day bringing in the casualties: he estimated that 5,000 men in the division had been killed or wounded, and the Cambridgeshires had lost 140. For several days they braced themselves for a German attack. By the time they moved to Beaumont-Hamel on 13 September, it had not come.

Over the next fortnight, friends and comrades are killed by stray shells or snipers. There are near misses for the diarist, who is several times buried in mud, sandbags and chalk as shells burst on the trench parapet. A dugout he has just evacuated is obliterated by a direct hit. Attempts to take German positions fail, usually because of an inability to cut the wire. An officer is wounded and another who tries to retrieve him is taken prisoner; a third is wounded even more seriously in making another attempt; the next officer who goes out never comes back. It typifies the futility of the battle.

Regular transports attempt to bring in food but the Germans have taken a small hill nearby and wreck the vehicles before they reach the trenches, or attack them as they are unloading. On 25 September the shelling becomes so heavy that the transport goes “hell for leather” before delivering any food. However: “We had about 2 quarts of rum between 8 men so you can bet we had a jolly old time before the night was out.”

The next day, he watched British shells landing on the centre of Thiepval “like hundreds of volcanoes just exploding, and it looked as if the hill was slowly being blown to pieces”. The battle had been raging now for nearly three months and the ­attacks continued day and night. “At 11am [26 September] the artillery here opened out like one long crash of thunder and the earth rocked with the vibration: such an artillery action I had never heard before.” This was the attempt to recapture Thiepval.

He observed the enemy from a ridge: “The Germans I could see running towards us across the open, in places where the trenches had been knocked flat . . . There must have been a company of them without rifles and equipment running and falling down the trench in mad terror, exposed to anybody who would care to shoot them, our shells bursting right among them. I had never seen men run like it before.” The Germans were surrounded and he soon watched through his binoculars a wave of British troops jump into the same trench and start shooting – before the Geneva Conventions, prisoners were not always taken. He saw Germans using the remains of sandbags as white flags and surrendering.

On 29 September, after five weeks on the Somme, his battle ended with a “Blighty one”, a wound so bad that he had to be repatriated. He was standing by a trench mortar when a shell in it blew up. “With a smash, we were blown back, deafened and choking. I thought my heart was never going to start again.” His right hand was badly burned, “the fat burning on my fingers”. A corporal helped put out the flames on his hand: “I went mad: the pain was awful.” He recorded this a few weeks later at Leeds Infirmary, where surgeons managed to save his right hand, once he had regained the use of it.

***

James Heffer went back to France early in 1917 and was still six weeks from his 21st birthday when the Armistice was signed. He talked of the Somme, like the rest of his war, with the detachment of a historian (he became a tax inspector) rather than with the emotion of one who had been up to his ankles in blood there. Perhaps even for one so calm and as philosophical as he was, any detailed introspection was, even half a century afterwards, more than would be wise.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and the Sunday Telegraph

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain