Ruth Ling, happy at home in Burma
Monday, 30 November -0001

The Junta at the door

When Aung San Suu Kyi (known in Burma as ‘The Lady’) arrives to address the Houses of Parliament next Thursday, one person watching will be Ruth Ling, whose family was evicted from Burma 50 years ago

Written by Ruth Ling

Dawn was breaking over the shimmering golden stupa of the Shwedagon Pagoda, and the city of Rangoon was stirring into life. A bullock cart laden with fruit and driven by a small boy made its slow progress towards the city and Bogyoke Market. And a long, silent line of young monks, identical in their sa€ ron robes and shaven heads, set out from the seminary, their alms bowls held before them as they slowly walked along the dusty paths.

The procession halted brie‚ y whenever people emerged from their houses with pans of rice to ladle a spoonful into each round, black iron bowl, thereby earning a little more merit for their next life.

It was six in the morning on an April day in 1962, and on the surface, life looked much as it had for 100 years or more. Unhurried and peaceful, as be‹ tted the gentle Buddhist country of Burma. Except at our house, where all hell had broken loose. Our mother, Mary, was standing on her bedroom veranda, pulling on her dressing gown and trembling at the sight and noise erupting below her.

A jeep bearing men in uniform – resplendent with medals, braid and epaulettes – led the convoy. Several lorries driven by soldiers were ‚ anked by motorbike outriders. Rumbling up our long drive between the poinsettias, bougainvillea and banana trees, the vehicles stopped at the porch outside our front door and beneath the veranda. Our VW van, used for transporting hordes of children on the school run through the crazy Rangoon traffic, was dwarfed by what looked like half the Burmese Army parked in our front garden.

The Burmese Army. A few weeks previously, on 2 March 1962, under the command of General Ne Win, it had staged a coup d’état and locked up the socialist government of U Nu in the nearby radio station. Now, it seemed, they had come for us – even though we, like all other Westerners, had been given just six weeks to leave the country and were doing our best to get out by the deadline. We had packed our belongings into tea chests and trunks, giving away anything nonessential to reduce our shipping costs, while our father, Trevor, booked our passage back to England with the Bibby Line and tried to find us somewhere to live. But the Army had come to hasten us on our way.

Burma-02-590Ruth's father Trevor, with Mary and their three daughters

My mother feared they had mistaken us for our neighbours. Our road on the university campus comprised a female students’ hall of residence, the huge battleship grey church of which our father was the chaplain, and two large detached, rundown villas surrounded by gardens with tennis courts – ours and that of the professor next door. Even at nine years old, I knew he was some sort of political dissident, which made him a dangerous neighbour to have.

On that hot summer morning, this was obviously in the mind of our lovely houseboy, the devoted, faithful, handsome A Gyaw. He was like a caring big brother to my sisters and me, while he adored our mother and addressed her as ‘Mamma’ or ‘Auntie’, both expressions of a€ ection and respect for an older woman in Burma.

He was in the kitchen at the rear of the house when the commotion started. Now he came running upstairs, barefoot, so we didn’t hear him until, with an urgent tap on the door, he burst into the bedroom I shared with my elder sister Elspeth. We were standing on our veranda in our nighties, watching the Army officers approaching our front door, the lower ranks falling into step around them. He quickly ushered us back inside. Only when we were out of sight in our bedroom did he whisper, ‘It not safe. Stay here, stay quiet.’

Then he ran down the corridor to rescue Mamma as Trevor was in his study on the ground ‚ oor, meditating and writing, oblivious to the material world. Our mother was from Wimbledon and nothing in her stable upbringing had prepared her for this: life in a huge, very basic house with cold water tin showers, snakes on the verandas, lizards on the walls, cockroaches, only a charcoal- red clay oven to cook on and a meagre stipend.

A dozen servants came with the house – and military coups brought the Army to our doorstep one morning before our dad had even given us our cup of tea in bed. Smitten by India during his war service in Darjeeling, he’d vowed to return to Asia to work and Mary had agreed to follow wherever he went. And now he had got her into this pickle.

Burma-03-590From left: The family's VW van; a signed Christmas card; Ruth in the garden; Ruth's mother, Mary, outside their house in Rangoon

The night watchman, who was paid to patrol the grounds and keep dacoits [bandits], rats, cobras and political insurgents out of the house, but spent every night snoring raucously on the porch steps, lumbered to his feet.

‘General.’ He bobbed up and down sycophantically, an elderly, wizened man in battered rubber „ ip-„ ops, a cotton longyi – the sarong-like garment that both men and women in Burma wear – and a grubby, torn vest. ‘Colonel,’ came the correction.

Now the front door opened and brave young A Gyaw stood there, tall, proud and defiant, facing alone the might of the conquering Burmese army with all the courage that my nineyear- old self, more than a little in love with him, expected of my hero. Looking serious and unwelcoming, he asked the o‹fficers if he might help them.

Elspeth edged forward on to the veranda, where I had resumed my grandstand view of the drama, grabbed a handful of nightie and hauled me back into our bedroom. ‘Stay here and stay quiet,’ she hissed. ‘You heard him.’

And then, as A Gyaw later recounted, the colonel, a jolly man with a currant-bun face, beamed and said, ‘Good morning. We hear the British people are selling their refrigerator and bicycles. We’ve come to buy them.’

These days, we think of the Burmese army as villains, the dictators who kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for 15 years; controlled the national media through strict censorship and Burma’s 50 million people through a network of spies and informers, and made it almost impossible for foreigners to enter the country.

Burma-04-590From left: Shepard Fairey's portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi, 2009, honours her enduring work for human rights; a student march; supporters of the National League for Democracy, 2010

We refer to them as ‘the junta’ and ‘the regime’, and decry them for keeping more than 600 political prisoners incarcerated in Burma’s jails in 2012 – even after Aung San Suu Kyi was freed in November 2010, stood for election in Kawhmu township and  nally took her seat in Parliament 22 years after leading her National League for Democracy party to a landslide victory in 1990’s general election; a result the junta refused to accept.

On 7 July 1962, just three months after we left Burma, the Army returned to the campus where they had come for our household goods, and shot dead 130 Rangoon University students as they protested against Ne Win’s coup d’état. The following day, soldiers blew up the students’ union building with dynamite. This all happened within yards of our house, on the dusty paths where my sisters and I had played, chatted to the students we knew, rode our bikes and gave food to the monks.

But back then in April 1962, in those early days of the new regime, the Army o‹ cers who paid us that dawn visit could not have been kinder. We were indeed selling our enormous American fridge and bicycles, and the grapevine had reached the military. They clearly enjoyed their excursion, roaming through the house inquisitively but respectfully, barefoot as Buddhist custom requires, jackboots left at the door, courteously enquiring whether this or that was for sale, and paying good prices. But whether they kept their booty for themselves, or it found its way on to Rangoon’s thriving black market, is anyone’s guess.

The next day they returned, bringing gifts for Mamma – a crate of cauli„ owers (we gorged on cauli„ ower curry for a week), o¥ al (the servants welcomed that), several brace of live snipe, their poor little feet bound with string, and beautiful orchids, which Mamma arranged in a jam jar as everything was packed.

Orchids in a jam jar – an image that symbolised the dichotomies of Burma. Her breathtaking, natural beauty and colour, the kindness of her people and the prosperity (then) of the country known for its gemstones and teak forests and dubbed ‘the rice bowl of Asia’ – set against the oppressed, impoverished and isolated pariah she became as the junta’s grip took hold.

Burma-05-590Treeclimbing sisters Elspeth (left) and Ruth

A week later, we were en route back to Britain and an uncertain future. We would be homeless and our parents jobless. ‘Home’ lay behind us in Rangoon. (As things turned out, Trevor’s elderly Aunt Alice met us at Tilbury Docks and took us back to her Essex bungalow. My sisters, Mary and I shared her double bed, while she and great-uncle Ted, then 77, slept in armchairs and our father in someone’s garage. Later, we rented a one-bedroom cottage that had no bathroom, just a privy down the garden and a tin tub in the kitchen – a contrast from the immense Burmese mansion.)

I walked through Customs at Rangoon Docks with a pink lampshade on my head that we hadn’t had time to pack, clowning around in an attempt to cheer us all up. So began the six-week voyage on the MV Warwickshire. A British tea planter who boarded the ship with his family at Colombo told us that, according to Burmese legend, if you stand on the aft deck as your boat slips down the Irrawaddy, watching the sun set over the Shwedagon Pagoda, you are destined to return one day.

Our parents never went back to Burma, and my sisters have no plans to – though Ellie, like me, supports Burma through membership of Burma Campaign UK.

But while everyone else was below in their cabins, I stood on the aft deck alone as the ship headed down the Irrawaddy towards the Andaman Sea – wringing out every last moment of Burma until the search party came looking for me, watching the sun set over the golden Shwedagon Pagoda and crying my eyes out at having to leave the land and the people we had grown to love.



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