BOOK REVIEW Before the darkness Rangoon Journalist: Memoirs of Burma days 1940-1958 by J F
Reviewed by Bertil Lintner
CHIANG MAI - When Josef Ferdinand Samaranayake first entered Burma in 1940, he
did not make a brilliant first impression. A police officer in the western town
of Akyab, or Sittwe, produced a paper saying that "a Ceylonese tourist has left
for Burma on foot. There is nothing definite against him. He appears eccentric
and mentally deficient. Watch his movements."
Samaranayake, from Ceylon, or today's Sri Lanka, was in fact on the run from
the British police in India. He was suspected of being a Japanese spy simply
because he had said Japan would enter
the war in Southeast and South Asia before it actually did. He had come to that
conclusion from reading a book called The Menace of Japan and therefore
could talk somewhat authoritatively about the danger that Tokyo's imperialists
posed to the region.
He had chosen to escape to Burma, now known as Myanmar, because he thought he
would be safe there. Besides, he writes in his memoirs, "Those were the great
days in Burma, the days of the 'Gold Rush' when displaced persons of other
countries, Ceylon, India, looked to Burma for high salary jobs. And there were
plenty. Employers' touts came to the port, to look for eligible young men to
offer them jobs that they would not dream of obtaining in their own country."
Samaranayake's Rangoon Journalist was obviously written during a time
when Myanmar was a very different country. He remained there for 18 years,
became a journalist and left only after, in 1958, army chief general Ne Win
assumed power for the first time. The writing was on the wall about the newly
independent country's political direction, and Samaranayake decided to move on.
He worked as a journalist in South Vietnam, Sri Lanka and India before he
passed away in Bangalore in 1979.
His memoirs are now being published by his descendants and Rangoon Journalist
will be followed by similar accounts of his life and times in south Vietnam and
Sri Lanka. They have chosen not to change or edit the original manuscript,
which is written in quaint Victorian English, full of archaic expressions and
ripe with flowery language. But that is the charm of the book and the anecdotes
he relates are not only amusing but also a reflection of what life was like in
Myanmar before the military takeover.
In 1962, Ne Win seized power once again in a bloody putsch and this time he
abolished the country's parliamentary system, and its federal constitution.
Newspapers were nationalized and allowed to print only what the new military
regime deemed as fit. The country has been under various guises of military
rule ever since and the local press has never recovered its lost freedoms.
But Samaranayake does not paint an entirely rosy picture of Myanmar in the
1950s: "Bribery and corruption reigned supreme. In the courts, no peon carried
a piece of paper from one part of the court to another unless he was paid,
bribed. Magistrates took bribes, office clerks took bribes, and monks extorted
money from people. Everyone gloated in corruption."
It was also a time of unprecedented press freedom for Myanmar, a country with a
long and proud literary tradition. Although Samaranayake does not mention it in
his book, Myanmar was the first country in the region to guarantee freedom of
the press, done in an edict issued by King Mindon in 1873. During the British
colonial period that followed, new printing methods were introduced and Myanmar
was home to dozens of newspapers in Burmese, English, Chinese and several
Indian languages. Periodicals were also printed in minority languages.
At independence in 1948, there were 39 newspapers in the country: 21 in
Burmese, seven in English, five in Chinese, two in Hindi, and one each in
Gujarati, Urdu, Tamil and Telugu. Myanmar's press was more modern, outspoken
and professional than media elsewhere in the region, with perhaps the sole
exception of India. Samaranayake recounts in intriguing detail his meetings
with other journalists and editors, as well as politicians, diplomats and other
He became an editorial writer for The Burman, and "thus began a career as a
controversial writer which brought me into notoriety in the city".
Samaranayake, a Roman Catholic, got into trouble with the Buddhist community by
"refuting such teachings as the No-Soul Theory, or the doctrine of Karma and
Reincarnation." And he accepted an offer from Pakistani diplomats in Rangoon
(now known as Yangon) to supply them with "private intelligence information
about Myanmar, such as the activities of the Burma [Myanmar] Army, its
strength, and so forth", But, he adds, only because he needed the money and
then "took to writing some imaginary reports".
During that time he also met Peter Simms, an Englishman turned Buddhist who had
married one of the daughters of Myanmar's first president, Sao Shwe Thaike, and
become an adviser to one of the country's newspaper editors. What Samaranayake
probably did not know was that Simms was also a British intelligence agent, and
the model for the chief spy in John Le Carre's classic The Honourable Schoolboy.
On another occasion, Samaranayake wrote about the hardship of Burmese children
which had unexpected and positive consequences. Perhaps inspired by his
reporting, Daw Khin Kyi, the widow of assassinated independence hero Aung San
and the mother of today's pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, decided to form
Myanmar's first Child Welfare League.
But times were fast changing and on December 30, 1958, Samaranayake "took the
lone chilly road from Rangoon city to Mingaladon airport. I said to myself:
alone, unheralded I came to Burma, and alone, unheralded I shall leave." At
that time "General Ne Win's military administration was ... in full swing, and,
on the way, from place to place the soldiers and policemen would stop my car,
and want to look into the luggage."
Today, after half a century of military rule in one guise or another, Myanmar's
press remains stifled. The Committee to Protect Journalists describes the press
freedom situation there as abysmal and has appealed for the release of
imprisoned Myanmar journalists. But there are also some positive signs. While
the dailies may remain under military control, there are literally hundreds of
privately owned magazines and journals that run on a weekly basis due to strict
Although they operate in extremely difficult and often dangerous circumstances,
they are keeping Myanmar's old literary traditions alive - a tradition that
Samaranayake has documented in a very personal way before five decades of
darkness fell over the country's once vibrant press scene.
Rangoon Journalist: Memoirs of Burma days 1940-1958 by J F Samaranayake.
Self-published by Christine Samaranayake-Robinson, Honolulu, Hawaii (2010).
ISBN 9 781460 946954, 144 pages.
Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic
Review and author of several books on Burma/Myanmar. He is currently a writer
with Asia-Pacific Media Services.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)