"Myanmar is a bird learning to fly, and now the army has broken our wings"
This week's military coup in Myanmar risks a repetition of the army takeover there 60 years ago, which led to decades of isolation, poverty, oppression and racial intolerance
In the backstreets of downtown Chennai, close to the Burma Bazaar, there are - in normal times, at least - a handful of long-established noodle stalls. They sell 'atho', a particular type of noodle salad. I recommend it. These stalls specialise in a cuisine which their founders brought back with them across the Bay of Bengal from what is now Myanmar.
The families that set up and run these stalls, though, are not Burmese. Or at least it's nothing like that simple. They are of Indian origin. Tamil and Telugu speakers who were part of the huge migration by sea eastwards from India a few generations ago.
In the 1930s, Rangoon - now Yangon - was a mainly Indian city. 'Far more people crossed the Bay of Bengal than any other part of the Indian Ocean', according to the historian of migration, Sunil Amrith. The busiest routes were between eastern India and three main destinations: Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Burma (now Myanmar) and Malaya (now Malaysia).
Japan's wartime occupation of Burma and Malaya in the 1940s marked an eclipse of these migration routes. But the final snapping of the longstanding links between Burma and India's east coast came in 1962, when the Burmese army staged a takeover and resorted to what amounted to ethnic cleansing.
Large numbers of Indians - perhaps as many as 200,000 - were forced out of Burma. Some of those migrants set up Chennai's Burma Bazaar; others established the noodle stalls nearby. A few of the older workers on the stalls remember making that hurried sea journey as youngsters. Chennai's fondness for atho and the name of the nearby market are among the few tangible remnants on this side of the Bay of the once intimate links between India and Burma.
In Burma, army rule brought with it ethnic strife, profound isolation, poverty and political oppression. Almost 60 years later, the military coup staged in Myanmar this week may again propel a nation which has great potential wealth in agriculture and raw materials into seclusion and hardship.
The generals would do almost anything to hang on to power. In 1988, they savagely suppressed a student uprising with the loss of thousands of lives. They later locked up Aung San Suu Kyi - whose father founded the Burmese army and is regarded as a national hero - to frustrate her campaign for democracy and human rights. In 2007, they suppressed widespread protests led by Buddhist clergy. A few years later they relented by overseeing a managed democracy which introduced civilian rule and gave a leadership role for Aung San Suu Kyi while ensuring that the army was not subject to civilian control and retaining the huge political and economic power of the senior military.
It was an uneasy co-existence. And the organised pogrom targetting the Rohingya Muslim minority has tarnished all in Myanmar's government, military and civilians.
In elections in November, the pro-army party was so overwhelmingly defeated by Aung San Suu Kyi's followers, top officers feared that their toehold on power was about to end. The coup was their response. Aung Sang Suu Kyi and many of her supporters are once more in detention, and Burma's slow progression towards full democracy has hastily slipped into reverse.
The Indian community in Myanmar now accounts for barely two per cent of the population - though that still amounts to about a million people and a few localities in central Yangon continue to have a distinctly Indian feel. But China has emerged as Myanmar's main ally and the key supporter of the generals in particular. If the democratic powers shun Myanmar's military rulers and perhaps impose new sanctions, then China's influence is likely to increase.
But the tragedy now playing out across the Bay of Bengal is that of human rights breached, human potential unrealised and political pluralism unachieved. "Our country is just a bird, learning to fly," one democracy activist in Yangon commented on the day of the coup, "and now the army has broken our wings".
Myanmar's generals must know that while this coup may extend their time in power, the tide is against them. For the moment, however, there is a real danger that the 2021 military coup will see a repeat of the 1962 takeover, consigning Myanmar once again to isolation, immiseration and racial conflict.
(Cover image: AP)