Burmese for Beginners

Amongst Stan’s possessions is a pamphlet with some basic sentences in ‘Burmese’ and ‘Kachin’. Kachin, the northernmost state of modern Myanmar, is some considerable distance from Stan’s usual flight routes, and I think it’s likely therefore that this was a general issue pamphlet – probably produced by the U.S. Army and distributed to UK and Commonwealth servicemen serving in the Pacific theatre.
The pamphlet includes several phrases, transliterated into the Latin alphabet with emphasis added by underlining. Most are in the imperative – ‘You watch.’/ ‘Find a boat.’/ ‘Take me to the headman’. – but there are also a number of questions aimed at eliciting troop locations and numbers and securing food and lodgings. Finally, there is a ‘Thank you’ and an ominous sounding ‘Run away’.


The front of the pamphlet comprises an eight-page illustrated instruction manual which wouldn’t look out of place in a children’s atlas of the period: ‘How to get along with the Kachins, Shans & Burmans: a brief guide to the peoples of Northern Burma’. Much of the advice is common sense. Allied servicemen are reminded not to make a pass at local women, kill villagers’ livestock, or offend local tribal elders. There are less obvious inclusions: servicemen are reminded not to cut down villagers’ bamboo, or inadvertently desecrate their shrines.
There is much of interest here, but some of the statements are fairly offensive. The pamphlet reproduces classic tropes about the slow pace of work expected of ‘Orientals’, along with their perceived pliability. The Burmese villagers are, apparently, prone to be ‘flighty and excitable’ – as, one imagines, anyone would be when faced with the prospect of harbouring an allied parachutist in Japanese occupied territory – and a Kachin is considered ‘apt to go back on you just when he’s begun to be helpful’. The cartoon illustrations, too, have some idiosyncrasies – not least the fact that the cartoonist could only draw one face. Hence the American G.I., the Burman, Shan and Kachin, all have remarkably similar features, save the fact that latter three all seem to have their eyes shut, and are wearing different types of hat. Whether this is culturally accurate, I’m not able to definitively say.

Delving further into the bag, I discovered notes from Burmese language classes taken at the ‘Royal Airforce School For Jungle Self Preservation Training’. This was Stan’s first stop in India after landing at Bombay. I haven’t yet been able to precisely locate the camp – Stan simply notes it down as being in Mahabaleshwar. Below you’ll find all the notes. Showing promise from the outset, section two is entitled ‘Grammer’.

burmese-lectures

 

 

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