The Despot and the Diplomat
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, February 07, 2023


The Despot and the Diplomat


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And so he returned to his superiors brimming with satisfaction at the success of his mission, which produced a list of trade concessions and permission to establish an official British presence in Rangoon to facilitate bilateral relations.

Capt Hiram Cox was duly sent to Burma as the English Resident the following year, only to find that the Burmese had in the meantime perfected what Hall called their “technique of humiliation.” He left his post in frustration in early 1798, and a year later he was dead—not of mortification at the hands of the Burmese, but of disease contracted while superintending relief measures for the 50,000 Arakanese refugees who had flooded into the Chittagong District of British-controlled Bengal.

Symes later returned to Amarapura for a second attempt to settle his country’s differences with the Burmese; but his hosts made it clear that they would accept nothing less than the complete expulsion of the Arakanese, who they regarded as their property. Symes abandoned his earlier false optimism and reported back to his superiors that war with the Burmese might be inevitable.

But war did not ensue, and Bodawpaya, who would live another 20 years, no doubt concluded that his policy of diplomatic obstruction had put the British in their place. This underestimation of British power led to his decision in the final years of his reign to invade Assam, and this emboldened his successor, Bagyidaw, to embark on adventures that would very soon culminate in the first Anglo-Burmese war—and the beginning of the end of Burmese independence.

Than Shwe may or may not be a modern-day Bodawpaya; but it is clear that the greatest threat facing Burma today is his belief that he can rule as he pleases, without regard for world opinion. Like Bodawpaya, he has come to this conclusion largely through his success in repelling diplomatic attempts to constrain his behavior. And he has done this by forcing a long line of envoys to either give up in disgust or—like Symes at the end of his first mission—to portray their efforts as a success rather than concede defeat.

The former response is forgivable; but the latter is a disservice to a country that is still struggling to emerge from the nightmare of its history because of the delusional dreams of a despot.

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