The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
The Despot and the Diplomat

The experiences of Capt Michael Symes, the first official British emissary to the Burmese court, offer lessons for diplomats dealing with the country’s current rulers

MILITARY-ruled Burma is surely one of the world’s least rewarding assignments for a United Nations diplomat. Visiting envoys are routinely refused contact with the country’s dictator, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, in his remote capital of Naypyidaw, the “Royal Abode.” Months or years may pass with no signs of progress before an envoy finally abandons his mission in frustration—and the regime claims another victory in its war of wills against the outside world.

Much has been made of Than Shwe’s monarchical pretensions, and in his approach to diplomacy it is not difficult to see the influence of rulers of an earlier age, when Burmese kings believed they could keep the world at bay by treating foreign emissaries with studied disdain. Indeed, any diplomat who wishes to understand the mindset of Burma’s current rulers should probably go back at least as far as Bodawpaya, the king who perfected a brand of diplomacy still practiced in Burma today.

Bodawpaya (1745-1819) ruled Burma from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 19th. His father, Alaungpaya, had founded the Konbaung dynasty when Bodawpaya was 7 years old and died when he was 15. In 1782, at the age of 37, Bodawpaya deposed and executed his nephew to become the sixth king of his line.

A ruler of Napoleonic ambitions, Bodawpaya set out to retake Ayutthaya, the Siamese capital, where his father had died trying to re-establish Burmese rule. He failed repeatedly. “Nothing but the peaceful disposition of the Siamese monarch saved the Burmese empire from total subjection,” wrote Father San Germano, an Italian missionary who lived in Rangoon through 25 years of Bodawpaya’s 37-year reign.

He did, however, have greater success in vanquishing the coastal kingdom of Arakan, located on the Bay of Bengal southwest of his newly established capital of Amarapura, near Mandalay. This proved to be a fateful move, as it extended Burmese territory to the borders of British India, setting it on a collision course that would, a century later, see the complete dissolution of the Burmese monarchy.

Formal ties between the Burmese and the British had been suspended since the end of Alaunpaya’s reign, when the Burmese—at the instigation of French rivals for influence—carried out a massacre on a British trade settlement on the island of Negrais in 1759. But in 1795, with thousands of Arakanese fleeing into their territory and concerns about French ambitions in Burma still strong, the British decided to send a diplomatic mission to the court of Amarapura.

This decision set the stage for an episode that makes UN efforts to mitigate the egregious abuses of Burma’s current rulers seem almost productive by comparison. The chosen envoy, Capt Michael Symes, was confident that he would succeed in restoring amicable relations with the Burmese court; instead, he spent more than two months waiting for an audience with a king who would not deign to speak to him.

The British diplomat’s reception was “a strange mixture of friendly hospitality and studied rudeness,” according to historian D. G. E. Hall. Permitted to travel only as far as the opposite bank of the Irrawaddy River from Amarapura, he was informed that the king was “at a country residence named Meengoung, where he was erecting a magnificent temple to their divinity Gaudma [Gotama Buddha].”

Symes, who had arrived in mid-July, was told that he would have to wait until August 30 before he could cross the river to the royal capital. So he spent the next month and a half waiting for the Emperor who had “run away from Siam [to decide] whether it was consistent with his dignity to receive such a visitor or not,” as historian V. C. Scott O’Connor wrote in a memorable account of the incident.

In his own words, Symes described the Burmese court as “punctilious and haughty, even to insufferable arrogance.” But the real insult came when, on the assigned day, he (along with a delegation from a neighboring province of China) was permitted to cross the river and enter the palace, only to find that the king had not seen fit to make an appearance.

Dismayed, Symes penned a letter demanding, in firm yet diplomatic terms, a proper audience with the king. On September 30, his request was granted. “His Majesty … looked at us attentively, but did not honour us with any verbal notice, or speak at all,” he wrote of the hard-won encounter.

Unwilling to contemplate the possibility that his dignity had been further slighted, Symes persuaded himself that his efforts had paid off. 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.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |