A Walk Down Memory Lane

The text that follows is the second post in our Forum on Myanmar’s Waterways. To respond to this piece or contribute a new submission, please email editor@teacircleoxford.com.

The beautiful sunset over the delta mesmerizes me.

All the tiredness from travelling for more than a thousand miles across the wide alluvial plains and into the Indian Ocean seems to have vanished as I gaze at the timeless and eternal magic of the landscape. I have lived a life full of twists and turns with profound learning. People have valued and worshipped me but sadly also exploited and robbed me of my serene nature and pristine soul. As I watch the world go by, I am tempted to reminiscence about my eventful life. I am the River Irrawaddy, also known as the Ayeyarwady of Myanmar. Born in the Himalayan peaks below Tibet, I have long been considered the commercial and cultural lifeblood of the land, with legends and folklore associated with me. People regard me as their greatest source of joy and livelihoods, thus making me responsible for ensuring that their cherished dreams and hopes turn into an achievable reality.

I find myself a part of history as famous kings like Anawrahta (r 1044-10770), Kyansit-tha (r 1084-1112) and Alaung Sithu (r 1112-1167) have not only loved me, but also travelled with me and their naval fleets. King Alaung Sithu, in particular, used to travel on his golden barge. I have even had the company of many Europeans who have found me utterly fascinating. I can never forget my first encounter with a European in 1435; he was a Venetian merchant named Nicolo di Conti who stayed with me for a month while he was on his way to the royal capital of Ava. His observation that I was bigger than the River Ganges in India; I remember this often. In February 1843, King Tharyarwaddy sent a 40 tonne bronze bell via me which was to be hung in the north-eastern corner of the Shwedagon where it still remains today. I find eminent place also in the Kachin narratives, with the holy confluence of the two twin Rivers of Mai Kha and Mali Kha near the Kachin state capital Myitkyina.[1] The locals believe that the two rivers converged to form me.

I have captured the imagination of famous writers of the colonial period like Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell with scholars translating my name to mean the “river that brings blessings to the people”. The meaning of my name is further reiterated by the fact that sacred sites and shrines have always been situated on my banks. The bronze statue of Shin U Pa Gota (the saint of all waters whom Buddha visited and brought instant enlightenment) is considered as the saint of all those who rely on me, like boatmen and fishermen. The Shwe Kyundaw (Golden Royal Island) – an island half a mile long with thousands of stupas rising from it – deserves special mention. This is considered a very holy place as Buddha himself seems to have predicted this place as one where a pagoda would rise along with 7777 stupas, each to carry a relic from his own body after he died. Interestingly, the stupas were used by the Japanese soldiers during the Second World War to seek shelter, resulting in the island being bombed by the Allied Forces. What still remains is the main temple and a crypt (containing four sacred statues displaying Buddha’s previous incarnations, with each believed to contain his actual blood). It amazes me to find myself part of such a rich cultural and religious heritage.[2]

Both beauty and romanticism have been mentioned in descriptions of me. Mrs. Rosemary Beatrice Schofield in her lingering memories of Mandalay in 1935 has described a romantic drive along the edge of the moat at night when the moonlight was on the water. The flood season, the dark low hills beyond the river and the colours of sunset easily created an everlasting canvas of memories for her.[3] Various sites were visible from the river boats and mail steamers of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (vessels named ‘Assam’, ‘Java’ and ‘Nepal’ were the largest of their kind) which sailed regularly through my waters. Some were particularly noted as spectacular like the sight of Mount Popa (a 5000 feet high extinct volcano known for its king Cobra and it’s densely wooded crater), the town of Myingyan (famous for ponies, black and gold lacquer bowls), or the towns of Pakokku and Yenangyaung (stinking-water creek – with its foul smelling crude oil and hand dug wells with well owners known as Twinzas or well eaters). One also passed places very close to the wild, evident from the names of these places like Sinbyugyun (White Elephant Island), Singu (Elephant crossing place) and Migyaungye (where crocodiles are daring).[4] In 1879, Captain J.E. Sandeman (Deputy Superintendent, Survey of India in charge of Hanthawaddy Cadastral Survey) was asked by the Surveyor General if he could train a person to explore the Irrawaddy which he eventually undertook with a small exploration team. It was discovered that yearly during the rains, boats were lost and people drowned. This team passed the villages of Shan-Kadoos and noticed that the eastern branch of the river was smaller than the western branch.[5] R. Gordon further stated in his report on me that the Rangoon and the Bassein Rivers were the extreme eastern and western mouths of the Irrawaddy respectively.[6]

The presence of waterside monasteries, temples and old riverside royal capitals on my banks have created an interest, with river tourism thriving. Most river cruises today start from Mandalay with the most popular stretch being from Bagan (a World Heritage Site) to Katha.[7] Having others travel and explore me is not, however, new. The British not only formed the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company in 1865 to send troops, mail and goods, but different ethnic communities also appreciated my worth and settled near me, from the Kachins in the north to the Karens in the south. Rice, foodstuffs, petroleum, cotton and teak logs are some of the commodities that I see floating everyday on boats as they use the navigable routes.[8]

My importance as a commercial artery was realized by the British in their desire to control the delta. The violation of the treaty with the British (control of the Rangoon port was given to a local Muslim merchant by the Burmese king) led to the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26) followed by the second one in 1852. It is interesting to note that in the late 18th Century, James Rennell was interested in examining my navigability from the city of Ava to the province of Yunnan. There were various stakeholders who were trying to exercise their authority over me. On one hand, the British were negotiating with the Chinese Muslims or Panthays for the movement of trade items between Bhamo and Momien; on the other hand, the French, along with the last king of Burma, Mindon Min, were also exploring their options. However, the British sealed my fate through the third Anglo-Burmese War (1885) with my destiny firmly placed in their hands.

I, along with my tributary friend Chindwin, also created cross-border linkages between upper Burma and upper Assam. By the 1920s, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was carrying some 9 million passengers a year and was being called as the ‘greatest flotilla on earth’. They were using 1200 vessels, including mail steamers with a carrying capacity of 2500 passengers. My story also reminds everyone of the crucial fact that rivers link otherwise remote places like northern Burma, Yunnan, Assam and Tibet.[9]

Majestic rivers like myself, the Yangzi, the Salween or the Mekong can easily narrate innumerable stories of shared histories and lasting friendships. However, challenges have been faced by all of us in recent times, a result of fast-paced modernization and urbanization. Construction of big dams, climate change, excessive fishing and mining, agricultural wastes, and industrial pollution have destroyed riparian ecosystems and aquatic life. My close friends, the Dolphins, have gotten entangled in fishing gears and their stocks have been depleted, making them a critically endangered species.[10] Electric shock fishing methods with increasingly effective better Chinese equipment and transformers have reduced their number to only 63.[11]

Deforestation, mercury poisoning and shrimp farming add to my woes. In my northern reaches, more than 60% of the land has been logged; Global Forest Watch has said that approximately 1.5 million hectares of forest were felled between 2000 and 2013. My water quality is affected by this deforestation, which further reduces the fish population and influences the dolphin numbers. In 2012, the average catch size reported by fishermen was 25 kg, which was reduced by more than 80% in 2014.[12] The New York based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has requested Bangladesh set up a sanctuary in the Sundarban mangrove forests for these vulnerable dolphins.[13] Damage to wetland habitats, according to Birdlife International, can be extremely dangerous for the endangered birds living in my plains downstream of the ruby mining areas (mines of Mogok).[14] My upper reaches are home to 126 bird species (the Green Peafowl, Black-bellied Tern, Black-headed Ibis, Oriental Darter, Common Shelduck, Streak–earned Bulbul and Pained Stork) which require our concerted efforts in conservation.[15]

Construction of dams upstream like the Myitsone Dam has not only created a decline in fresh water habitats but also generated huge protests from the local people which led to the government postponing its construction. The dam’s reservoir would have inundated innumerable villages, forests and cultural sites. It would also have affected rice production, aquatic migratory patterns and river salinity. My coastal mangroves are already in a deplorable condition as they have been converted into prawn industrial farms. Media and activists have highlighted the issue of confiscated farmlands in my delta region, and their regular conversion into cash crop plantations (cashew nut and rubber). The farmers who receive little or no compensation are eventually forced to migrate from the villages, reduced to day-labourers in cities.

The United Nation’s World Water Development Report of 2015 has highlighted the conflict that can arise on account of the growing gap between supply and demand of fresh water availability. Some have argued that countries jointly managing water resources are unlikely to go to war.[16] Water crises are thus a serious global threat with river conflicts being an intrinsic part of power-politics within and between countries. These challenges faced by me and my sister and brother rivers should be seen as an opportunity for regional neighbours to come together to protect the rich flora and the fauna that the rivers of this region support.

Indeed, over the years, various efforts have been made to honour my contribution towards protecting the local lives and livelihoods. The Irrawaddy literary festival was started in Yangon in 2013, with the last two years being held in Mandalay. This offered an excellent scope for interaction, debate and reflection on issues facing the country, including my role. The Irrawaddy Dolphin Protected Area (ADPA) was also established in 2005 (spanning 74 kilometers) which has regular educational programmes with community participation and awareness being key goals. The Irrawaddy River Basin Research Organization (ARBRO) has carried out important studies of me since 2012 and improved scientific research should help in tackling various challenges, including floods like those in 2015 that caused massive devastation. Environmentalists and civil society activists have held seminars discussing ways to protect me and other vital waterways. With all these initiatives, I am reassured that I will continue to be an integral part of the country’s pride as it enters into its new phase of democratic transformation.

[1] The Irrawaddy River, www.pandaw1947.com/Irrawaddy-river.htm
[2] Salak, Kira (2006), Irrawaddy River – Myanmar’s River of Spirits, May, National Geographic, http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2006/05/irrawaddy-river/salak-text
[3] Schofield, Rosemary Beatrice Papers (1935), India Office Records and Private Papers, IOR: Mss Eur C777: 1935, British Library, London, United Kingdom.
[4] “A Burma Bobby” (A.Meer-Nemo-1969), Franklin, Roger Warwick Papers (1919-1931), India Office Records and Private Papers, IOR: Mss Eur C 499: 1919-1931, British Library, London, United Kingdom, pp. 10-17.
[5] Sandeman, Captain J.E (1880), Report on the Irrawaddy River Exploration 1879-1880, India Office Records and Private Papers, IOR/V/27/732/19, British Library, London, United Kingdom, pp.1-5.
[6] Gordon, R (1879), Report on the Irrawaddy River, India Office Records and Private Papers, IOR/V/27/732/17, British Library, London, United Kingdom, p.2.
[7] Charlton, Gill (2015), Irrawaddy River, Burma: Trip of a Lifetime, September 24, The Telegraph, www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/asia/myanmar/articles/Irrawaddy-River-Burma-tours-holidays-and-travel-advice/
[8] Leinbach, Thomas R, Irrawaddy River, https://www.britannica.com/place/Irrawaddy-River
[9] Iqbal, Iftekhar (2014), Reclaiming the Crossroads between India and China – A View from the River, Economic and Political Weekly, December 20, Vol XLIX, No 51, http://www.academia.edu/9878533/Reclaiming_the_crossroads_between_India_and_China
[10] Irrawaddy dolphins, WWF Global, http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/greatermekong/our_solutions/species/irrawaddydolphins/
[11] Fisher, Jonah (2015), How Burmese fishermen upset Irrawaddy dolphins, January 16, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-30825978
[12] Davis, Morgan Erickson (2014), ‘Better late than never’: Myanmar bans timber exports to save remaining forests, April 24, http://www.forest-trends.org/publication_details.php?publicationID=4423
[13] Aldred, Jessica (2009), Thousands of rare Irrawaddy dolphins found along Bangladesh coast, April 1, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/apr/01/irrawaddy-dolphin
[14] DeLeon, Sally Dickinson (2007), Artisanal Ruby Mining in Myanmar: Environmental and Social Impacts, Summer, www.uvm.edu/rsenr/gemecology/assets/DeLeon_Myanmar_2007.pdf
[15] WCS Myanmar, http://programs.wcs.org/myanmar/Wild-Places/Irrawaddy-River.aspx
[16] Talal, Prince El Hassan bin and Waslekar, Sundeep (2016), Managing the Politics of Water, March 21, Policy Innovations, www.policyinnovations.org/ideas/commentary/data/00433

Photo Credit: Bjørn Christian Tørrissenhttp://bjornfree.com/galleries.html

Author: Dr. Reshmi Banerjee

Dr. Reshmi Banerjee is a political scientist based in London with specialization in food security, agricultural policies and cross-border studies on North East India/Myanmar. She is currently a Research Fellow in the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. She was previously an academic visitor in the Asian Studies Centre (Programme on Modern Burmese Studies) in St Antony’s College, University of Oxford and a research associate in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She has been a post doctoral fellow in the department of international relations, University of Indonesia and a researcher in the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Jakarta. Reshmi has worked as a fellow in the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, has been a Visiting Professor in the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research, Jamia Millia Islamia, and has taught in Delhi University and in the University of Indonesia. She has an M.Phil and Ph.D from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi and has co-edited two books: Climate Change in the Eastern Himalaya: Impact on Livelihoods, Growth and Poverty (Academic Publishers, 2015) and Gender, Poverty and Livelihood in the Eastern Himalayas (Routledge, 2017).