Political Animals

I have just finished reading a story in which a community of pigs stage a revolution. No, not George Orwell’s Animal Farm, but a play called Sukra written by the Burmese nationalist U Nu in 1937. The play was published by the Nagani Book Club, a leftist nationalist publisher in the colony, and has been translated, contextualized and made available online through the Myanmar Literature Project, co-ordinated by Hans-Berd Zoellner.

U Nu’s story is not about the betrayal of a revolution, but the political leaders of his pigs have similar flaws to those in Orwell’s allegorical novel. Nu’s play is a satire on the state of anti-colonial nationalist politics in the run-up to the first elections in which Burma was to be given limited self-government, under British rule but separate from British India. The eponymous hero of the piece, a young pig called Sukra (the Pali word for pig), finds himself among an impoverished group of pigs living in the forest. The pigs are being terrorized by a tiger. The four leaders of the pigs are disunited, and it turns out that they are also corrupt and in the service of the tiger. They are overthrown, two of them are hanged, and the pigs, now united behind Sukra, stand up to the tiger and kill him.

It does not take much to work out what some of the characters are supposed to represent. The tiger represents the British. The four older pig leaders represent the established nationalist parties of the time. And Sukra represents the Dobama Asiayone (We Burma Association), the emerging, more radical nationalist group that U Nu was a part of. Like them, the story incorporates elements of socialist thinking, through a brief critique of the inequalities that exist within the pigs’ society. But Sukra makes addressing this secondary to defeating the tiger. The story is also marred by regressive gender politics —  as a reward for liberating the pigs, Sukra is given a young girl pig to take as his wife.

U Nu’s allegory arguing for the virtue of a united front to fight imperialism was far from prophetic. The year after he wrote it, the Dobama Asiayone split, with U Nu siding with the more radical wing. By the end of the thirties, the movement was divided further between communists and non-communists. And political unity continued to allude him throughout his career. When U Nu became the first prime minister of an independent Burma in 1948, his government found that they could not hold the centre as communist and ethno-nationalist insurgencies swept through the newly-liberated country.

U Nu on the cover of Time Magazine, 30 August 1954
U Nu on the cover of Time Magazine, 30 August 1954

The parallels between U Nu and Orwell’s stories are suggestive of a colonial history of political meanings attached to animals. Animals have had a number of shifting and overlapping symbolic, religious and cultural associations in Burma’s history. In addition, the British brought with them their own understandings of animals. It would be interesting to explore how emerging nationalist representations of animals drew upon indigenous conceptions, whilst engaging with understandings engendered through colonialism. In other words, there is a history to be written of why the reputation of pigs has been tarnished by that of corrupt politicians.

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