Last week I managed to squeeze in a couple of days at the British Library to complete some research. I was studying the fall of Yangon to the Japanese Empire in 1942. I ordered the relevant microfilm copies of Thūriya, a Burmese nationalist newspaper, but I received a mislabeled 42nd anniversary edition from 1953. The cover image was striking.
The cartoon captures Thūriya in a reflective mode. The characters on the right hand side represent Thūriya at different stages of its life.
At the top we have Thūriya as a toddler. Wielding an oversized pen as a spear, he is aiming at the British man (recognizable from his top hat and Union Jack coat) who is pinching money from the pocket of a Burmese gent. This is critical journalism in its infancy.
Beneath this we have Thūriya now grown into a young man, still wielding the pen/spear. His target has changed. It is now a Japanese soldier (marked out through a racist caricature) who is slapping the face of a Burmese woman. This was an act of violence which Japanese soldiers in Myanmar became notorious for. Growing up, Thūriya continued the fight, now against a new colonial oppressor.
Now in his forties, Thūriya is given the appellation “U”, connoting venerable and respected attributes (I’ve written about naming and honorifics in two other blog posts here, and here). The men around a box containing Myanmar’s finances are different types of vermin. They are pilfering from the people. They are also identified as Burmese by their dress. Fully mature, the target of journalists is now the corrupt, enriching themselves at the expense of the newly independent nation.
I think these images capture the tragedy of anti-colonialism. In David Scott’s book on the writings of C.L.R James, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment , one of the arguments Scott makes is that anti-colonial politics, writing and thought adopted the narrative forms of romance and tragedy. Thūriya’s reflective cartoon brought this argument to my mind. While it offers a romantic self-image of a unceasing masculine defender of the people, it also exposes the tragedy of two moments of liberation betrayed. And, by portraying the newspaper’s development through the life-cycle of a man, it perhaps unwittingly hints at a future when this man will die and his pen will no longer be used as a weapon.
In the bottom left-hand corner of the cartoon is the darkest image. Two men, labelled “this party” and “that party”, fight while beside them buildings burn and skulls pile up. Division, civil war, parasitic elites. This is anti-colonial journalism as post-colonial tragedy.