Burmese Nationalism and the Dietary Habits of Peacocks and Crows

During my last visit to the British Library I found this cartoon strip in the Burmese nationalist newspaper Thūriya, published in 1939.

cartoon1939.jpg
Thūriya, 8 Dec. 1939

The cartoon character speaking on the platform is a reoccurring one in the newspaper. He is a bit of a hapless individual. His candid, ill-advised manner of speaking often gets him into trouble. In this case, he is addressing a nationalist crowd. You can tell that it is a nationalist crowd by the flag waving in the background. It is the national flag, with a peacock in the center. But his topic might seem an esoteric one for such an audience. He is comparing the dietary habits of peacocks and crows.

He begins by saying that peacocks are discerning eaters. They do not just eat whatever it is they see. They’re choosy. Crows, in contrast, have no discipline [စည်း ကမ်း – cañña’: kama’:]. They circle the food and go straight for it. On this basis he tells the crowd that the peacock should be replaced by the crow on the national flag. It is not a popular suggestion. The crowd rushes the platform and pelt him with bottles and shoes.

The cartoon can be interpreted in a number of ways, but my tentative reading is that the intended message to the imagined nationalist reader is “be more like a peacock”. By saying that the crow should replace the peacock, the speaker is not suggesting that the crow is a superior animal exemplar. He is saying that the impulsive greedy behavior of the crow is a more accurate representation of the current state of Burmese nationalism. The anger of the crowd is in response to this criticism. This violent response also ironically confirms his criticism, by revealing their lack of self-restraint.

The nationalist association with the peacock was a long standing one. Nationalist literary figure and poet Thakin Kodaw Hmaing wrote a tika about the bird, and the call of the fighting peacock – “Owei” – was the name of the Rangoon Students Union Newspaper. While these were primarily symbolic uses of the animal, what this cartoon reminds us is that the observed behaviors of animals mattered too. It’s better to be a picky peacock than a gluttonous crow.

Dobama_protest
“Dobama Protest”, Unknown Photographer, nd. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dobama_protest.jpg

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