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115 Years of Burmese History as Mirrowed In The Strand Hotel

May 06, 2017


The Strand Hotel opened in 1901 in Rangoon, Burma and was owned by the Sarkies brothers who also owned the Raffles Hotel in Singapore and the Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang, Malaysia. Throughout the colonial period, The Strand was one of the most luxurious hotels in the British Empire.


During the Japanese occupation of Burma beginning in 1941, it housed Japanese troops and its ownership was transferred to the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. During this period, Aung San who was a young law student and leader of the Burma independence movement, received military training in Japan. He and 29 other colleagues fought alongside the Japanese against the British as the Japanese promised independence once the British were defeated. When it became obvious the Japanese would not honor their agreement, he switched sides and joined the British in guerrilla warfare against the Japanese. Aung San is shown below on a visit to London.



In 1947, Aung San negotiated an independence agreement with the British and made great strides in developing relations with the various ethnic tribal minorities that formed the Union of Burma. Sadly, he was assassinated in 1948. Thereafter followed a long period of fractious rule by U Nu and Ne Win with Ne Win solidifying his position in 1962 as Burma's military dictator. Ne Win set a thriving nation on a disastrous path of cultural, environmental and economic ruin. Outside visitors were discouraged and visas were limited to 24 hours.

On October 1, 1969 visa stays were extended to 72 hours and on October 17, 1969 yours truly, tourist provocateur, landed in Rangoon on a Union of Burma Airlines flight from Bangkok. By any measure it was way too soon to visit. Everyone on the flight had handlers and greeters save young Ed. In fact, just past immigration and baggage claim, everyone was gone and the lights were turned out with no taxis and no transportation to town. Now, as an only child and accustomed to being alone, everything would have been okay but there was no refuge to be found.

Therefore, the author knocked on every door around and woke up someone who drove him into Rangoon in a decrepit Russian bus. The only hotel to consider was The Strand after having stayed at the other two jewels in the original Strand family. However, the Burma Economic Development Corporation, as owner of the Strand, had no interest in visitors or hotel maintenance. It was beyond awful with brown water dripping out of a shower head and no A/C. As I walked downstairs for dinner, a large rat crossed my path to the dining room and the height of all irony was there was no service for someone such as myself who was not wearing a coat and tie though there was no one else in the dining room. Room service was a couple of bananas and a local beer.

In 1973, the author again returned to Rangoon as there was contemplation of a round of oil concession licensing. The Strand had been haphazardly fitted out with a lot of plastic fixtures and furnishings replicating an hourly rental establishment in Juarez, Mexico. However, you could get reasonable transportation from the airport to town.

In July 1988, Ne Win suddenly announced that he was preparing to vacate his throne. At that point in time, all hell broke out in response to many years of oppression and human rights abuse. On August 8, 1988, a four-day massacre began with troops firing into crowds killing some 10,000 people. By chance, Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San, the founder of post-colonial Burma, was in Rangoon to take care of her ailing mother. She was married to a British professor and a resident of the UK, a place to which she would never return. Given her star power, she and others formed the National League for Democracy (NLD).



In September 1988, control of the country was given to the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) which was followed by an unprecedented crackdown. Aung San Suu Kyi was subsequently placed under house arrest where she would be for the better part of two decades. Leap forward to 1996 and here comes tourist Ed Story with some former Thai Government guys, some Chinese guys, Khun Suphapong, our man in Bangkok (a fellow along with his Thai Ambassador father and mother who were evacuated by the Air America flyboys when Phnom Penh fell in 1975) and Khun Joey to keep watch on such a motley crew.

Fortunately, we also had a SLORC operative with us which made all the difference in the world. Khun Joey was quite impressed when the aircraft stopped on the tarmac, the rear exit of the Thai International Caravelle aircraft was lowered, we walked down the stairs, handed the military our passports and luggage tags and got in the limos. Joey went to The Strand and we went to meet some Minister. Since the author's previous visit to The Strand, Adrian Zecha of Aman fame and some investors had restored the hotel to its colonial grandeur.



By coincidence during our visit, Aung San Suu Kyi, was given permission to meet with the media from the garden of her home which was the beginning of a new era in what was called Myanmar following the SLORC name change in 1989. We had the opportunity to see the event.


Now, back at The Strand, Joey loved the details of the colonial renovation as evidenced by the "his and hers" sinks though it is obvious the one on the left is hers.



On the other hand, she had an incredible fondness for the butler whom I expected to pop out of a giant duffle bag upon our return to the U.S.



Since that time, we have not returned to The Strand though the author has been back to Myanmar many times which will be the subject of future blogs. The Aman has withdrawn from The Strand relationship and most hoteliers say it is no longer "the place" to stay. Moreover, as the author has gone to Myanmar on business trips without Joey, there was no reason to stay in a luxury hotel. Further, the center of Government has moved 200 miles north to Naypyidaw, Myanmar where the hotels are a throw-back to the 1970's though the entire Naypyidaw move is another humorous chapter in this country's history.

In November 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD party won a landslide victory though the military still holds many of the cards. Suu Kyi, as the NLD leader, would ordinarily be the head of state but she is precluded by law as her family members are not citizens of Myanmar since her late husband and her children hold British passports. There will be future commentaries on what is taking place in Myanmar.

 

 


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