Andrew Marshall: The Trouser People

The Trouser People: A Story of Burma in the Shadow of the Empire

An attic room in the British Empire. The world's back alley. A dead end. Western writers have described Burma this way for more than a century. And--think about it--what do we really know about Burma today? It's run by a military junta that would rather you call it Myanmar. (The junta itself was once known by the memorable acronym SLORC--the State Law and Order Restoration Council.) And you should probably check the label to be sure your parka wasn't produced there, if you care about those things. But that's really it.

At the very apex of British empire-building in the late 1800s, while the Great Game was being played out in Central Asia and maharajas were learning to be more English than the queen, a little-known Scottish adventurer, George Scott, was swashbuckling his way through Burma. He learned dozens of languages and mapped the rough mountains. He convinced rulers known to their people as Lords of the Sky to swear allegiance to an unknown queen 5,000 miles away. His efforts brought northern Burma--hardly the jewel in the crown--into the empire. (Luckily, Queen Victoria never met a colony she didn't want.)

And for decades, he kept a diary. It was this diary--gruff and laconic, but terrifically evocative--that convinced Bangkok-based journalist Andrew Marshall to follow Scott's footsteps into the mountains of northern Burma and to write The Trouser People. These mountains are home to a hundred or more minority ethnic groups facing a steady campaign of obliteration by the Burmese military. Much of the area is restricted to foreigners, but Marshall goes anyway. He treks through the mountains to meet the Shan rebels fighting the Burmese majority. He sees the "giraffe women" of the Golden Palaung tribe, who still wear rings to stretch their necks. He is the first white man in more than 50 years to see the mysterious lake where the headhunting Wa tribe claim to have crawled from the mud as tadpoles at the dawn of time. These adventures intermingle with accounts from Scott's diaries and are recounted with all the awe and fear they should inspire: Marshall is brave, but he's no gonzo journalist.

Throughout, Marshall is not gawking at exotic former colonials. Instead, he is a consummate reporter, deeply concerned with a forgotten corner of the old empire, still struggling for attention a century later.

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