For­eign sec­re­tary makes Ki­pling gaffe in Myan­mar

The Guardian Weekly - - Uk News - Robert Booth

Boris John­son has been ac­cused of “in­cred­i­ble in­sen­si­tiv­ity” af­ter it emerged that he re­cited part of a colo­nial-era Rud­yard Ki­pling poem in front of lo­cal dig­ni­taries while on an official visit to Myan­mar in Jan­uary.

The for­eign sec­re­tary was in the Sh­wedagon pagoda, the most sa­cred Bud­dhist site in Yangon, when he started ut­ter­ing the open­ing verse to The Road to Man­dalay, with the line: “The tem­ple bells they say/ Come you back, you English sol­dier.” The poem tells of an ex-ser­vice­man re­call­ing his colo­nial days and a Burmese girl he kissed.

John­son’s im­promptu recital was so em­bar­rass­ing that the UK am­bas­sador to Myan­mar, Andrew Pa­trick, had to stop him. The in­ci­dent was cap­tured by a film crew for Chan­nel 4. The pre­vi­ously un­broad­cast footage shows the diplo­mat halt­ing John­son be­fore he could get to the line about a “Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud/ Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd” – a ref­er­ence to the Bud­dha.

The gaffe came on the first visit to Myan­mar by a Bri­tish for­eign sec­re­tary in five years. He had taken part in a rit­ual in­volv­ing pour­ing wa­ter over a golden statue of what he de­scribed as “a very big guinea pig” when he spon­ta­neously started recit­ing Ki­pling’s poem. A vis­i­bly tense Pa­trick re­minded him: “You’re on mic,” ad­ding: “Prob­a­bly not a good idea …”

Mark Far­maner, direc­tor of the Burma Cam­paign UK, said: “It is stun­ning he would do this there. There is a sen­si­tiv­ity about Bri­tish colo­nial­ism.”

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