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Diplomacy

Boris Johnson caught reciting colonial poem in Myanmar temple

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 5:11pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 10:48pm

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

Boris Johnson was inside the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist site in the capital Yangon, when he started uttering the opening verse to The Road to Mandalay, including the line: “The temple bells they say, ‘Come you back you English soldier.’”

Kipling’s poem captures the nostalgia of a retired serviceman looking back on his colonial service. Britain colonised Myanmar from 1824 to 1948 and fought three wars in the 19th century, suppressing widespread resistance.

Johnson’s impromptu recital was so embarrassing that the British ambassador to Myanmar, Andrew Patrick, was forced to stop him. The incident was captured by a Channel 4 film crew and will form part of a documentary to be broadcast on Sunday about the fitness of the MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip to become prime minister.

Johnson 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 approached a 42-tonne bell, rang it with a wooden stick and started reciting Kipling’s poem: “The wind is in the palm trees and the temple bells they say ...” Then Patrick said. “You’re on mic ... Probably not a good idea ...”

“What?” Johnson replied. “The Road to Mandalay?”

“No,” said the ambassador sternly. “Not appropriate.”

“No?” replied Johnson looking down at his mobile phone. “Good stuff.”

“It is stunning he would do this there,” said Mark Farmaner, director of the Burma Campaign UK. “There is a sensitivity about British colonialism and it is something that people in Burma are still resentful about. British colonial times were seen as a humiliation and an insult ... It shows an incredible lack of understanding.”

Rushanara Ali, the Labour MP and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on democracy in Myanmar, said: “I can think of a long list of reasons why Boris Johnson isn’t fit to be prime minister. This can be added to that list.”

The documentary, titled Blond Ambition, captures multiple awkward moments in Johnson’s career at the Foreign Office.

In London last year he stood alongside former US secretary of state John Kerry and was asked about describing Hillary Clinton as looking “like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”.