If you thought Britain had moved past the days of romanticizing brutal colonial rule, Britain’s foreign secretary has something to say about that.
Speaking on microphone in the Myanmar capital of Yangon’s most sacred Buddhist temple, Boris Johnson commenced with an impromptu recital of Rudyard Kipling’s nostalgic British colonial-era poem “Mandalay.”
“Come you back, you English Soldier,” muttered a characteristically disheveled-looking Johnson while walking with Myanmar diplomats, as captured by British television station Channel 4:
Listening in bewilderment, UK ambassador to Myanmar, Andrew Patrick, quickly reminded Johnson that “you’re on mic… probably not a good idea…”
“What?” replied the foreign secretary. “The Road to Mandalay?” Johnson asked.
To which the UK’s ambassador quickly replied “no”, standing respectfully in stark contrast to the hunched Johnson, who was staring at his phone in the house of worship.
And it is a good thing for Johnson that Patrick was quick to stop him, considering the offensiveness of the rest of the poem. Kipling’s reminiscence of a British soldier’s romantic relationship with a local Myanmar girl, complete with ridicule of the Buddha, is hardly the type of subject matter welcome in a Buddhist temple.
“BY THE old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea, There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me,” the poem begins.
“Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd,” it continues, in reference to Buddha. “Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud! On the road to Mandalay,” the Kipling poem recounts, in apparent reference to sexual relations in front of a Buddhist idol.
Johnson’s beyond-the-pale insensitivity should surprise no one, despite the fact that he is now tasked with the role of Britain’s top diplomat. His shameless nostalgia for British colonial rule, which was deeply resented by locals in Myanmar and opposed by guerilla insurgency, extends beyond Southeast Asia.
In an editorial published in the telegraph a decade ago, while serving as the Mayor of London, Johnson explained his view that colonial Britain’s influence far exceeded that of China’s, and that was unlikely to change.
“It has become a cliché of geopolitical analysis to say that China is the next world superpower, that the 21st century will belong to Beijing, and that we had better get in tutors to teach our nippers Mandarin if they are to make it in the new world order,” the commentary explained.
“Let me assert this as powerfully as I can: we do not need to fear the Chinese. China will not dominate the globe,” he went on. Further explaining that compared to America and Britain, China’s influence is zero, and that will not change.
“Well, compared with the old British Empire, and the new American imperium, Chinese cultural influence is virtually nil, and unlikely to increase.”
The litany of gaffs from the Eton school mate of former UK Prime Minister David Cameron are endless, as Johnson admitted himself last year.
“I’m afraid that there is such a rich thesaurus now of things that I’ve said that have been one way or another – through what alchemy I do not know – somehow misconstrued, that it would really take me too long to engage in a full global itinerary of apology to all concerned.”
After the disappointing performance of UK Prime Minister Theresa May in a snap election she called over the summer, Johnson has been the subject of speculation that he may make a run to replace her as head of government. Before serving as Foreign Secretary, he was one of the most visible proponents of Brexit and considered a potential prime minister candidate after the country decided to leave the EU.