THERE probably aren’t many tractors that are tourist attractions, especially half-century old ones in a remote part of one of the planet’s least-visited countries.
The bright red 1957 Model 35 Massey Ferguson takes pride of place outside the pre-War Home Counties-style building that was once the palace of the last Shan Sao Pha – prince – of Hsipaw, Burma, and the current custodian, the last prince’s nephew, “Mr Donald” Sone, is only too happy to share its extraordinary story with visitors.
The tractor was one of 11 bought new by Mr Donald’s uncle, Sao Kyi Seng, as he strove to modernise agricultural production in Hsipaw. But the modernisation ended abruptly in 1962, when he, Mr Donald’s father and the other 32 Shan princes were arrested during the coup that put Ne Win’s socialist government in power, and the fleet of tractors was “nationalised”.
Sao Kyi Seng was never seen again; the family learned later that he had “died” in custody – so when his Austrian-born wife, Inge, fled the country two years later, management of the estate fell to his nephew, Sao Oo Kya – Mr Donald.
Having found documents proving that the tractors had been bought with family money, and so were “personal possessions” which should not have been nationalised, Mr Donald set about trying to recover them.
Every year, he wrote at least twice to the authorities to ask for them back; every time, the reply – if it came at all – was that he had written to the wrong person, or he had written to the right person but they were unable to help.
Then, three decades later, in 1994, Mr Donald accompanied 106-year-old local monk Ya Jaw Bawdaw on a trip to Rangoon, to meet members of the ruling junta. The generals had invited the venerated man to the capital several times, but he accepted this time only on condition that Mr Donald joined him as his private secretary.
Burma is a deeply religious country, so the generals were grateful for the favourable publicity generated by the monk’s visit, and, as a result, then-Head of Military Intelligence Khin Nyunt offered Mr Donald anything he wanted as a reward.
Without hesitation Mr Donald asked for the tractor he knew was rotting on a collective farm about 20 miles away; within four months, a lorry was depositing it outside the palace.
“It was a vehicular corpse,” remembered Mr Donald. The engine was clogged by decades of mud and grease, the pistons and piston rings were shattered, the tyres were perished, the bodywork rusted, and the broken crankshaft meant it couldn’t even be driven.
Mr Donald, a political science graduate, was no mechanic, and Burma’s three decades of global near-isolation meant parts were all but unavailable.
“People said I should buy a Chinese hand tractor; it would be cheaper and I could use it straightaway,” said Mr Donald, “But I told them, ‘This is my tractor and I will use it again.”
He devoted his spare time to dismantling the engine and cleaning every part, then trying to work out how to put it back together again. “It was all trial and error and it was very hard,” he said.
Eventually, Mr Donald found a man, semi-paralysed by a stroke, who knew a little about the tractors that had been used in the gypsum mine where he had worked. They hadn’t been Massey Fergusons, but they had been tractors. It was a start…
The rarity of parts meant it took two years to find a suitable crankshaft. Piston rings and bearings from other engines were reshaped and resized to fit the Massey Ferguson; the chimney was made by guesswork, and Mr Donald made gaskets from zinc sheets and cellophane Christmas paper.
By now, Hsipaw had been opened to foreigners, and the former palace had become a tourist attraction.
Word spread among the backpacking community of the Shan aristocrat and his tractor, and it wasn’t unknown for a visitor to take a spanner to the engine or produce from a backpack a catalogue from a parts supplier in England.
The fuel injection pump – from the Australian Outback – made it to Hsipaw that way, as did the Massey Ferguson tractor manual that enabled Mr Donald to work out, finally, why his tractor would not move.
Four years after recovering the Model 35, Mr Donald was finally able to start up the engine and chug round the estate’s 21-acre grounds, and when, now, he peels back the tarpaulin cover to show it to visitors, he does it with very visible pride.
He admits there were times when he came close to giving up, but he likes to think of his achievement as “an inspiration”. He said: “I wanted people to see that in this country there are people… who are making the old into the new…
“It was about far more than getting a tractor working again.”
This story dates from 2004, when I visited Mr Donald while I was travelling in Burma/Myanmar. It’s one of my most favourite stories ever. For a start, I have great affection for Massey Ferguson tractors like this – I could drive one before I was 10 years old. But I love the story, too, for what it represents: as Mr Donald said, his project “was about far more than getting a tractor working again”. I don’t know about Mr Donald, but I saw his story as a metaphor for the resilience of the people of Burma and their ingenuity, determination and pride in overcoming the obstacles put in their way by the junta; their absolute refusal to be crushed
Mr Donald was OK about me telling his story, and it was due to be published in 2005, but it was spiked after he was arrested for “acting against the state” or something, and “talking to tourists”. (When I returned to Hsipaw in Summer 2005, there was really sad little note on the gate to the Palace grounds, requesting tourists to keep well away.) Mr Donald was sentenced to 13 years in jail but he was released under an amnesty in 2009. Now, apparently, he lives outside Burma, and, of course, Burma itself seems to have changed quite a bit since then, so I guess it’s now safe to share his story.
(I’m publishing it on both my blogs, my professional alisonwinward.wordpress.com and my hobbyblog, 10,000 Miles & More, because it’s an example of me writing professionally, but I know there are people who follow my hobbyblog but not my professional one who may like to read it; PH, for a start.)