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December Reading

The clock is ticking away for 2015. It’s December—the time of the year for holidays, gatherings, food, celebrations, and for some, distraction from readings. I usually like to sit by the fire place with my punkins and read mysteries. On the eve of my annual trip home in Asia, December also sees many travel/history/historical fiction crammed into my readings. This year Myanmar is put on the spotlight.

Since the country has opened up to tourism, development of infrastructure has gone on a break-neck speed, and so are the prices which has more than doubled compared to 2011. It’s the perfect time to go or it will become another Angkor Wat (Cambodia), heavily tread by package tours.

Before traveling to Myanmar, an excellent historical novel to read is The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh, which I have read years ago. To refresh and to gain relevance of the upcoming trip, I’ll reread. The book enables reader to appreciate the days before the fall of the last imperial dynasty, the years under the British rule, the Second World War and the Japanese occupation.

Other books on the “read-dar” include the mandatory Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi, The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U, and Burmese Days by George Orwell. I usually would read up on the travel guide while flying over the Pacific. That said, for the first time ever, I’m ditching Lonely Planet for the more updated Rough Guide on Myanmar. A two-year-old guidebook is too dated, at least for the prices on accommodations and transportations, for a country that is growing with an lightning speed.

[656] Finding George Orwell in Burma – Emma Larkin

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” He said that Nineteen Eigty-Four is banned in Burma because it can be read as a criticism of how the country is being run and the ruling generals do not like criticism. As a result, he told me, I would be unlikely to meet many people in Burma who had actually read the novel. ‘Why do they need to read it?’ he said. ‘They are already living inside Nineteen Eighty-Four in their daily lives. ” (1: Mandalay, p.11)

In the 1920s George Orwell (then Eric Blair) spent years working in Burma as an imperial policeman at various posts, including Mandalay and Rangoon. He has formed strong opinions against colonialism and taken rather jaundiced view of the colonial society that would endure throughout the rest of his life. In 2002, traveling under the pseudonym Emma Larkin, the author, an American journalist, followed Orwell’s footsteps in Burma, where visitors were allowed to explore the country only on its terms, to recreate his experience. Finding George Orwell in Burma, employing Orwell’s sojourn and experiences as a template, is part memoir, part biography, part social history and part travelogue. Larkin reveals the cultural and political landscape of a country, one of the most mysterious in Southeast Asia, where a military regime has been in place for over 40 years, sealing off Burma from the outside world.

We historians must keep our mouths tightly shut. We are scared. As Burmese people, we are not free to talk about what we want. We are not free to walk where we want. We are not even free t die: we must die according to their wishes. (5: Katha, p.256)

Government surveillance is in fact responsible for the society’s “normal” façade. Events taking place inside Burma are carefully controlled and orchestrated. people are conditioned to obey and to submit to government’s measures. Indeed this fear of the authorities is a constant refrain from the people Larkin spoke to in Burma, including students, drivers, tour guides, policemen, dissidents and historians. They are cowed into submission because they know the reprisal is high for the only one real crime, and that is to act against the government or in defiance of its interests.

The Burmese landscape, both mental and physical, has long been loaded with prophecies, and Orwell’s trilogy is only one among many texts in which you can read the future or the past in Burma. (5: Katha, p.261)

Writing with such suppleness and understatement, Larkin reports that Orwell is known as a prophet in Burma, so closely do Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four (now I regretted reading too young to even understand their implication) reflect what has happened in the tragically oppressed land afflicted by a streak of authoritarianism. Larkin also seeks to get to the bottom of what might have provoked Orwell to write with remarkable precision on oppression. She believes Orwell was witness to many oppression, even in the colonial age, along with his work as an imperial policeman had greatly contributed to his ability to write about oppression in a chilling dystopian land. The book is a plainsong to Burma; it’s a tribute to Orwell; and it’s a rare piece of journalism. In pursuing the young Orwell’s life, she has reimagined his experiences that help shape his political outlook. Finding George Orwell in Burma is a mournful, meditative, idiosyncratic and contemplative book.

294 pp. Penguin Books. Paper (2004) [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Myanmar Craze

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The best way to know a country is to know its people. Talk to the locals, observe them, follow cultural practices, and taste their food. Until it was open to travelers in mid 2011, Myanmar (Burma) has remained the most mysterious country in Southeast Asia. “This is Burma”, wrote Rudyard Kipling. “It is quite unlike any place you know about.” How right he was: more than a century later Myanmar remains a world apart. While I can’t immerse the travel experience until I’m physically there, on my own preferably, to break new cultural connection, I can read up on the country, its people, the literature, and history. Until I make the trip in January 2015, these books would contribute to a great introduction to the country—surreal and traditional Myanmar. I want to know the basic history and facts behind the sights, not just treating it another Kodak moment.

To Myanmar, With Love

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On the flight home from Asia after a 5.5-week trip, I decided Myanmar would be my next destination.

Other than what George Orwell wrote, I knew nothing about Burma, now called Myanmar. Things are changing in Myanmar. Perceptions outside are changing as well. Salvaged by war and reigned under militarism, Myanmar, a deeply wounded and fractured multi-ethnic society, is working through its “democratic transition”. To me Myanmar is the most mysterious country in Southeast Asia. For the past two decades western writers and readers have focused their minds on the brutality and cronyism of the dictatorship.

My trip in Bangkok sparked my interest in Myanmar. I brought home some books that chart the tumultuous history of the country.

Golden Earth: Travels in Burma by Norman Lewis. Account of his visit in the 1950s. It is a bittersweet portrait of the then-optimistic, now-lost land – before communist incursions and tribal insurrection shattered the dream.

The Burman: His Life and Notions by Sir George Scott. Scott served as frontier officer for three decades at the end of the 19th century, but his enduring legacy is as collector and sympathetic chronicler of the old ways in a country “where people are small and ghosts are big”.

‘A Hanging’ by George Orwell. It’s actually a short story but more moving than Burmese Days. Orwell marks the preciousness of human life and the heartlessness of power.

From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe. Thwe is a native of Shan State. His mesmerising biography stretches from his grandmother’s creation stories to civil war and a chance conversation about James Joyce that leads to a new life in Britain.

Freedom from Fear and Other Writings by Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s no longer a banned book. Few women in public life have suffered more for their beliefs than Aung San Suu Kyi, and inspired so many people by their example. “Concepts such as truth, justice, compassion are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power,” she once wrote.

The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U. Another ex banned book. For 200 years, Thant Myint-U’s forefathers served Burma’s royalty. His grandfather rose to become UN secretary-general. This remarkable family story is woven into Burma’s history in a work that is moving, lyrical, shocking – and essential for anyone wishing to understand the country emerging today.

Under the Dragon: A Journey Through Burma by Rory MacLean. It looks like a good read which provides an inside to Burma’s culture, people, landscape and daily lifestyle including its Golden Land’s history told in a beautiful story.

Myanmar, hope to see you soon.

[135] From the Land of Green Ghosts – Pascal Khoo Thwe

“First we gave him water and a drip, intending to take him to Maechongson hospital later, but while we were tending to other sick people, a villager gave him a hearty dinner out of compassion. The porter sat up contentedly against a tree after his meal and fell asleep. When we tried to wake him up, he was already dead. His digestive system could not absorb the food after he starved for so many days. He had been allowed to eat himself to death.” (221)

This is one of the several passages that puts me to tears.

Pascal’s childhood was bombarded with horrible memories and anecdotes under the military regime of Burma. Stricken by poverty, his family had to grow poppies for extra money to feed the numerous young siblings. Twice the military-controlled government demonetized the banknotes and left thousands without a penny. Being a member of a tiny, remote Burmese tribe, he experienced first-hand the ethnic insurgencies that plagued the country. In 1962, U Ne Win, who claimed that the unity of the country was in danger, seized power in an almost bloodless coup. When he set up a one-party system, he banned all other political parties, shut down independent newspapers, and outlawed all student organizations. Like in any Communist country, one is supposed to revel the leader and never question the authority. Pascal had soon learned that happiness, if it ever existed, was not to be taken for granted. Happiness was as frail as a candlelight in the dark, flickering with every wind that blew. Pascal found himself rebelling against lessons, obedience, and good citizenship at the expense of traditional teaching. He could not formulate the thought that education was being invaded by political brainwashing. That he was told what to say and how to breathe simply made him sick. Nor would he realize the inveterate impact of this military regime, which was marked by hostility toward educated people, would penetrate his study at Cambridge University later. For the liberal education encouraged him to form his own opinion and nothing could have been more opposed to the whole pattern of his previous mentality, let alone education.

In 1988, the tension in Rangoon culminated in a full-blown insurrection. A university student who had been gunned down allegedly by civilians with connection to the leaders caused the volcanic eruption of political rage. That without warning the soldiers opened fire indiscriminately–shooting directly at the crowd and the monks, whom are universally revered in Burma–made Pascal join the guerrilla force of the rebels. He was among the thousands who had fled into the jungle, hoping to bring down the regime in a coalition of urban Burmese and their former enemies, the ethnic minority rebels. The encounter with Professor John Casey was pure chance. It was amazing how he kept in contact with him through letters in the jungle. What were the odds against his meeting a couple from Bangkok in the Chinese restaurant he worked in Mandalay, talking to them about James Joyce and literature, so that he provoked the interest of a Cambridge don who met them the day before he came to Burma, and who on the spur of the moment decided to visit the restaurant, and then as a result of Pascal’s writing to him from the jungle John had brought him to England and urged his case on Caius College.

From the Land of Green Ghosts embraces an uncanny experience of a young man’s escape out of a military regime that would have at first appeared a long shot. The indomitable determination with which he forced himself to overcome put to shame those who quit at the smallest obstacle. The pricking sensitiveness and haunting consciousness with which he described his post-trauma symptoms–warped sense of physical safety, the encroaching uncertainty, humility and fear–are as daunting as his painful recollection of his turmoil.The book gives a fairly good understanding of Burmese history and how the emergence of a military dictatorship has still fettered the country today.

[89] Burmese Days – George Orwell

burma1.jpgBurmese Days is a 1926 novel based on George Orwell’s experience in India, where he was born and in Burma, where he served in the Imperial Police. He launches an unrelenting attack at the core of British Imperialism–Pukka Sahibdom–an unspoken yet in tacit accord a code of coduct Englishmen abroad abide by. That one’s opinion on every topic of any conceivable importance is dictated for him renders one a creature of a despotism, tied tighter than a prisoner by an invisible, unbreakable system of tabus.

That the code of pukka sahibdom is meant to promote edification of the lower (native) races leads to a clash when anyone, white or native, seeks to challenge the inveterate system. A malicious Burmese magistrate who is too absorbed in his intrigue that he is invulnerable to failure paves his way to be elected into the whites-only European Club in Kyauktada, where a handful of Englishmen gather to drink and to alleviate their loneliness and nostalgia. Anyone who is in good terms with these elite foreigners will be in good stead and prestige. Defying the Buddhist belief of earning merits, U Po Kyin contrives to ruin the reputation of an upright Indian doctor, who stands in the way of his rising to power, through a series of calumnies that cause a fallout between the Englishmen and the doctor.

While the doctor’s only English friend Flory perceives the futility of England’s rule during the waning days of Imperialism, he has not even a spark of courage to speak against public opinion bound by the dreadful pukka sahibdom, let alone standing up for someone whom the white men consider their inferior. That he is burned with hatred of the imperialistic atmosphere is not enough to champion a black face against the full fury of a collective attitude. As the attack on the doctor rages on and scandal mongering chokes the club, Flory feels the scruple of being silent. Complicated by the fact that he falls in love unexpectedly with a newly arrived snob of an English girl who despises poverty and dreads the natives’ filthy habits, Flory must find the strength to do right not only by his friend, but also by his conscience.

The caustic novel is a slap in the face to those living in foreign soil and in their superciliousness seeking to patronize what don’t belong to them. The subtle writing ridicules these supercilious foreigners who in their impudence trample on the native culture, take what is most vulnerable, and reduce cultural legacy to something to which they can assimilate, in a condescending way. On a side note, the picture of the book cover satirizes this kind of behavior: a dog is being treated better than a human, the native.

Pukka Sahib – Burma – Orwell

The term pukka sahib keeps popping up in my reading of Burmese Days by George Orwell. I made a note of the term over coffee this morning and looked it up the first thing I got into the office. According to Wikipedia, pukka sahib was a slang term taken from Hindi words for “cooked” and “master,” but meaning “true gentleman” or “excellent fellow.” The term was originally used in the British Empire during colonial times to describe an attitude which British administrators affected, that of an “aloof, impartial, incorruptible arbiter of the political fate of a large part of the earth’s surface”[1].

burma1.jpgburma2.jpgburma3.jpgburma4.jpgThe anti-empire novel evokes some of my fond memories in Burma Orwell paints a very vivid and accurate picture of Burma:

“He acclimatised himself to Burma. His body grew attuned to the strange rhythms of the tropical seasons. Every year from February to May the sun glared in the sky like an angry god, then suddenly the monsoon blew westward, first in sharp squalls, then in a heavy ceaseless downpour that drenched everything until neither one’s clothes, one’s bed nor even one’s food ever seemed to be dry. It was still hot, with a stuffy, vaporous heat. The lower jungle paths turned into morasses, and the paddy fields were great wastes of stagnant water with a stale, mousy smell. Books and boots were mildewed. Naked Burmans in yard-wide hats of palm-leaf ploughed the paddy fields, driving their buffaloes through knee-deep water”

Myanmar (formerly Burma) is mostly jungle except for the capital Rangoon (formerly Yangon) and townships bordering Thailand. I made my entry at the crossing of Mae Sai, the northernmost town in Thailand, a strategic point from which to explore the Golden Triangle, spanning Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. The crossing is very busy with cart-loads of merchandises, local people, tourists, and shops. It’s one of the best spot to observe border life consider that this one of the few crossings where all travelers can obtain a permit for up to 2 weeks from the Burmese immigration facility. As you see in the pictures, this crossing features an infamous bridge, Lo Hsing-han’s former Golden Triangle passageway for opium and heroin that spans the Sai River between Mae Sai and the Burmese town of Tachileik. From Tachileik I got on a bus that began a bumpy journey through jungles as Orwell has described in the above passage to the capital city Rangoon.

1.“Race Against Time” M. Freedman, Phylon, 1953.

Additional reading:
Finding George Orwell in Burma, Emma Larkin
[42] 1984 – George Orwell.