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Orwell and Myanmar

Besides the people and landscapes, the reason I want to go to Myanmar is George Orwell, who arrived in formerly-known Burma in November 1922 as a youthful member of the Indian Imperial Police. Sent first to Mandalay, he also spent time in the Ayeyarwady Delta and Mawlamyine, where his mother grew up, before being posted to the distant Katha.

Orwell’s experience in Burma convinced him of the wrongs of imperialism and he gained a reputation as an outsider more interested in spending time with the Burmese than in more appropriate pursuits for a British officer. In this he resembled Flory, the protagonist of his first novel Burmese Days, which was set in a thinly disguised Katha. Orwell also wrote about Burma in his essays A Hanging and Shooting an Elephant.

There’s a long-standing joke that Orwell actually wrote three books about Burma, including his denunciations of totalitarianism Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Unlike the anti-imperialist Burmese Days, until recently both of the later works were banned by the regime. All three books are on my re-read list, and I will read them before I leave for Myanmar in January.

[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]

Orwell. Myanmar.

Orwell. Myanmar.

A reader’s interest keeps him occupied at all time. One book always leads into another, desperate to satisfy a craving. My interest in traveling to Myanmar has manifested into a reading frenzy of anything about and on Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Emma Larkin’s book is a part biography, part social history, part travelogue. The book is a product of her trip that followed George Orwell’s footstep to the then-British colony in the 1920s. Yet the Myanmar that she reveals is one that has been ruined by military totalitarian regime since 1962, when the country was cut off from the world and in which the people live in constant fear of the authorities. So it’s a particularly uncanny twist of fate that three novels of George Orwell, all written before the horrifying regime, effectively tell the story of Burma’s recent history. The trilogy comprised of Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984. It’s time to reread all of them.

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.

[152] The Glass Palace – Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh is short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, which revives memory of this incredible piece of historical fiction that I never reviewed on this blog.

The Glass Palace will probably disqualify as fiction has it not for a majority of characters that bear no resemblance to reality besides King Thebaw, Queen Supayalat and their four daughters, who were actually forced to exile. The book, which assiduously parallels to the history of colonial India and British invasion of Burma, depicts the country in a century of traumatic sub continental history through the independence in 1947, the assassination of General Aunt San shortly before his assuming of office after election, and up to the presence. The indelible characters, most of whom entwined and descended down the same family line of Rajkumar, seemed to float between boundaries of both geography (Burma, India, Malaya) and class; and transcended across time and generations, powerfully illuminated the painful history of Burma.

Amitav Ghosh conveys all the excruciating details of the characters in a an unusual air of equanimity, with a detachment, serenity and moral strength in the face of such overwhelming turmoil. At the same time, the complex and riveting book evokes the impact of the turmoil events that had thumped families and individuals. Set in Burma during the onset of British invasion in 1885, fortuity had brought 11-year-old Rajkumar to Mandalay. The sampan on which he worked as an errand boy had been in repair and forced him to seek employment in the city. Rajkumar, a brawny figure for a boy of his age and with a quick-witted mind, worked at a food stall in exchange for meals and a roof. He met Saya John and later under whose tutelage Rajkumar entered the timber business and made a considerable fortune. When the British soldiers forced the royal family out to exile, Rajkumar encountered Dolly, the youngest of Queen Supayalat’s maids who took care of the Second Princess, and befriended her as the city’s scum came surging berserk, looting in the Glass Palace.

Dolly was one of the last remaining members of the original Mandalay contingent when the royal family exiled to Ratnagiri, India. For 20 years Dolly had lived in India as she progressed into adulthood, overseeing the daily chores and negotiating with local workers in the royal household. But Rajkumar could neither forget her nor remove any vestige of her – he set out on a quest for a girl whom he had met in the midst of havoc some 20 years ago, when she was only 7. What follows is a twist-and-turn chronicle, salt-and-peppered with historical background of the relevant countries, of Rajkumar’s life and his family. Through Ghosh’s writing Burma’s destitution, ignorance, famine and despair was relived.

Reading The Glass Palace reminds me of The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason, a book about an English piano tuner being summoned to repair a piano that belonged to a Surgeon-Major in the midst of Burmese jungle. Characters in “The Glass Palace” traveled the very same route to and from Burma as the piano tuner and described similar sceneries. The second half of Ghosh’s book is replete with commentary-like prose on politics, history and warfare. An overlapping theme is the fact that the British had recruited Indian soldiers to conquer the Burmese. In a sense, the Indian soldiers, bearing no cause, were made to kill for the British Empire, fighting people (the Burmese) who really should be their friends. The Burmese vented out anger and resentment toward the Indians and, what was more, as subjects of the British Empire, the Indians were treated as enemy aliens by the Japanese. Amitav raises the ineluctable truth: that the Empire was no less guilty of racism, aggression and conquest than the Nazi’s institutionalizing racism, violence and atrocities.

[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.

On Burma, Another Memoir

Chance encounter with a visiting professor from Cambridge changed the life of Pascal Khoo Thwe, a member of the remote Burmese tribe known for the giraffe-necked women. They struck up a scholarly correspondence that would take Pascal from the brutal hardships of guerrilla warfare to the hallowed world of Cambridge University. I just started the book which has a brief history of Burma–the rise of Burmese Socialist Programme Party and the Burma Nationalists, the latter being responsible for helping the Japanese Imperial Army invade Burma, hoping in reward for Burma’s independence.

In 1962 U Ne Win, claiming that the unity of the country was in danger, seized power in an almost bloodless coup. But he regarded himself as the Father of the Country, and made no distinction between his own and the national wealth. His regime was marked by hostility to educated people. When he set up the one-party system, he banned all other political parties, shut down independent newspapers, and outlawed all student organizations. All these helped army become the super-privileged body.

This is hardcore reading. It requires con-cen-tration! Not that I usually don’t concentrate when I’m reading…