Big Brother Burma, Over Easy
OK, so you know where Burma is. Maybe you’ve even been there,
but your favourite guidebook called it Myanmar. If you live in these parts,
you probably know that a woman named Aong San Kyi …something like that …is
under house arrest there. What for? In Burma, in Myanmar, what’s it?
If the above musings describe you, you definitely need a read-me-first
sheet. No offence, but a little education is in order. There’s a number of
highly interesting reads out there on this country, adventuresome
travelogues and excellent reportage, that will bring you up to basic speed
with minimal intellectual exertion. Start here with some Burma Lite.
The realm of evil fantasy
No better subtext for the country can be found than the writings
of George Orwell, that intrepid British author who served five years in
Burma as a member of the colonial administration, and immortalized his time
there by writing Burmese Days. But it was his 1949 book, Nineteen Eighty
Four, which would prove uncannily prescient for military dominated,
post-1962 Burma. This book invented the term Big Brother as a metaphor for
all-pervasive surveillance and oppression.
Taking Orwell as her spiritual traveling companion, Emma Larkin, in
Finding George Orwell in Burma, interweaves her own keen-eyed travel
reportage with his writings to bring us a fascinating glimpse of a country
under self-siege. Although easy to read, Larkin is no backpacker pundit.
An American journalist who studied Burmese at the School of Oriental and
African Studies in London, she’s especially insightful in relating example
after example of how ‘oppression of an entire nation of some 50 million
people can be completely hidden from view.’ Indeed, ever wonder what’s
behind those romantic, lichen-covered high walls in Rangoon? Military
compounds – all over the city.
In Nineteen Eight-Four, the doomed hero asks, ‘where does the past exist?’
Books, memories. Larkin relates how the banned writings of Orwell, Aung San
Suu Kyi, and lesser known Burmese literary writers ‘travel between trusted
friends ...from hidden libraries all over the country and form a parallel
universe of alternative truths and secret histories.’
Welcome to Shan State, no visa required
‘It was the diaries that brought me here. Only a few months
before, but a world away, I had sat in the silence of the British Library in
London pouring over a collection of 19th c.
notebooks,’ so reports Andrew Marshall in his adventure-filled book, The
Trouser People. The diaries would be those of the British imperialist
Sir George Scott, extending Queen Victoria’s sun-never-sets-on-the-empire to
Upper Burma in the late 1800’s.
Marshall dogs the footsteps of Scott in Burma’s little-visited north where
he has rude awakenings with some of Scott’s favorite people, the headhunting
Wild Wa. Today, those same headhunters have morphed into the United Wa
State Army, one of the most heavily armed narco-traffickers in the world,
keeping Thailand’s roustabouts well supplied with YaBa.
Marshall shifts between his own experiences and Scott’s long-ago
adventures. So that we don’t get stuck in tantalizing bygones, he reminds
us that, just as Scott pacified the Shans, the present military regime
carries out a modern-day reprise on the ethnic people: ‘While foreign
tourists took day trips on beautiful Inle Lake …less than 60 miles away
…people were being raped, shot and beaten to death.’ Sobering, as tourists
capture that Kodak moment at the lake.
The dream is over
Historically, the Shan States were a collection of princely
fiefdoms each ruled by a Saopha, modelling themselves on the former royal
court at Mandalay. Reading like a fast-paced historical novel, Patricia
Elliott’s The White Umbrella provides a sweeping account of one of
the most influential and powerful of these courts – the Saopha of Yawnghwe,
(present day Nyaungshwe).
But nothing can substitute for the same story, told upfront and personal, by
someone who knew all participants intimately and experienced this life
herself. Such a reminiscence has just recently been published and it’s a
keeper: The Moon Princess by Sao Sanda, a daughter of the Yawnghwe
One of the most articulate chapters of The Moon Princess relates the
political maneuverings between the ethnic minorities and Burma’s father of
independence, General Aung San. Sao Sanda explains how the Shans had
misgivings about Aung San’s rush to independence under a new Union of Burma
fearing, as the animals in Orwell’s Animal Farm, that while all would
be equal, some would be more equal than others. This fear would indeed
materialize a decade later in 1959, when all Saophas were forced to
ceremonially abdicate in front of then Army Commander, Ne Win.
‘If you want a picture of the future…’
‘Imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.’ This
chilling image is from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four, but it could
well describe the brutal ending of another Shan Saopha, the one in Hsipaw.
Twilight Over Burma is the firsthand account of his Austrian wife,
Inge Sargent. Similar to The Moon Princess, the book describes the
fairytale existence of the court at Hsipaw until 1962, when Ne Win’s troops
surrounded the residence and seized the Saopha. His poignant note, smuggled
out of prison, read, ‘miss you all …I am still o.k.’ He was never seen
The fire next time
If the Burma Lite books went down smooth, then maybe you’d like
to try a more robust brew. Shelby Tucker’s, Burma: The Curse of
Independence, would be just the ticket. It’s an accessible,
well-researched history of Burma from WWII through the end of Burma’s
independence period when General Aung San was assassinated.
If you want to go even further into this darkest of histories, Outrage
by Bertil Lintner will not disappoint. A recognized authority on Burmese
politics and insurgency, Lintner picks up where Tucker leaves off, at the
explosive demonstrations staged by the people in 1988.
These demonstrations were the context for General Ne Win’s infamous quote,
‘when the army shoots, it shoots to kill.’ Indeed it did. When the
slaughter began, one of the first victims was an 18-year old girl, a
Buddhist novice. ‘She was still tightly holding a portrait of Aung San when
she fell dead to the street.’
It was at this time that Aung San Suu Kyi’s political involvement began with
her memorable address to masses of people in front of the country’s most
sacred pagoda, the Shwedagon. This is The Lady, Aung San’s daughter, who
has spent 13 years under house arrest. These 1988 demonstrations, the first
major ones after the military takeover in 1962, formed the backdrop and
playbook for the recent disruptions in October 2007.
In 1963, James Baldwin wrote The Fire Next Time as an eloquent plea
for America to come to its senses about race relations. If they did not, he
subtly warned, a line from an old slave song might come true: ‘God gave Noah
the rainbow sign, no more water, the fire next time!’ What does this book
have to do with Burma? Much, maybe not much, depends ...But the title most
certainly has a nice ring to it.
AUA Library has all books mentioned here.