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REFLECTIONS
HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]:

Big Brother Burma, Over Easy

 

Big Brother Burma, Over Easy

William Parham
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 Saopha.
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 again.
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.

 


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