searching for Orwell

This is a revised version of a review published in The Kyoto Journal prior to the 2010 national election which led to the creation of a parliament and the opening up of Burma to democracy.

Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop by Emma Larkin

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”––Nineteen Eighty-Four

By Roy Hamric

Early into Emma Larkin’s extended stay in Burma while she was gathering material for Secret Histories, she visited a Burmese scholar and brought up George Orwell’s name.

“You mean the prophet!” the man exclaimed.

In Burma today, rechristened Myanmar in 1989 by a military junta that has methodically repressed the country and turned it into a pariah state, there is a joke that Orwell wrote not just one book about the country, Burmese Days, but two more: Animal Farm, the tale of a socialist revolution in which pigs overthrow human farmers and set about to destroy the farm, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, the story of a heartless dystopia. The trilogy depicts a before-and-after picture of Burma-Myanmar.

a bus stop in Rangoon in front of the venerable Strand Hotel

Emma Larkin is the pseudonym of an American journalist, born in Asia, who has spent long stretches of time living in Burma, a rarity for Western writers these days. Her book has added luster now because Burma is has undergone profound changes since the 2010 elections, in which the junta handed over power to a parliament and began a rapid move to establish a democracy, a normal civil society and open up its closed culture to foreign investment and businesses.

Larkin’s book is now a time capsule on what Burma was like under a bloody totalitarian military regime, which massacred many students and other in demonstrations over a two decade period. She wisely steered clear of the tourist trail, preferring quiet visits with ordinary Burmese in the former capital of Rangoon or in towns and villages in the north and south. The result is unsurprisingly a book that feels Orwellian, a sad testament to the fact that Burma hasn’t progressed much in nearly 90 years, when Orwell was serving unhappily as a policeman for the British crown, in the waning days of its Asian empire.  The Burmese eventually threw the British out, but what they got in return has been a dismal chronicle of brutal, incompetent, repressive military dictatorships which have driven the country into the ground.

Reading about life in Burma in the hands of Larkin is a pleasure on many levels. She writes a gentle prose which, largely free of polemical arguments, lets the Burmese people speak for themselves. For those who are unaware of Burma’s recent history, the book is a primer on the woeful battering suffered by its citizens at the hands of cold, ruthless military regimes that first took power in the 1950s, and is known most recently for the 1988 massacre of an estimated 3,000 people–– students, monks, citizens and children––who took to the streets to protest nearly three decades of military rule and neglect. Burma, during the time of Larkin’s book, was  the same Burma of long ago. It had undergone little change. The infrastructure is still in shambles, electricity was non-existent or rationed, the press was censored, individual initiative was discouraged, political speech was repressed and pro-democracy activists were routinely rounded up and sentenced to prison on draconian charges grounded on state control. Commodities were scarce, but mostly just non-existent. Jobs were  scarcer. Reliable information couldn’t be found. An ever-present fear of informers hovered over all conversations, especially with foreigners, and the fear was captured in the expression pasien yo, literally “the handle of the ax”––signifying the tool used to chop down a tree is made from the wood of the tree itself. The people are kept in line through fear of their fellow citizens.

a colonial era government building in downtown Rangoon

On another level, the book is a detective story, as Larkin  searches out the places where Orwell, as a young man, lived and worked. She visits all the towns where he was posted as an officer in the Imperial police force, starting in 1922: Mandalay in the country’s center; Myaungmya and Twante, in the Delta swamplands; the capital of Rangoon (now called Yangon by the junta); Moulmein, on the eastern peninsular; and Katha, in the foothills of northern Burma, which became the fictional setting for Burmese Days.

In her travels, she finds that many of the dwellings and buildings where Orwell lived and worked are still in use or now lie abandoned to dust and weeds. In each town, the people who befriend Larkin are etched in vivid portraits.

Lastly, the book is a chilling picture of what life is like on the Animal Farm in post-Nineteen Eighty-Four. Inertia, gloom, paranoia and absurdity color the days. The country stagnates, a tangible entropy unwinds downward, progress is systematically retarded: ancient taxis, held together with wire and prayers, rattle around potholes, all print and broadcast media are policed, information from the outside world is sketchy, tourists must register passports at hotels and guesthouses and state their next destination (duly recorded by the desk clerk). The Burmese themselves must inform the local authorities if anyone––Burmese or foreigner––stays overnight in their home. In such an environment, the people are expert at reading and decipher rumors, for they are often the most reliable clues to important events the government tries to suppress. Leaders of opposition groups, all brave souls, are routinely spied on, intimidated or jailed, and on and on. In one town, Larkin was required to visit nine governmental agencies to inform them that she had arrived in the town. In spite of the obstacles, the Burmese people somehow struggled on, carving out pockets of happiness in simple pleasures.

an outdoor bookshop in Rangoon

Larkin’s sympathies  for the Burmese people stand out, but she offers little hope for a better life anytime soon, and recent events confirm her pessimism. China, Russia and South Africa’s recent vetoes of the U.S. and British resolutions to place Burma’s human rights record on the U.N Security Council agenda confirms that brutal regimes have friends in the world. Asean, the organization of Southeast Asian nations, had a dismal record on Burma, defending its timid stance under its “softly, softly” rubric of Asian values and non-interference in a brother state’s internal affairs.

Meanwhile, millions of Burmese were displaced over five decades by a cold-blooded military machine, whose soldiers routinely rape women and burn villages and homes of ethnic citizens, causing them to flee to the safety of the jungle and border areas.

Burma under the bloody military regime was almost beyond belief, but then again, no. In colonial Burma, George Orwell first glimpsed the dark shadows where greed, lies and governmental repression can lead. Larkin takes us farther down that totalitarian road and deep into Burma’s darkness under the military regimes which turned Orwell’s prophetic nightmare into a frightening, daily reality.

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