Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Orwell's Burma

I am planning my vacation, but I cannot decide where to go this December. I am spoilt for choice, except when it comes to Myanmar. There is only one tour agent advertising one tour package to Myanmar. I briefly considered that package, but put it aside quickly. What is it about Myanmar that makes it desirable on the one hand and undesirable on the other, as a tour destination, I wonder?

Perhaps part of the answer lies in the book "Secret Histories - Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop" by Emma Larkin. This book is not a just a mere travelogue. It is this and more. Ms Larkin writes about her experiences traveling through Burma, the old colonial era name of what is Myanmar today, with reference to George Orwell's times and tales there in the mid-1920s. This is an interesting angle to base a book on, but as events in modern Myanmar would have it, Ms Larkin shows how prophetic Orwell is through his now very famous books, Burmese Days, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eight-four. George Orwell, or Eric Blair, his real name, worked in Burma for 5 years as an officer of the Imperial Police Force.

Through her recent travels around Myanmar, Ms Larkin shows how closely its politics and society today mirrors those described in these three books of Orwell's. Though not strictly communist, Myanmar society today is a closed one. Although it pretends to be socialist in leanings, it is in fact authoritarian and dictatorial, much like what the society depicted in Animal Farm turned out to be. The people of Myanmar do not have political freedoms, as demonstrated by the muzzling of its most outspoken daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi. There is no freedom to write and publish. Many who dared are today locked up in one of Myanmar's most overcrowded prison - Insein Prison. A native explained that they cannot speak or write about what is going on in Burma. People who do so disappeared, as happened to a most repected and prolific local historian, much like people in the fictional Nineteen Eighty-four. The education system has become so poor that there are all of 40 candidates for a Ph.D every year - Phoney Doctorates as they are more popularly known.

This book is filled with anecdotes about life in Myanmar and its ordinary people. The author has travelled from Mandalay to Delta, Rangoon, Moulmein and Katha to the places the Orwell once lived and worked to bring us a book full of sketches of its people's experiences, fears, jokes and, yes, laughter, if only of the bitter sort, that permeates life in Orwell's Burma today.

40 years of dictatorial rule has reduced Myanmar to a basket case, needing to import basic necessities such as rice to feed its people. This depressing list of deprivation includes those in knowledge and basic freedoms. If you have read any or all of those Orwell books, you will get a pretty good idea of what Myanmar is today. This is certainly a unique book written from a unique angle about a people which the world has almost forgotten.

It doesn't really matter if you haven't read any of Orwell's books, the stories are human enough for you to relate to immediately. Having a good background in Orwell's works gives you the icing on the cake, so to speak.

So should I visit Myanmar these holidays? Yes, if only to experience first hand what Larkin has written about, but certainly not if the family is coming along.

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