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Burmese Daze: Traveling with a Literary Companion

Myo, my Burmese interpreter and guide, was surprisingly forthcoming with his liberal politics during the conversation over our first meal together in a Chinese restaurant in Rangoon. I hadn't been prepared for such courage or foolhardiness in a country as notorious for political repression as Burma. We might have been having the next installment of our conversation in a detention camp somewhere in the remote north. After all, the military junta that runs Burma today has had the elected leader of the Democratic party, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest for the past eighteen months. She had been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize; Myo and I were a couple of "nobodys."

But Myo's bravery made much of my trip for me. I was prepared to discuss some politics with the Burmese, but sort of a "politically-correct" politics. I was ready to discuss the colonial era, when Burma was part of the British Empire. Even the generals would approve of that. They were proud of throwing off the British colonial yoke. Had they searched my luggage they would even have approved, as I later learned, of the book I had chosen to fill in the down time as I made my way from Rangoon, to Bagan, to Mandalay and Amarpura, and up the Irrawaddy to Mingun.

Burmese Days was George Orwell's first novel, published in 1934, seven years after the author had completed five years as an Imperial Indian policeman in Burma. In a story about a friendship between a pukka sahib Englishman and an Indian physician, Orwell gives reign to his indignation at the attitudes of racial superiority of Burmese over Indians and the British over everybody. These were, of course, sentiments that prefigured the refinements they would receive in his later and more popular books about authoritarian political structures; horrible worlds, that when they were realized in contemporary history were often defined in the eponymous "Orwellian."

Orwell perhaps noticed elements of such ideologies in the British Raj, as though authoritarianism was like a strand of DNA on the virus of imperialism. After all, the British had annexed Burma into their Indian colony under what was likely a manufactured pretext by them that Burma "threatened" their Indian interests. In 1855 they swept down the Irrawaddy to Mandalay and, with little resistance, swept aside royal defenders and told King Thibaw he had a couple of hours to pack before they would ship him off to exile in India, making him the last Burmese king. Thibaw himself had insured that there were no available royal replacements, having rounded up eighty of his relatives at the insistence of his queen and had them strangled or beaten to death. So the British didn't appear as brutish in such circumstances , except perhaps to some of their own subjects.

For example, Orwell was ahead of his time in condemning the subjugation of indigenous peoples and the usage of terms like "Chinamen" instead of Chinese, or "Mohamedan" instead of Muslim. He insisted that the word "Negro" be capitalized to raise its status. And so, Burmese Days deals harshly with the exclusivity of the British clubs, among whose members are boozing profiteers and outright racists who have little interest in the local culture and regard what is left behind by their plunder as a residue of British civilization that locals should be grateful for having imposed upon them. Those who step over the line between the rulers and ruled, as does his character, Mr. Flory, an English timber merchant who takes a young Burmese mistress, invite derision and possible ostracism. Unlike his other British characters, Flory, like Orwell himself, bothered to learn to speak both Hindi and Burmese. Then there are those, such as the Anglophile Indian Dr. Veraswami, enthralled by all things British and covetous of admittance to their circle. As with most colonial circumstances, corruption of local authorities and institutions is assured and the Burmese do their best to play off the ruling British elites against the despised Indians. There is little doubt that his five years of Burmese days provided the substance for what can only be regarded as a denunciation of imperialism from the inside.

So there was little wonder when I noticed, among the few titles in English in a Rangoon bookstore, several copies of a well-done facsimile of the edition of Burmese Days I was carrying. Orwell was the perfect spokesman against the perfidy of foreign intruders, now on the approved list of the masters of an indigenous imperialism.

One wonders what Orwell would write about the contemporary rulers of Burma, who seem to have gone to the school of the authoritarian features he savaged in Animal Farm and 1984. The author, who died in 1950, would have known of the independence that was granted by the British in 1947 and would have been aware of the election of the party of General Bogyoke Aung San, father of Aung San Su Kyi. But the young general was assassinated the same year and political turmoil followed. Orwell would not, however, have been around when the country was taken over by Ne Win in 1962 and pointed down the road to socialism.

Orwell might not have been disapproving of the change of Burma's name to Myanmar, or of Rangoon back to Yangon, since both were considered to be colonial appellations. But he doubtless would have winced at the eventual formation of The State Law and Order Restoration Council, an administration of martial law that has all the elements of what Orwell called "newspeak," and a sinister acronym—SLORC—to go along with it.

I finished reading Burmese Days on the flight back to Rangoon from Mandalay. At the end of the story Flory was dead, by his own hand, and with his passing Dr. Veraswami lost his only chance to gain admittance to English colonial society. I was in mourning as well-that little sense of loss when I had to now leave the world that Orwell had created for me.

Almost immediately I was brought into the present by the arrogance of the contemporary political order in Burma. A Burmese general and his wife had been passengers on the flight of our seventy-passenger turboprop. The general, a larger that average Burmese, wore military khaki, three stars on his epaulettes, and so many bogus campaign ribbons that he would have to have fought in every military engagement since the Second Punic War to be worthy of them. More likely his only "combat" was shooting democracy demonstrators in 1988. The "general" and his bejeweled, plumpish missus were boarded first and alone. They sat in the front of the plane. However, when we arrived at Rangoon, everyone was required to remain in their seats while Mr. and Mrs. General were allowed to waddle aristocratically down the aisle and deplane first. At the foot of the stairs awaited a large bus that is used to ferry passengers across the sun-baked tarmac to the terminal. They boarded the bus and the general promptly ordered the driver to shut the doors and drive off, leaving the rest of the passengers standing with dazed looks in their eyes in the blazing Burmese sun.

We were met by Myo at the airport and, when I related the story of the general, he showed no surprise at the behavior. He was more surprised that evening when I presented him with a copy of Burmese Days that I had found in a Rangoon bookstore earlier that day. He had heard of Orwell but had not read him. He seemed genuinely excited to have the book, especially after a quick perusal of the introductory note revealed that Orwell had set the story in Kyauktada, which happened to be Myo's home district. Yet, when I said I would mail him copies of Animal Farm and 1984, his face darkened. There was no chance that he would ever receive them, he said-mail was routinely opened and inspected and certainly any such books that satirized totalitarian governments would be confiscated and destroyed. That is part of the Burmese daze: some where Orwell is approved, other where Orwell is condemned.

The Burmese are always ready for a little temple or pagoda visit. They almost universally wear sandals so they get barefoot in the time it takes to say "Om." The men also almost universally wear the longyi, sort of a wrap-around ankle-length skirt. Only the military seem to wear pants in this society. Women also wear a version of the longyi, but also wear dresses, at least the younger ones do. They also wear a paste ground from teak trees, called thanahka, on their faces to protect against the sun and also to cool the skin.

Orwell's portrait of the Burmese and their culture was a complimentary one. I found that, for all their poverty, degraded physical and social infrastructure, and the oppressions of a dictatorial government, the Burmese are cheerful, friendly people. There are far fewer beggars as in neighboring India, and fewer greedily ambitious new capitalists as in neighboring China, and as near as I can tell, fewer prostitutes than in neighboring bawdy Thailand. Perhaps, paradoxically, this is because their political circumstances have resulted in isolation, a sort of self-imposed national "house arrest" that has insulated the country from not just economic progress, but also from its negatives. Moreover, Burma's annual tourist visitation is probably less than what Italy or France receives in a few days.

When I got back to Hong Kong I learned that the United Nations had persuaded the military junta to release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. It's a good sign so I'll get those copies of Orwell's classics ready for Myo, just in case there are better Burmese days ahead.

James A. Clapp, Ph.D., is a semi-retired professor who divides his time these days between California and Hong Kong. Since he wrote this piece, Aung San Suu Kyi has been once again "detained" by the Burmese military junta "for her own protection."

Recommended "Traveling Companions" to Burma

James A. Clapp is Professor of Urban Planning at San Diego State University, where he formerly directed the Master of City Planning Program and was Chairman of the School of Public Administration and Urban Studies. He received his Ph.D. in Metropolitan Studies from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University in 1968 and practiced for several years as a public urban planner and planning consultant. He is author of over 100 articles, book chapters, reviews, and technical reports on cities and city planning, and his book, New Towns and Urban Policy (Dunellen, 1971) was the main selection of the Library of Urban Affairs Book Club in 1971. His book, The City: A Dictionary of Quotable Thoughts On Cities And Urban Life (Rutgers, 1984) was in print for over a decade. His book (with M. Stofflet), California Cityscapes (Universe Books, 1991) deals with the portrayal of the city in art. A book of his aphorisms, Lifelines, was published by Peter Pauper Press in May 2004. His latest book, This Urban Life: Writing About Cities for Multiple Media, will be published in the Summer of 2005.

©2001 - 2005, James A. Clapp.

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