The Best of Burma: A Reader’s List

January 5, 2014

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Since Lune and I arrived in Myanmar in September, a few people have asked me what they should read about this fascinating country. In no particular order, and with some comments included, I’ve compiled a selection from the books I’ve read.

For a general historical view, one of my favourites is River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma (2006) by historian Thant Myint-U, erudite grandson of former UN Secretary-General U Thant and—according to Foreign Policy—one of the 100 leading global thinkers of 2013. In this insightful overview of ancient and modern Burmese history, mixed with his own family narrative, Myint-U challenges the conventional wisdom of economic sanctions during the junta years while weaving together cultural and political analysis to ponder the prospects for change in Burma….In his more recent tome, Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia (2011), Myint-U visits the country’s northern and western frontier areas to examine the cross-border influence of these two countries in determining today’s developments in Myanmar….For a more detached and academic but no less accessible view of the country, there’s Michael W. Charney’s A History of Modern Burma (2009), which covers all the key events from British occupation to the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis—and very concisely, at just over 200 pages.

When most people think of Burma, the first name that comes to mind is that of democracy icon and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. There is no shortage of books by or about “The Lady,” her code name when it was dangerous to talk about her. Those she wrote, including Letters from Burma, were published during lengthy periods of house arrest. Letters reflects the author’s sharp mind and keen interest in Burmese culture, as well as the stubborn courage and fierce commitment to a free Burma for which she became world-famous. It makes for somewhat dated reading, however, given the social and political changes in Myanmar since the 2010 election, including Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest, her successful campaign to win a Lower House seat in Parliament, and her globetrotting leadership of the National League for Democracy ever since.

Similarly, 2008’s The Voice of Hope: Aung San Suu Kyi Conversations with Alan Clements, a collection of lengthy interviews on Suu Kyi’s philosophy of non-violence and the role of Buddhism in politics, is now hard to read without a jaundiced or cynical eye, thanks to Daw Suu’s transition from political victim to potential future president. Her thoughts on meta, or Buddhist loving kindness, are almost cringe-making right now, thanks to the racist, anti-Muslim violence committed by Buddhists in Rakhine State over the past eighteen months. Suu Kyi’s own silence about this issue (including her refusal to even utter the word “Rohingya”) have turned this book—for me, at least—into a sad cultural artifact of failed idealism.

For a biography of Suu Kyi, Peter Popham’s The Lady and the Peacock: The Life of Aung San Suu Kyi (2012) offers the most comprehensive portrait to date while for the most part avoiding hagiographic tendencies (although the “flower-like” metaphors to describe Suu Kyi’s physical beauty do get tiresome). Like other sympathetic portraits of The Lady, it fails to examine Suu Kyi’s cultural or ethnic biases as a member of the Burman majority and how these might affect her views on Buddhist-Muslim relations, to say nothing of her thoughts on ceasefire discussions with ethnic armed groups….As for her father, A Trial in Burma: The Assassination of Aung San, written by Burmese scholar Dr. Maung Maung and published a few weeks before the 1962 coup, offers an exhaustive, blow-by-blow account of the trial of the killers, revealing the petty jealousies and political maneuverings that led a deranged right wing nationalist, U Saw, to commission the July 1947 murder of Burma’s greatest hope for democracy. Aung San was shot dead, along with six members of his cabinet and two others at the scene, in a brazen ambush of the government compound in broad daylight.

Like many Westerners, my interest in Burma began the same year Suu Kyi rose to prominence, during the 1988 democracy demonstrations that were crushed by the military regime. The best chronicler of those times is Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner, former Burma correspondent for the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review. Lintner’s Outrage: Burma’s Struggle for Democracy (1990) has been described by fellow Burma watcher Karen Connelly as “a vivid, meticulously researched account of the extraordinary nationwide protests and strikes of 1988, the brutal military crackdowns and Suu Kyi’s rise to popularity. Also an introduction to the country’s history and to its ethnic peoples’ struggles for autonomy.” Lintner’s interviews with eyewitnesses to the slaughter, at once poignant and stomach churning, made instant activists out of many an overseas reader….On the other hand, his follow-up, Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Democracy (2011) is disappointing in that it regurgitates verbatim much of the same content from Outrage rather than reassessing those events after two decades’ reflection.

For an inside look at the military regime and its mentality, The 1988 Uprising in Myanmar (2000) by Dr. Maung Maung (see Aung San book, above) makes for fairly bizarre reading. Maung Maung, a Ne Win loyalist who published a gushing biography of the dictator, was handed the presidency of Burma during the violent summer of 1988. He held it for one month minus a day before being replaced by the coup that established the dreaded State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). For all his pretentious literary references and claims of high-minded civic values, the author’s defense of the regime’s response to the protests is distasteful in its earnestness. The people who risked their lives for democracy are reduced to “hooligans, looters, arsonists, headhunters” and “mobs”, and Maung Maung lectures the students for lacking an organized platform for their cause (as if such a thing is possible in the rush of events). Meanwhile, he says nothing about Ne Win’s wanton destruction of the country during his twenty-six years of misrule, nor of his regime’s cold-blooded massacre of thousands of innocent civilians. “Maung Maung’s book is worth reading,” Lintner has wryly noted, “because it shows how far an academic sycophant is prepared to go to please his mentor.”

Some of the most compelling narratives about Burma are personal memoirs written by survivors of the regime. From the Land of Green Ghosts (2002), by Pascal Khoo Thwe, is the story of a Padaung tribesman and student of literature who, in early 1988, is working as a waiter at a Mandalay restaurant when he befriends a visiting Cambridge don who has been told to look for the waiter who reads James Joyce. Months later, Pascal’s life is overturned by the military crackdown and he flees to the jungle to join the guerrilla resistance. At the Thai-Burma border, he writes to the Cambridge don, John Casey, who eventually receives his letter. Contacts are made, Pascal ends up in England and enrolls at Cambridge, becoming the first Burmese tribesman to do so….Little Daughter: A Memoir of Survival in Burma and the West (2009) by Zoya Phan, is as much a story of perseverance as it is of principled opportunism and media savvy. Zoya Phan is from a Karen tribe whose village is attacked by the Burmese army when she’s fourteen. The book recounts her family’s terrifying escape from their burning home, their journey into the jungle with thousands of other refugees, Zoya’s time in a crowded Thai refugee camp where she cares for her ailing mother, and her flight to the United Kingdom where she claims asylum. A bright pupil, she quickly gets involved with the Burma Campaign UK and becomes an instant media star after an interview with the BBC, courted by celebrities and politicians of all stripes. (Tragically her father, Karen National Union general secretary Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan, never makes it out of Burma with the rest of the family and is assassinated by agents of the dictatorship in 2008.)….As a Western visitor to Burma, Karen Connelly was not a survivor of the military regime. But in her 2009 memoir Burmese Lessons: A True Love Story, the Canadian author, poet and self-styled “reluctant journalist” survives a relationship with a Burmese resistance leader, a chapter in her life she describes with gut wrenching honesty. Anyone who has ever had a cross-cultural romance with someone from a country like Burma (my husband is from the same state as Connelly’s pseudonymous “Maung”) will feel the agony of the narrator’s dilemma as she is forced to choose between nation and lover.

Two of my favourite books on Myanmar involve epic family narratives that take place in Shan State. Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess (1994), Inge Sargent’s sad and exotic love story, begins in Colorado in the early 1950s where the Austrian-born author is swept off her feet by a Burmese fellow student, Sao Kya Seng. Even after marrying her, Sao does not tell Inge he is the prince of Hsipaw, one of 34 independent Shan states in northeastern Burma, until they arrive there from the U.S. They spend the next eight years presiding over the state as a royal couple until Ne Win seizes power and Sao disappears, never to be seen or heard from again. Sargent’s account of her desperate search for him, her anguished decision to give up and flee to Austria, and the nerve-wracking process of smuggling out her daughters, is heartbreaking. The author’s decision to compose the narrative in the third person seems odd, and the writing is sophomoric. But Sargent’s is one of those stranger-than-fiction tales that, despite the telling, linger with the reader long afterward.

No less riveting but much better written is Patricia Elliott’s The White Umbrella (2002), the proto-feminist odyssey of Sao Hearn Hkam: Mahadevi of Yawnghwe, former First Lady of Burma, and founder of the Shan State Army who ends up in Canadian exile. Unlike Inge Sargent’s story, there is no doubting what becomes of this protagonist’s husband after the coup. And unlike Sargent, Sao Hearn Hkam seems less a victim of history than a maker of it. Married to the first president of Burma, who is arrested after the coup and dies in prison, Sao decides to fight for her people—even if she has to do business with the opium warlords. Says the blurb: “Born into royalty, sold into marriage like a slave, Sao Hearn Hkam fought against tradition, foreign invaders and the brute power of a crazed general to gain freedom for her people….From the quiet Shan hills of her childhood to the Presidential Palace in Rangoon; to the halls of power in Asia and Europe; and finally to the violent, drug-laden netherworld of the Golden Triangle, her journey is an inspiration and a revelation.” Absolutely.

For many years the leaders of the SLORC and its replacement, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), remained shadowy figures about whom very little was known, much less written. It was not until 2010, the year the junta finally allowed elections, that journalist and longtime Burma observer Benedict Rogers came out with Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant. To say a biography of the elusive dictator was long awaited is an understatement. However (and as Rogers himself has admitted), Than Shwe was a difficult subject because so little research had been done on him. Unlike the North Korean Kims, Burma’s dictators never regarded the personality cult as a guiding light for totalitarian rule. Despite his monstrous ego, even Ne Win was happy to stay under the radar–when he could–while ruling the country with an iron fist. The same was true of Saw Maung and, to a greater extent, Burma’s second longest serving dictator. In Than Shwe, Rogers reveals an uneducated postal clerk who, once he joins the army, does not distinguish himself on the battlefield; instead, his rise through the ranks is attributed mostly to the blind loyalty of a brown-nosing “yes” man. Ultimately this portrait cannot help but be disappointing, given the lack of source material. However, Rogers does come up with a few nuggets from his interviews with defectors and diplomats. One of them is Than Shwe’s 1998 order to kill—and then quickly bury—59 Burmese villagers the navy discovers foraging on Christie Island in the Mergui Archipelago, which is off limits to civilians. (He gives the order over lunch to his Number Two, Aye Maung, who passes it on over the phone to the officer at the scene. The officer, assuming Aye Maung is drunk and only kidding, is promptly corrected and carries out the order. A few days later, 22 Thai fishermen who are caught sailing too close to the island suffer the same fate.)

Apart from 1988, the years 2007 and 2008 were the most traumatic in Myanmar’s modern history. The Saffron Revolution of August through October 2007 was a courageous reboot of the pro-democracy movement led by the country’s monks. As in 1988, this uprising was brutally suppressed by the regime; unlike then, the crackdown was captured on mobile phones and other recording devices, then quickly circulated online through social media. Half a year later, on May 2, 2008, the Irrawaddy delta was hit by the worst tropical storm in the country’s history. Cyclone Nargis, apart from killing 138,000 and leaving 2.5 million homeless, revealed the extent of the dictatorship’s evil in its slow and indifferent response to the disaster, its initial refusal to allow international aid, its blocking of access to the hardest hit areas, and its attempts to cover up the extent of the tragedy. Two of the best books on these events are Come Rain or Shine: A Personal Account of Burma, the 2007 Uprising and Cyclone Nargis (2008), compiled by Joseph Ball in conjunction with the Mizzima News Agency and published a few months after Nargis, and No Bad News for the King: The True Story of Cyclone Nargis and its Aftermath in Burma (2010), Emma Larkin’s thoughtful analysis of the cyclone and its aftermath. The Mizzima agency’s clandestine news coverage and photography produced some of the best on-the-ground work during and after both of these tumultuous events, and that work is evident in this quickly compiled book. Larkin applies a cool critical eye to the government’s response to Nargis, uncovering how the regime suppressed aid and communication efforts and unpacking its reasons for doing so.

In terms of novels on Myanmar, I can recommend only three. (I would probably say four, but I am not including Daniel Mason’s The Piano Tuner (2002), since I cannot recommend a book I haven’t read—New York Times bestseller though it may have been.)

George Orwell’s Burmese Days (1934) is a classic anti-colonial narrative about the failure of British imperialism. Inspired by the author’s five-year sojourn in Burma as a member of the Indian Imperial Police, Orwell’s first novel explores the internal contradictions of its protagonist, the thirty-five-year-old timber merchant John Flory, who first arrives in Burma during his early twenties seeking exotic adventure but gradually grows weary of social injustice faced by the country’s natives, of the racist bigotry that defined the imperial project, and of the colonial administration’s enabling of corruption by local officials. (Orwell’s posthumous fame for Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four revived interest in his Burmese career, leading to Emma Larkin’s intriguing first book in 2006, Finding George Orwell in Burma. A political travelogue, this memoir retraces the British writer’s footsteps in the country while exploring the ironies of his literary influence on it: Burmese Days was lauded by the military regime for its anti-colonial stance while Orwell’s final two novels were banned because their portraits of totalitarian rule hit too close to home.)

The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh (2000) for some strange reason sat on my bookshelf, unread, for thirteen years after I bought it. Despite my earlier enjoyment of Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, this book and its 550-odd pages travelled with me from Bangkok to Vancouver and gathered dust there for a decade. Then, this past fall, it found its way into my suitcase to Yangon. It was only during a trip to Mandalay, where I actually visited the Glass Palace of its title, that I finally cracked open the book and read it cover to cover in about a week. I’m glad I did: the novel, which covers more than a century of social and political upheaval in three countries (and one family’s adventures from India to Malaysia throughout those events), is one of the few books that chronicles the Indian and Muslim presence in Burma and does so, compellingly, from the Indian perspective of its protagonists. Ghosh’s characters are well drawn, and their dilemmas—especially in pursuit of romantic relationships across ethnic, political and geographical boundaries—excruciating and very relevant to what’s happening today.

The Lizard Cage, by Karen Connelly (2005), is one of the more haunting, poetically rendered first novels I’ve read. The story is simple enough: Teza, the main character, is a folk singer we meet in solitary confinement seven years into a twenty-year sentence for his involvement in the 1988 protests. He befriends an orphan who has been raised in the jail, he dreams of the world outside, and he has hopes for a better life for the boy. Stories about the triumph of the human spirit are hard to pull off without cliché. But Connelly avoids that trap—or cage, if you will—with the breadth of her knowledge about Burma, which allows her to fully develop her characters, and the degree of fine detail with which she draws their lives in and around the prison. So we get the paranoia instilled by the regime through the sadistic punishments of the guards; we get the indignity of life in prison, where a man is forced to eat lizards to supplement his meager food rations; we get the role of Buddhism in maintaining one’s sanity in solitary confinement; and we get how the various characters one meets in prison are a microcosm of the society outside its walls: as capable of goodness or evil as circumstance and experience allow.

A few other titles on my shelf are worth noting:

Heartless Forest: An Anthology of Burmese Women Writers, edited by Mon Mon Myat, translated by Nance Cunningham. Published in 2013, it’s the first translation of its kind, courtesy of the Pansodan Gallery in Yangon.

Inked Over, Ripped Out: Burmese Storytellers and the Censors, Anna J. Allott: a selection of stories by Burmese authors that were censored by the regime, and the circumstances involved.

Letters to a Dictator: Correspondence from NLD Chairman Aung Shwe to the SLORC’s Senior General Than Shwe, All Burma Students’ Democratic Front: Most of these letters pleaded with the dictator to hand over power to the NLD, allow the elected MPs to do their jobs, and stop jailing political opponents. Than Shwe ignored them all.

Nowhere to Be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma’s Military Regime, edited by Maggie Lemere and Zoe West: These oral histories, shared by men and women of various ethnicities, are not for the faint of heart. But they are important testimonies about the various forms of human rights abuse—from rape and child labour to the forced relocation of entire villages—that were endemic under the military regime and, in some cases, still occur.

Burma Chronicles, Guy Delisle: A graphic non-fiction novel written and illustrated by Delisle, the story recounts the Canadian author’s trip to Myanmar with his infant son, Louis, and his wife, Nadège, an administrator for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). A thoughtfully animated meditation on responsible travel, cultural sensitivity, and intercultural communication.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Matt January 25, 2014 at 10:26 pm

This is a great list, I’ll have to check out at least one or two books. Thanks, Dan!

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