The depth of Burma’s misery is difficult to fathom. The destruction wrought by Cyclone Nargis—with an unofficial death toll already exceeding 100,000 people—has been compounded by the ruling junta’s incompetence and paranoia. The tragedy comes just months after the brutal suppression of Burma’s “Saffron Revolution,” the latest in a long series of failed pro-democracy efforts. How did this gorgeous land, so rich in culture and natural resources, end up an impoverished, totalitarian nightmare?
George Orwell would place a good deal of blame on Britain, Burma’s colonial overlord from the mid-19th century until 1948. In his 20s, Orwell (né Eric Arthur Blair) served as a policeman in Burma for five years. The experience soured him on British imperialism and inspired both his classic novel Burmese Days and the haunting essay “Shooting an Elephant.” Both works reflect Orwell’s dismay at the callousness of British rule, which helped sow the anti-Western sentiment that Burma’s junta now exploits to such great effect.
When the Japanese conquered Burma in 1942, they were largely greeted as liberators—”Asia for the Asiatics,” the invaders promised. The fleeing British, meanwhile, burned the nation’s oil fields as they retreated to India, leaving the economy a shambles. It wouldn’t take long for the Burmese to realize that their new colonial masters were every bit as cruel as the Brits. Burma’s suffering under the Japanese yoke is expertly recounted in Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945.
The pseudonymous Emma Larkin, an American journalist fluent in Burmese, looks back on the ravages of British imperialism and World War II in her masterful Finding George Orwell in Burma. Traveling through the tea houses of Yangon and Moulmein, she finds a nation living in constant fear of the omnipresent secret police, whose mission is to sniff out the plots—more imagined than real—of foreign spies and ethnic militants. Yet Larkin also discovers a clandestine network of intellectuals who traffic in books, ideas, and other “dangerous” materials.
Larkin’s book is best read in conjunction with From the Land of Green Ghosts, Pascal Khoo Thwe’s account of growing up in Burma’s remote Shan State as a member of the Kayan tribe (celebrated for its practice of using brass rings to elongate female necks). Khoo Thwe eventually became a student activist, then an armed insurgent after the Burmese army raped and killed his girlfriend. He was able to tell his harrowing tale after escaping to Thailand and, through a fantastic stroke of luck, earning a place at Cambridge University.
Thailand is home to an enormous community of Burmese expatriates, many of whom, like Khoo Thwe, are members of ethnic minorities who risked their lives to flee. These exiles are responsible for such indispensable information sources as the Irrawaddy, an independent newsmagazine, and ALTSEAN Burma, which pressures the Southeast Asian economic community to ostracize the junta. Given the tight state control of news media in Burma, little would be known of the nation’s plight without the exiles’ efforts.
There is also a sizeable expatriate community in London, and it has been instrumental in organizing the Burma Campaign U.K. The “News & Reports” section of the group’s Web site is a must-visit, especially the compendium of rare videos. (There is a sister organization in the United States, the U.S. Campaign for Burma, but its Web site is less essential as a news source.)
Burma has a rich artistic tradition, and examples of its finest ancient sculptures and manuscripts can be viewed on the website for the Center for Burma Studies at Northern Illinois University. The most famous Burmese artist working today is Htein Lin, who honed his painting technique while jailed for pro-democracy activism. His “prison paintings,” made on the cotton inmate uniforms he was forced to wear, are among the most powerful artworks of recent decades. If such beauty can emerge from such despair, then surely there is hope for Burma itself.
A version of this article also appears in the Washington Post’s “Outlook” section.