6.14.2008

Finding George Orwell in Burma

In light of the disaster in Myanmar, I was interested to find this memoir by Emma Larkin, pseudonym for an American journalist who spent some time in Myanmar researching George Orwell's experiences in that country. Orwell was a policeman for the British government in the 1920s when Myanmar was known as Burma (I always think of the King and I when I say that name). Interestingly, his mother was also from Burma.

I always thought that Orwell's political fiction was motivated by his hatred of Communist Russia, but Larkin suggests that Orwell's novels - Burmese Days, 1984, and Animal Farm - form a trilogy that is rooted in Burma. Larkin suggests that Orwell had his first tastes of autocracy and tyranny while stationed in British colonized Burma. Russia and Communisim did impact Orwell's work, but these were not the only influences. At the end of his life, Orwell was planning to write a story about Burma. Some suggest, as would make sense, that Orwell started to write Burmese Days when he was in Burma, despite the fact that Down and Out in Paris and London made it to print first. Clearly, Burma made a significant impact on young Orwell, one that he would never entirely forget.

Larkin blends Burmese history, Orwellian philosophy and literary criticism, with insights into modern day Myanmar life in Finding George Orwell in Burma. It is a scary sight. 1984 is unfortunately alive and well in this small Asian country.

When the news about Myanmar broke a few months ago, I, like many others, wondered why the Myanmar government refused foreign help. After reading this memoir, it is clear why they did. Any outside influence or uncontrollable situation could loosen the choke-hold of the autocratic government lodged in power in Myanmar, and the ruling generals refuse to let that happen.

Larkin closes the book with a supposition about the end of the regime by referencing the truth that terror cannot reign forever. After watching the way the Myanmar government has (not) handled the devastation that befell their people, I hope it ends quickly. I know George Orwell would agree.

5 comments:

  1. I fail to see how what Orwell experienced in Burma in the 1930s has to do with the situation there today unless the implication is that British colonial rule was similar to that of the current military junta. In fact in some ways that is true. The generals still use British imposed laws on national security to make arrests of opposition figues and others. But I cannot see how this relates in any way to 1984 except in someone's wild imagination. Please enlighten me on this. (I also lived in Burma for 3 years in the 1990s and have read Burmese Days a number of times. The only connection I can see between that and the present situation is that the British colonial government mistreated Burmese just like the current government does, and looked down on them racially in addition to that).

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  2. You raise interesting points, but I would have to point you to the book for more detailed answers.

    A few things, though: Larkin states that Orwell became frustrated with authoritarian-type governments after living in Burma and watching the effect of British colonial policy on the Burmese. I think the connection you make (about the similarities between UK government and the current government) in your post is the same one Larkin makes. It is only coincidence that Orwell's 1984 turned out to be a haunting description of modern life in Myanmar. According to Larkin, the people of Myanmar have adopted 1984 as an illustration of their life. Clearly, Orwell did not intend this. 1984 was written in 1948, the same year Burma gained independence from Britain. The choke-hold Myanmar is under now was little more than a nightmare in that year.

    It is remarkable that Orwell would have been so affected by a country that would end up being the incarnation of two of his most famous books (Animal Farm and 1984.) Though, wasn't 1984 meant to be prophetic?

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  3. Dear Sarah: Thanks for your comments. I have actually read Larkin's "Finding George Orwell in Burma" which is one of the things that prompted my comment. Having lived in and traveled extensively in Burma myself I think much of this fascination with the connection between modern Burma and 1984 is a figment of the author's imagination. For some reason many people project onto Burma their own imaages of what it should be like, most of this based on what they have read or heard rather than what they actually saw in Burma. I could recount innumerable experiences in Burma which have nothing to do with such fantacizing but just reflect a society the way it is, with all the strengths and weaknesses which this entails. Perhaps I am also affected by the fact that I have lived in Cambodia and Indonesia, two countries with cultures very similar to that of Burma and where some very unpleasant things have also taken place. Most of what happens in Burma (as well as Cambodia and Indonesia) reflects a centuries old culture and the behavior patterns which result from this legacy. Trying to impose what I think are totally irrelevant comparisions with 1984 or anything else just creates roadblocks to seeing Burma on its own terms, which in my view is the only meaningful way to understand what is happening there and devise realistic approaches for ameliorating the situation. Unfortuately most westerners, and some Burmese, seem to find it much more interesting to devise fantastic descriptions about what Burma is or should be. Perhaps this is because the reality of Burma and the fact that what is happening there now results to a very large extent from its own history and culture is too unpleasant for many to accept. But unless we do that we are talking about imaginary visions of an imaginary country, which from my perspective is not very useful, except perhaps for literary purposes.

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  4. Dear Don: Thank you for your comments. It is so important to look at things from both sides.

    Larkin wants very much to fit Burma into a neat box. This is clear not only from your opposing critique but from various passages in her own book. For example, when she visits the woman historian who explains what is happening in Burma using historical terms, Larkin seems unwilling to accept that it could be anything other than an inheritance from the British that brought about the current situation.

    It seems to me that you should write your own response to "Finding George Orwell in Burma." It is clear that Larkin has merely taken a European construct and belief system and imposed that onto Burma rather than letting Burma explain itself in Burmese terms. I think there is a need for that sort of memoir.

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  5. Dear Sarah: You obviously have a sophisticated understanding of Burma. Unfortunately most people seem to prefer the fantastic to the real Burma. I have actually written a number of essays about Burma, and Cambodia, but attempts at explaining the underlying realities are often not well received. We are dealing with cultures that are very attractive on the surface but which have deep underlying social fissures which impede their ability for adjusting to the modern world and repeately come back to haunt them, often with accompanying violence. For example, in sharp contrast with Burma, the world is now engaged in a love affair with Cambodia. But I would argue that if you look beneath the surface many of the same problems that plague Burma are still lurking in Cambodia, and are likely to erupt in a very unpleasant way sooner or later. But very few people want to hear this. They prefer to see things in black and white and when problems occur look for outside scapegoats (or in the case of Burma a leadership which have must have landed from the moon) rather than considering the very clear historical and cultural antecedents to current events. In short, writing realistically about Burma for publication is a very difficult thing to do in the current media envirnment, unless one relishes being cast as some sort of villain or junta-lover. It is not necessary to love the Burmese military leaders to understand where they come from but going even that far seems too much for international opinion under present circumstances. Thus I prefer to comment informally to those who are seriously interested in knowing what Burma (and Cambodia) are really like rather than place myself on the chopping block by trying to reach a wider audience, most of whom apparently do not want to know. Anyway thanks for your encouragement.

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