As you’ve no doubt heard, Myanmar’s military launched a coup to start the month of February 2021, unseating the country’s popularly elected government. The country’s top civilian leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (known as “The Lady,”) is now under house arrest along with other leaders from her party, the National League for Democracy. A one year state of emergency has been announced with ultimate authority transferred to the army chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. According to the New York Times:
State television broadcast a statement from the military . . . that said extreme steps were necessary because of what it labeled voter fraud in elections last November . . . . In its statement, the military said that it will oversee free and fair multiparty elections after the end of a state of emergency.
Before the coup, Myanmar was celebrated as a country moving toward democracy. In a region where authoritarian governments were the norm, its generals honored 2015 election results that brought the National League for Democracy into power. But according to The Times:
the political transition of the Southeast Asian nation was never quite as smooth or as significant as the political fairy tale made it out to be.
Now the country’s future is uncertain. After achieving independence from British rule on January 4, 1948, and inching toward democracy in 2015, Burma — now Myanmar — was beginning to open up to tourism and other development. Observers now wonder what will happen to those efforts. How will the coup affect the country’s tourist industry? Will foreigners still want to visit given the nation’s dismal record on human rights?
What’s In A Name?
Before we go any farther, though, just a word about names. For now, I’m using Burma and Myanmar interchangeably. The ruling military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of a popular uprising. Rangoon also became Yangon. The change was recognized by the United Nations, and by countries such as France and Japan, but not by the United States or the UK.
A statement by the British Foreign Office says:
Burma’s democracy movement prefers the form ‘Burma’ because they do not accept the legitimacy of the unelected military regime to change the official name of the country. Internationally, both names are recognized.
Myanmar’s Literary Tradition
Myanmar’s literary tradition has been a key element of the country’s push to attract foreign visitors. The Irrawaddy Literature Festival, an annual not-for-profit event under the patronage of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, has been a particular draw.
Assuredly, Suu Kyi’s support for the festival has ensured its success. Myanmar’s literary tradition goes back thousands of years and encompasses multiple genres including Buddhist literature, folklore and culture, scripts for pwe marionette theater, British fiction from the colonial period, post colonial literature, and today’s modern writing.
George Orwell and Colonialism
If you’re a political observer, especially if you’re interested in colonialism and its lasting impact, George Orwell’s first novel, Burmese Days, will immediately grab your fancy. Best known for his Cold War works 1984 and Animal Farm, Burmese Days was published in 1934 and draws heavily on Orwell’s experience as a colonial police officer in what was then a province of British India. His experiences there provided him with first hand knowledge of Burmese life — its people, and its culture.
Orwell’s first book gives us an account of colonial life in the British Empire, a world where the ‘club’ was everything, and bureaucracies were staffed by loyal subjects tasked with maintaining the peace and indoctrinating locals into the ethos of the Empire. But I don’t want to give too much away. The book is available for just 99 cents on Kindle, so you can read it for yourself if you haven’t already done so. Suffice it to say that when Orwell lived in Burma, the country was one of the most violent parts of the British Raj, terrorized by armed gangs known as Dacoits.
Over time, Orwell’s Burma has been isolated and considered a pariah nation. As previously mentioned, the country was ruled for decades by a repressive military junta, but more recently it’s been opening up to the outside world. And even as ethnic and religious tensions continue to smolder in its hinterlands, especially focused on the Rohingya Muslims, the country’s hospitality industry has been scrambling to meet rising demand for hotels and services. Until the coup, tourists were flocking to Myanmar to see romantic echoes of Orwell’s former British colony before its remnants were destroyed by development.
But today I’m wondering. Is it possible to find traces of Orwell’s Burma in the cities of Yangon, Bagan, and Mandalay or has the nation been overrun by a strong military presence? Will tourists still come when the country is under military rule?
For those of you unfamiliar with the geography of Myanmar, the nation is the northwestern-most country on the mainland of Southeast Asia, strategically located near major Indian Ocean shipping lanes. Characterized by central lowlands, the Central Valley Region is ringed by steep, rugged highlands.
Hkakabo Razi, Burma’s highest mountain (and the highest mountain in Southeast Asia at 19,295 feet) is located in the northern end of the country. It’s part of a series of parallel ranges that run from the foothills of the Himalayas.
The climate varies in the highlands from subtropical to cool alpine, depending on elevation. Above the alpine zone, it’s cold with harsh tundra and an Arctic climate. The higher elevations are subject to heavy snowfall and bad weather. Summers in the lowlands tend to be cloudy, rainy, hot, and humid. Tropical monsoons are common. Winters are less cloudy with scant rainfall, mild temperatures, and lower humidity.
Most tourists start their exploration of Burma in Yangon. Previously known as Rangoon, the city is a former royal capital known as the “Garden City of the East” for its lush tropical setting. Built in 1901, the five star Strand Hotel in Yangon remains one of Southeast Asia’s few grand colonial hotels, and one of its most inspiring. It is one of only two hotels in Burma that meet international luxury standards.
While you’re in Yangon, you’ll want to be sure to see the Shwedagon Paya, one of Myanmar’s top religious sites and a true wonder of the religious world. The pagoda complex contains hundreds of stupas, statues, and temples spanning more than 2,000 years of religious art and architecture. The central tower is covered with hundreds of solid gold plates, while the top is adorned with thousands of diamonds. Relatively few tourists visit here and it is primarily a gathering place for monks, worshippers, and local families.
During the Myanmar independence movement, Shwedagon Paya was the scene for much political activity. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to massive crowds here in 1988, and the temple was also at the center of the monks’ protests in 2007.
During an earlier detainment under house arrest (1989-2010), Suu Kyi was one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners and she was honored with many awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2008. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited her in 2011, a symbolic diplomatic gesture that paved the way for President Obama’s official trip the following year.
The Road to Mandalay
If you are going to travel from Yangon to Orwell’s home in Mandalay, you have a choice to make. Will you go by boat or by car?
The Irrawaddy or Ayeyarwady River, a river that flows through Myanmar from north to south, is the country’s largest river and most important commercial waterway. George Orwell was posted to the Irrawaddy Delta in 1924. In his time (and Rudyard Kipling’s), one traveled from Rangoon to Mandalay by paddle steamer, a journey of several days.
Now many travel from Yangon to Mandalay by car, stopping at Burma’s new city, Nay Pyi Taw along the way.The city was created in 2004 to replace Yangon as capital. The name means “Abode of Kings,” signifying an attempt to start a new history. According to the Indian journalist Siddharth Varadarajan, Nay Pyi Taw is
the ultimate insurance against regime change, a masterpiece of urban planning designed to defeat any putative ‘colour revolution’ — not by tanks or water cannons, but by geography and cartography.
The recent coup proved Varadarajan wrong however. Soldiers blocked roads in the capital and in Myanmar’s main city, Yangon. Regime change was evident when the military announced that 24 ministers and deputies had been removed, and 11 replacements had been named, including in finance, health, the interior and foreign affairs.
On your way to Mandalay, whether you travel by land or waterway, you’re going to want to be sure to stop at Bagan, a place I’d love to visit. If you’re driving, you’ll pass through scenic countryside dotted with villages, plantations, rivers, quaint bridges, and cottage industries.
In the 9th Century C.E., Bagan was the royal capital established by King Anawratha, who unified the country under Theravada Buddhism. During its first few hundred years, the city saw the construction of more than 10,000 Buddhist monasteries, pagodas, and temples. Today, a little more than 2,000 remain, making it an archaeological rival of Angkor Wat.
Several temples represent the early Bagan period. First, the Temple of Gubyaukgyi of Myinkaba Village, with its well preserved colored paintings inside that date back to its construction in 1113. The temple is typical of the Mon style in that the interior is dimly lit by perforated rather than open windows. Manuha Paya, known as the Mon King Temple and built by the captive Mon King Manuha in 1067, is said to represent his view of being imprisoned. Lastly, visit Nan Paya, a rare early period Sandstone temple with the best examples of the early Bagan carvings.
You might want to take a break before you continue your exploration of the temples of the Early Period at the Shwezigon Pagoda. Shwezigon was completed in 1058 C.E. as the most important reliquary shrine in Bagan, a center of prayer and reflection for King Anawratha of the new Theravada faith. Take some time to learn about the Burmese belief in “nats” (spirits), officially replaced by Buddhism, though the belief continues among many people today.
From Bagan, proceed on to Mandalay where “the flyin’-fishes play.” I’ve always loved the Frank Sinatra version of the song, but never had a clue that the lyrics were actually selected verses from a poem by Rudyard Kipling. Listen to the Frank Sinatra version on YouTube below. This particular version of the song is interesting because it’s so clearly dated and incorporates some images of the British colonial presence.
Orwell’s Mandalay has been long regarded as the cultural and spiritual heart of Myanmar. Mandalay, its second largest city, is located within easy walking distance of colonial hill stations, ancient cities, and other cultural attractions. Orwell says:
Mandalay is rather a disagreeable town . . . it is dusty and intolerably hot, and it is said to have five main products all beginning with a P, namely, pagodas, pariahs, pigs, priests, and prostitutes.
The pagodas are still here (and probably the prostitutes), but I’m not so sure about the other three.
Clearly things have changed since Orwell’s time. There’s now a five star hotel, the Sedona Hotel Mandalay, nestled on four acres of beautifully landscaped gardens, and located on the edge of the large moat that surrounds the Mandalay Palace, the last royal palace of the Burmese monarchy.
Orwell did his police training less than a mile from the Mandalay Palace. And, like the palace , Orwell’s great trilogy of novels tracks the development of Burma. As Emma Larkin argues in her book Finding George Orwell in Burma, Burma’s colonial society was transformed through independence and the socialist coup in 1962 into a version of Animal Farm and then Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Banned for many years, Burmese Days is now celebrated. In 2012, eight decades after its initial publication, the novel won the highest literary award in Burma.
Maung Myint Kywe, the book’s translator, sees the work as “a scathing portrait of the imperious attitudes of both the British and Burmese.” He also feels the book is a way for young people to learn the history of discrimination against the Burmese during British rule.
Orwell is unbiased, even though he himself is British. He has fairly portrayed how bad the British were, as well as we Burmese too.
According to Emma Larkin, the author of Finding George Orwell in Burma, there’s a joke ‘in country’ that Orwell wrote not just one novel about the country, but three: a trilogy comprised of Burmese Days, Animal Farm, and Nineteen Eighty Four. She says:
It is a particularly uncanny twist of fate that these three novels effectively tell the story of Burma’s recent history. The link begins with Burmese Days, which chronicles the country’s period under British colonialism. Not long after Burma became independent from Britain in 1948, a military dictator sealed off the country from the outside world, launched ‘The Burmese Way to Socialism’, and turned Burma into one of the poorest countries in Asia. The same story is told in Orwell’s Animal Farm, an allegorical tale of a socialist revolution gone wrong in which a group of pigs overthrow the human farmers and run the farm into ruin. Finally, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s description of a horrifying and soulless dystopia paints a chillingly accurate picture of Burma today, a country ruled by one of the world’s most brutal and tenacious dictatorships.
It’s interesting that Nineteen Eighty-Four has long been admired by Burmese readers who are drawn to its descriptions of “official deception, secret surveillance and the manipulations of the authoritarian state.” These activities are all familiar to those who lived under Burma’s military dictatorship. In fact, Than Shwe, Burma’s former dictator was often referred to as “Big Brother,” the name given to the party leader in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Since 2011, the regime has engaged in political and economic liberalization. The government released most political prisoners and dropped the censorship laws that were reminiscent of Orwellian totalitarianism. Nevertheless, In 2014, Myanmar was still ranked as one of the 25 most corrupt countries in the world according to Transparency International. Religious violence was mounting, peace talks with ethnic armed groups were unsuccessful, and the military continued its hold on parliament.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s support of the military in their efforts against the Rohingya led many to say that she had “lost her halo.” Even before the coup, the fate of democracy in Myanmar was yet to be determined.
I’m willing to gamble that Orwell’s old residence, recently identified, will be restored. A group of artists — led by local historian (and Orwell fanatic) Nyo Ko Kaing — has launched a campaign to protect and restore Katha, the town that was the basis for the fictional Kyauktada in Burmese Days. The group wants Orwell’s home in Katha as well as the nearby European Country Club turned into tourist attractions. And the government has said that it will give the group money to convert a red-brick colonial mansion, formerly the district commissioner’s house, into a museum celebrating the author. Tourism is now a government imperative, so momentum is growing.
When Orwell made Kautha his home, he said it had “not changed greatly between the days of Marco Polo and 1910” when the British established a railway terminus. A century later, the town remains relatively isolated and hard to reach.
Al Jazeera writes that “horse drawn Hackney carriages can still be seen whisking people past the colonial prison, school, hospital, tin-roofed church and pagoda, which (according to Orwell) “rose from the trees like a slender spear tipped with gold.” A two-story teak house — long thought to be the novelist’s old residence — sits on raised brick stilts across a dirt track from the tin-roofed church. And the house has come full circle since Orwell lived there. It now belongs to a police major. I wonder if he is a writer . . . .
Note: You can read the Rudyard Kipling poem here. http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/kipling/mandalay.html
Featured photo of Sule Pagoda by William (Flickr.com/photos/heyitschili)
Swedagon Paya in Yangon by Jose Javier Martin Esparto (Flickr.com/photos/druidabruxux/)
Irrawaddy River by Stephane DAMOUR
Bagan by KX Studio (Flickr.com/photos/104284854@N07/)
1984 by Christopher Dombres (Flickr.com/photos/christopherdombres/)
Orwell’s Home in Katha by podia.smith (Flickr.com/photos/36464510@N03/)
Carriage by Paul Arps (Flickr.com/photos/slapers/)