From an American journalist writing under a pseudonym, a courageous, important examination of the bleak totalitarian state of Myanmar.
It was known as Burma in the 1920s, when Orwell worked there as an officer of the British Imperial Police. The British were in the process of perfecting their reign of oppression in Burma, and much of Larkin’s portrait traces the development of Orwell’s social conscience through what he learned and witnessed. Though Burmese Days, Animal Farm and 1984 were all written by the time Burma became independent in 1948, these three novels “effectively tell the story of Burma’s recent history,” she argues. Following in his footsteps three-quarters of a century later, Larkin traveled to Myanmar, nestled idyllically between India and Thailand, and uncovered uncanny parallels between its abysmal social and political conditions and Orwell’s fictional depictions. Despite the façade it presents to the world of smiling natives and pretty pagodas, the country’s military dictatorship has one of the worst human-rights records anywhere. “We are a country of 50 million hostages,” noted one intrepid man, talking with Larkin (who speaks Burmese) at one of the ubiquitous teashops where people congregate, despite the peril of being watched and recorded. Since the ill-fated democratic uprising of May 1988, history is being eerily rewritten in Myanmar. Dissidents are whisked away to prison, their names vaporized—much like the dystopia portrayed in 1984. Larkin traveled the route along which Orwell was variously posted and uses the colonial names he knew. She went from Mandalay, where he attended Police Training School, to the mosquito-rich Delta. She visited the grandly constructed city of Rangoon and the nearby town of Insein, site of a jail built by the British that is now a notoriously brutal lock-up for the regime’s political prisoners. Dogged by military intelligence wherever she went, Larkin sought out teachers, psychologists and writers who longed to tell the truth.
A crucial exposé of a scandalous regime.