November 26, 2021
13 Minutes

Finding George Orwell In Burma

Book summary of Finding George Orwell In Burma by Emma Larkin. Read this book summary to review the important takeaways and lessons from the book.

Table Of Contents

1. Prologue

2. Mandalay

3. The Delta

4. Rangoon

5. Moulmein

6. Katha

7. Epilogue

Prologue

  • 'George Orwell,' I repeated 'the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four'. The old man's eyes suddenly lit up. He looked at me with a brilliant flash of recognition, slapped his head and said, 'You mean the prophet!'

  • In Burma, there is a joke that Orwell wrote not just one novel about the country, but three: a trilogy comprised of Burmese Days, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

  • It was during my efforts to understand this aspect of Burmese life that I became fascinated by Orwell. All his novels explore the idea of individuals being trapped within their environment, controlled by their family, the society around them or an all-powerful government.

  • The towns and cities where Orwell got posted span the country's geographical heart. In a sense, it is still possible to experience Burma as Orwell knew it. Almost half a century of military dictatorship has given it the air of a country frozen in time.

  • Before I left for Burma, I went to the George Orwell Archive in London to look at Orwell's final manuscript. When Orwell died in 1950, he had only just begun the project. 'A Smoking Room Story' was planned as a novella of thirty to forty thousand words. It told how a fresh-faced young British man was irrevocably changed after living in the humid tropical jungles of colonial Burma.

Mandalay

  • 'Ha! George Orwell' He uncovered an old Penguin copy of Animal Farm. It had the familiar orange and white stripes on the cover. The yellowed pages felt very slightly damp. He told me it was the first novel he had read in English. 'It is a very brilliant book. And it is a very Burmese book. Do you know why?' he asked, poking a finger enthusiastically in my general direction. 'Because it is about pigs and dogs ruling the country! That is what has been happening here in Burma for many years now.

  • I had already told Aye Myint that I was interested in George Orwell, and he soon unearthed a worm-eaten copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four from the growing piles of books on the floor. 'Another very brilliant book.' he said. 'It is a particularly wonderful book because it is without "-isms". It is not about socialism, communism, or authoritarianism. It is about power and the abuse of power. Plain and simple.' He said that Nineteen Eighty-Four is banned in Burma because it can be read as a criticism of how the country is run. The ruling generals do not like criticism.

  • It is a common Burmese complaint that Mandalay is becoming little more than a satellite of China, and the romance of old Mandalay is long gone.

  • When a place is renamed, the old name disappears from maps and, eventually, from human memory. If that is possible, then perhaps the memory of past events can also be erased.

  • The country known as Burma was erased and replaced with a new one: Myanmar.

  • The military, now called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), still controls Burma today. The army has more than doubled in size and now has almost half a million soldiers.

  • The events that led to the 1988 uprising were triggered by a brawl in a tea shop. The military regime treats tea shops as potential breeding grounds for anti-government activities.

  • Orwell understood the magical powers of tea. A well-brewed cup, he wrote, can make you feel wiser, braver and more optimistic.

  • If the East is seen and interpreted only through the prism of Western ideals, it is destined to be portrayed as primitive and brutal, lacking in law and order.

  • Orwell once wrote that one of the attributes that qualified him to be a writer was his ability to face unpleasant facts. He felt he could voice what he saw as the truth no matter how painful or awkward it might be.

  • The authorities keep a stranglehold on news that enters the country from the outside world.

  • 'I trust only old books,' he said.

  • Burma has always had a high literacy rate, thanks to a strong tradition of education instilled by the country's Buddhist monasteries. Reading for pleasure became a widespread pastime under the British.

  • We Burmese, we need to escape. We don't want to read non-fiction. We want only fiction and fantasy. We want to read about heroes, strong men, clever men.

  • That's why the education system is so poor: they don't want to train thinkers.

  • 'Quantitatively, we have progress,' said the psychologist. 'Qualitatively, we are going down the drain.'

  • It is true that, on paper, the country is progressing splendidly.

  • The government's Ministry of Information keeps itself busy producing books and articles which detail the country's ever-accelerating rate of development.

  • Authors and journalists who present views or information that the government deems to be reactionary are blacklisted. In its mildest form, being blacklisted means, you are prohibited from publishing your work; at its worst, it can mean years in a Burmese jail.

  • The military regime has been in place in Burma for over forty years, making it one of the most tenacious dictatorships in the world. Whole generations have grown up knowing nothing but an authoritarian rule. Many Burmese I spoke to have lost hope that the situation would ever change for the better.

  • The Burmese government promotes tourism to garner much-needed revenue. But, it wants foreign visitors to experience Burma only on its terms as what the tourist brochures call 'A Golden Land' of pagodas and smiling people.

  • It was in Maymyo that Beadon realised that Orwell was not a typical empire builder. He recalled that, though they both enjoyed the trip, Orwell remained aloof the whole time and limited his conversation to what Beadon termed commonplace remarks. 'I realised that he and I had very little in common, I presumably being an extrovert, he an introvert, living in a world of his own: a rather shy, retiring intellectual.'

  • He preferred to stay behind in his room at the mess, reading, spending most of his time alone much like John Flory, who, in Burmese Days, took to reading voraciously and learned to live in books when life was tiresome.

  • After Afghanistan, Burma is the world's largest producer of heroin. Much of the opium used in heroin production is grown in Wa State, in the rugged north-eastern mountains beyond Maymyo. The business is run by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a group described by the US State Department as the world's most heavily armed narco-traffickers.

The Delta

  • A few weeks before I came to the Delta, I met a Burmese author who was convinced it was the reason Orwell had become such a pessimistic writer. She declared with certainty that he would never have written Nineteen Eighty-Four if he had not been posted there. 'It was the Delta that ruined him,' she told me.

  • Burma's surveillance machine is frighteningly thorough and efficient. It consists of several different departments under the Directorate of Defence Services Intelligence (DDSI), known informally in Burmese as MI, for 'Military Intelligence'.

  • 'They are very, very good,' a Burmese journalist in Rangoon told me about the MI. 'They have been trained by the best: the old Russian KGB and China's secret police.'

  • No matter where we live, we all have to play specific roles dictated by our environment. For those who live in freer societies, the game is not such a dangerous one. We will not end up in prison if we say the wrong thing to the wrong person.

  • The scenery of the East got under Orwell's skin. When he wrote about Burma in Burmese Days, he produced his most elaborate descriptive writing: the novel is given an exotic setting, drenched in mist and tropical flowers. His other books lacked such lyricism neither Spain nor England produced such vivid 'purple passages', as he called them.

  • By the time Orwell arrived here, in the early 1920s, the Delta was leading Burma's exports of over 3 million tons of rice, half the world's supply. But the Delta's heyday is long over, and Burma's reputation as the rice bowl of Asia is in tatters. According to one source, Burma now exports a meagre 20,000 tons of rice. Farmers are forced to sell a quota of their yield to the government at prices as low as one-sixth of the market price. The regime uses the rice to subsidise government employees and military personnel, exporting the rest.

  • To justify its use of forced labour, the junta uses two pieces of British colonial legislation: the 1907 Town Act and the 1908 Village Act. They entitle the headman or police officers of any town or village to demand that residents assist government servants. In its 1998 report on Burma, the ILO stated that such practices amount to present-day slavery.

  • Animal Farm is the only one of Orwell's books translated into the Burmese language, in the 1950s, before the military took control.

  • Orwell had based Animal Farm on the Russian Revolution of 1917 and Stalin's fearsome drive to collectivise the Soviet Union's farmland, resulting in the death of millions of peasants. I preferred to read it as the second part of Orwell's unintentional trilogy on Burmese history.

  • Many older people I spoke with remembered a sense of relief as the army brought the country back under control. But, as with the pigs in Animal Farm, it gradually became clear that Ne Win was no benevolent leader. He launched what he called socialism, a heady and disastrous 'The Burmese Way mix of Marxism and Buddhism'.

  • Ne Win and his military had transformed Burma, a country abundant in natural resources, into a wasteland. After twenty-five years of Ne Win's rule, a year before the 1988 uprising, the United Nations declared Burma one of the world's least developed countries and ten other countries primarily located in sub-Saharan Africa.

Rangoon

  • Since the regime opened the country up to international investors in 1989, many of Rangoon's older buildings have been demolished to make way for condominiums, office blocks hotels.

  • Every word on every page that runs through every press in Burma is checked by government censors before distribution. And it is partly due to such rigorous censorship that Rangoon has maintained its veneer of normality.

  • Orwell believed that it is impossible for literature to survive under totalitarianism. He wrote that a totalitarian government knows that its hold on power is not legitimate. Therefore, it can never allow the truth to be recorded.

  • As one Burmese writer joked to me, 'In Burma, we are free to write whatever we want. We're just not free to have it published.'

  • Burma has a rich supply of natural oil. Under the colonial government, which constructed oilfields in the flat, dry central plains, it was the second-biggest oil producer in the British Empire.

  • There is only one real crime, and that is to act against the government.

  • Even without access to books and pens, So Aung said, prisoners can find ways of learning. There are usually four or five prisoners in each cell, and they take turns telling stories and sharing what knowledge they have.

  • 'We Burmese', he began, 'are experts at looking for what's not there. It's something you should learn to do too. You must look for what's missing and learn how to find the truth in these absences.'

  • 'I operate with the understanding that they always know what I am doing, that they are always watching me,' he said. 'Every move I make is a calculated risk. And I make it knowing that I can answer for everything I do. Doing anything in Burma anything at all is risky. But that's the only way to live. You can't exist within this system without taking risks.'

Moulmein

  • She listed the different kinds of fear that paralyse people in Burma: 'Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure.' And she concluded, 'It is not easy for a people conditioned by the iron rule of the principle that might is right to free themselves from the enervating miasma of fear. Yet even under the most crushing state machinery, courage rises again and again, for fear is not the natural state of a civilised man.'

  • 'What can she do without knowledge?' demanded the mother. 'Without learning, there is nowhere to go. You ask kids these days what they want to do, and they haven't got a clue.

  • 'Now it is almost impossible to fail a university exam in Burma,' said Tha Win Kyi. 'Teachers are afraid of getting into trouble with the authorities if their students are unsuccessful, so they often give them the exam questions in advance.' Students can also bribe poorly paid teachers for higher marks.

  • Later in life, Orwell admitted that the poem 'Mandalay' conjures a compelling nostalgia that few can resist. He wrote that you would have to be a snob or a liar if you couldn't derive at least some pleasure from such classic Kipling lines.

  • It is curious to learn, then, that Kipling never went to Mandalay. He visited Burma in 1880 on a ship en route from Calcutta to Japan, staying only three days. He spent one of those days in Moulmein, and 'Mandalay' is based on a pagoda he visited there - the Kyaik-Thanlan Pagoda.

  • The government are building Buddhism up to be a state religion, and soon they will wipe out all other religions. They say they hated the colonialists for how they ruled Burma, but they are doing the same thing. They are enforcing one language, one religion, one way of life.

  • The surviving scraps of Orwell's earliest experiments with writing revolve around Burmese women.

  • It had always interested me how Orwell's fictional characters never fare very well with women.

  • In a newspaper column written a year before independence, Orwell described what he thought was the essence of the problem. 'Whenever A is oppressing B, it is clear to people of goodwill that B ought to be independent, but then it always turns out that there is another group C, which is anxious to be independent of B.' The question is how large must a minority be before it deserves autonomy.'

  • Over half of the government budget is spent on building the army's strength (education reportedly receives a paltry 4 per cent of the budget). Burma has no enemies outside its borders, and now very few actively fighting within them. Yet, the generals have built up a troop force almost equal to that of the US army.

  • In Burma, it is the ethnic Burmese who are more equal than others, and the Burmese government practises a policy of 'Burmanization' in ethnic areas.

  • 'I have decided that the elephant in Orwell's essay represents colonialism,' he said. He explained that the way the elephant destroyed huts and created havoc in Moulmein was similar to how colonial forces had taken over Burma. The policeman bravely tries to kill this raging spectre of colonialism. But, it is too big and too powerful and will die only at its own pace. 'I also think', he added, 'that the writer is a bit confused. He is part of the colonial government, but he is on the side of the Burmese people. He wants to be on the same side as the Burmese people, but he cannot. He is a white man, so he must act like a white man.'

Katha

  • Orwell's publisher was at first reluctant to publish Burmese Days. He was concerned that Orwell had described Katha too realistically, and that some of his characters might be based on real-life people. The novel was thought to be potentially libellous. As a result, Burmese Days was first published further afield, in the United States, in 1934. A British edition appeared a year later, but only after Orwell had altered the characters' names and tried to disguise the setting.

  • One of Orwell's earliest published pieces, written a year after returning to England and appearing in a French newspaper, was entitled 'How a Nation is Exploited: The British Empire in Burma'. In it, Orwell described Burma as one of the richest countries in the world, an earthly paradise full of natural resources which the British administration had shamelessly robbed and pilfered.

  • As an elderly Burmese friend said to me, 'The British may have sucked our blood, but these Burmese generals are biting us to the bone!'

  • Before the British annexed Burma, the country operated with a predominately barter-based economy. The British introduced currency and opened the country for trade.

  • Burmese people do not have regular passports. They must apply through the government for temporary documents if they want to leave the country.

  • Before the Second World War, Burma was one of the richest countries in the region. Any economist comparing it with other countries in Asia would have thought it safe to wager that it would develop one of the region's most successful economies. Since then, civil wars have raged across Burma's border areas, taking an unknown toll on lives and natural resources. The military regime has outlasted almost all other dictatorships around the world.

  • Before the British arrived in Burma, the country was ruled by an absolute monarchy.

  • The Burmese thought pattern had adapted to the idea of a government as oppressive and evil.

  • 'The British', she said, brought us democracy. It was the first time we had tasted it. We had never even heard of it before the British came, and we were not ready for it. I am ashamed of the Burmese people. I am ashamed of Burma. I am sad for the Burmese. We are so very, very ignorant. We are always looking for someone to blame, so we blame the British.'

  • Other Asian countries such as Thailand, Singapore and, more substantially, China have chosen not to ostracise Burma and continue to provide aid and investment.

  • Every novel that Orwell wrote ends in defeat. The main character attempts to fight the system, but he or she loses the battle just when you think the obstacles have been surmounted.

Epilogue

  • In November 2005, the regime relocated the country's capital from Rangoon to a barren setting some 320 kilometres north of the city. No prior notice of the move was given. Most people first heard about it when the contents of government offices in Rangoon were hurriedly packed onto trucks and driven out of the city. The generals gave their new citadel the grand title of Naypyidaw, the 'Abode of Kings'.

  • In May 2008, Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy delta. It was a natural disaster of epic proportions, by far the most deadly in the country's living memory or recorded history. An estimated 138,000 people were killed during Nargis, and millions were left without food or adequate shelter. The devastating effects of the disaster were further exacerbated when the regime made the astounding decision to block emergency aid to the country.

  • Events happen in Burma, and then they are systematically unhappened.

  • As personal memories become corrupted with time and age, the stories of Burma are, quite literally, vanishing.

  • The discoveries related to Orwell's time in Burma included that he acquired tattoos while living there. A series of tiny blue circles tattooed on the backs of his hands, one on each knuckle. Still common in Burma, these tattoos are believed to protect against bullets, poisonous snakes, and black magic.

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