Viewers of “Burma VJ”, (website of this 2009 documentary on clandestine video journalists) and readers of Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma will learn about what’s happened in Burma under the twin forces of military suppression of the 2007 demonstrations and Cyclone Nargis of 2008. Half a million (the official toll is 138,000) may have been swept or battered to death during a 10-12 hour storm. Larkin compares a before-after aerial view of the Irrawaddy delta: “as if a bucket of water has been sloshed across an ink drawing; the carefully-marked lines had been erased and the paper beneath was buckled and distorted.”
Later, talking to survivors, she sees a ID-sized photo, all that a husband has of his dead wife. “A water stain had spread across his wife’s broad cheekbones and the black-and-white image was already beginning to fade.” Memories and rumors, legends of surviving by hanging onto a python or clutching a crocodile spread. Under the total censorship, where complaining can land you life in prison, where the leaders of a police state fear their people and often meet violent ends while in power, the absence of comfort permeates this narrative.
It’s in three parts, First, after the storm, when Larkin (she writes under a pseudonym) sneaked in on a tourist visa for a month. As with all foreigners and aid workers and journalists—and even many Rangoon residents wanting to help the survivors—she was limited in what she could do and learn. The government prevented ships from bringing assistance or airplanes from dropping food until many months later.
The second part investigates the regime, its xenophobic reaction to foreign intrusion, its crushing of the 2007 protests led by monks and students (see Burma VJ), and its strategic if extravagant relocation of its capital to a remote plot in the center of the country, far from a port or outside contamination as it were. Obscene profiteering, black magic-haunted dictators, astrology as domestic policy: these rule this corrupt satrap.
Finally, she returns a year after the storm to find some relief getting to perhaps half the survivors, but under a cruel regime, little progress as model camps for the press are dismantled, refugees are forced back to their vanished homes, and trauma, as over and over the people rise up and look for help only to be crushed as history is rewritten and memories are all these impoverished citizens of a vast open-air prison state have to endure, or be driven mad by.
What do you do when liberation keeps failing? Larkin often juxtaposes the propaganda of New Light of Myanmar, the only sanctioned press mouthpiece, with the facts she witnesses and records.
In this Never-Never Land of the regime’s imagination, survivors of the storm suffered no trauma and felt no grief at having lost family members, jobs, and livelihoods. Relieved to be so warmly looked after by their benevolent leaders, they sat smiling obediently amid mountains of mama noodles and brightly-colored plastic buckets.
It’s frustrating to read this book, and I closed it sadly. Larkin strives to include as much material as she can, but the latter part of the narrative bogs down with stymied aid workers and a sense of misery. The extended house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and the strange situation that led to her punishment provides an eerie postscript.
As a whole, perhaps inevitably, Larkin’s report feels incomplete, but this cannot be faulted on the author, who labors to evade the military, bureaucracy, and undercover police and who writes under an assumed name. There’s a haunted quality to this tale, even more so when even the experts she cites often go nameless. One thinks of an ancient land where nothing but panic, rumors and fear stalk the dark fields where Death walks.
Larkin, despite her clandestine investigations in a nation she knows well, ends up failing to uncover as much as she can divulge or we would wish, given the oppressive situation. But it’s as close as Westerners will come, given the failure (as in Tibet, I thought) of the “moral high ground” to overthrow the “guns and brute force” of “the other side.” We are taught that goodness and morality will win, but when the junta prevents ships from delivering supplies or doctors from entering for fear that the natives will learn that the outside world is more generous than their own tyrants, one does despair for the Myanmar nightmare that has replaced a somewhat free post-colonial Burma.
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