The US Secretary of State descends from her jumbo-jet in Nay Pyi Daw, the new capital of Myanmar. She is in Myanmar for meetings with Myanmar President Thein Sein and pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Clinton is the first official visitor from the US to Myanmar since 1955 when the country was called The Union of Burma. A military dictatorship was established in 1962 and the country’s borders were closed to the US.
The British colony of Burma was the birthplace of Eric Arthur Blair, who is known to readers everywhere as George Orwell.
The party slogan ran:
Who controls the past, controls the future:
Who controls the present controls the past.
–George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
George Orwell, known to Americans by his novels “Animal Farm” and “1984” was born in India on 25 June 1903. He went to Eaton School in England, and returned to India in 1922 to become an officer in the colonial police. He wrote about his experiences as a police officer in his novel “Burmese Days” (1934).
In the Burmese language, Burma is known as Myanma. In 1989 the military government changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar. The military allowed elections for parliament and president in 2010. Thein Sein was elected president, but many outside Myanmar say that the elections were rigged and that the military still runs the country.
The LA Times recorded the historic Clinton arrival: President U Thein Sein welcomed Secretary Clinton to Myanmar, saying, “Your Excellency’s visit will be historic and a new chapter in relations.” Most Western observers of this isolated Asian country rich in natural resources and lacking in civil liberties agree that a new chapter is sorely needed.
Oddly enough, a reporter/novelist is one of the few first-hand observers of the closed society of Myanmar. The author, who writes under the pseudonym of Emma Larkin, traveled throughout the country in 2006. Speaking Burmese, she traveled to the cities where George Orwell had been posted during his service in the colonial police.
In spite of constant surveillance by menacing government observers, Larkin secretly interviewed many ordinary Burmese, most of whom had served prison terms for supporting the democracy movement in Burma. She was looking for traces of Orwell or his writing, but uncovered the deep fear that Burmese had of the ruling military.
On returning to her home in Thailand Larkin wrote the travel/historical novel, Finding George Orwell in Burma. Each chapter of the novel is focused on a single Burmese city where Orwell was posted. Chapters begin with short quote from Orwell’s classic novel of government oppression: Nineteen Eighty-Four.
She notes, in passing, that Nineteen Eighty-Four is banned in Myanmar because:
“It can be read as criticism of how the country is being run and the ruling generals do not like criticism.”
On the other hand, Orwell’s Animal Farm is not banned, even though one of Larkin’s informants said:
“ ’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.’ ”
It seems that, Orwell is a literary hero to those Burmese old enough to remember the British presence in Burma. Perhaps Orwell’s novels help them cope with the daily oppression of living under a harsh dictatorship.
Since the 1962 coup, the international press has had practically no access to Myanmar and the Myanmar press is heavily censored. Very little accurate information has been printed about the dictatorship and the suppression of the democracy movement. One of Larkin’s informants described the Burmese newspapers as:
“A popular Burmese joke: ‘When I pick up a newspaper, the first thing I turn to is the back page to read the only reliable news in the whole paper–the obituaries.’ ”
—-EL, “Finding Orwell”
If Larkin is correct in her observations then Secretary Clinton and the US have a difficult job ahead in promoting the democracy movement in Myanmar— dictatorships are always reluctant to allow a democracy to take root.
Consider the well-worn Bible saying:
Matthew 7:16 Ye shall know them by their fruits.
One could say of Myanmar—ye shall know them by their prisons and by the prisoners incarcerated therein. When we see the political prisoners walking free we will know that there has been some reform in Myanmar and democracy has made a step forward.
Insein Prison near the old Burmese capital of Rangoon is where most dissidents and political prisoners are housed.
The British built the infamous Insein Prison shortly after the army of the British Raj defeated the King of Burma’s forces in 1858 and it has been in continuous use since that time.
The prison stands today, little changed from colonial times, and houses the thousands of political prisoners of the ruling dictatorship.
In the epilog of Finding George Orwell In Burma, Larkin tells of the arrest of the pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi. The year is 2003 and the arrest took place on a road leading to a remote Burmese village:
“On 30 MAY 2003, not long after I left Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi disappeared. Just after dusk on that day, she and some 200 members of the NLD wee traveling in cars and on motor-bikes down a quiet one-lane road in northern Burma. Four or five trucks followed close behind them. In the darkness, the headlights of one of the vehicles picked out the robed figure of a monk standing in the road. The monk approached Aung San Suu Kyi’s car and asked her to stop and address some villagers who had gathered to meet her. As one of her bodyguards stepped out of the car to talk to the monk, men brandishing sharpened bamboo stakes and iron bars poured out of the trucks that had been following the cavalcade. They began smashing the car windows and dragging people off motorcycles and beating them. The NLD members were unarmed and unable to defend themselves. The air was fill with cries for help, and blood splashed on the road. Aung San Suu Kyi was last seen sitting in her car. The rear window had been shattered, and there was blood on her face and shirt.
“The government issued a statement claiming that members of the NLD traveling with Aung San Suu Lyi had provoked a group of pro-government youth and a skirmish had resulted in which four people were killed and fifty injured. According to the statement, Aung San Suu Kyi was being kept in protective custody and, for her own safety, details of her exact whereabouts could not be released. …”
—Finding George Orwell in Burma, Epilogue.
Suu Kyi who is a Nobel Prize winner has been incarcerated three times in Insein Prison for her political activities. She has also been under house arrest for 15 years. Clearly, she has paid her dues to the pro-democracy movement.
Clinton will need all her skills if she is to advance the cause of democracy in this isolated country where a brutal dictatorship has held sway for so many years. The ruling junta is still all-powerful and the generals are known for their severe censorship of any public support for the democracy movement.
The junta has jailed many Burmese for what seems to us minor dissent of official government policy. Consider the case of Tin Moe, former poet laureate of Myanmar. Moe was imprisoned in the infamous Insein Prison in 1991 for daring to write a poem in support of Burma’s democracy movement led by Suu Kyi. When Moe was released four years later, he fled his homeland, traveling through Thailand to the United States.
Moe died in California Jan. 22, 2007. His famous three-line poem “The Great Guest” could serve as his epitaph:
Cigar’s burnt down
The sun is brown
Will somebody take me home?
—Tin Moe, 1959
In 2011, in advance of the visit of the US Secretary of State, the military dictatorship released some of the thousands of political prisoners in Insein Prison. This was apparently a bid by the Generals to encourage Ann San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), to participate in the next Myanmar election.
Will the government of President Thein Sein keep its promises to Suu Kyi? Will they allow Suu Kyi’s party to participate fairly in the next election? One must be suspicious of the junta’s intentions, but I think that release of all political prisoners would be an omen for future US/Myanmar coöperation.
Reading or re-reading Emma Larkin’s book is a good introduction to this complex political situation and to the Burmese people who hope to benefit from the pro-democracy movement.
And, the reader can learn a little about George Orwell along the way.
Day 83: Finding George Orwell in Burma (by Emma Larkin, a pen-name) (2006).