As the third Irrawaddy Literature Festival draws near, I thought it timely to write a post about my favourite books on the fascinating country that is Myanmar. There’s so much good literature around that I won’t even limit myself to a top 10 (I’ll keep adding as I keep reading!). Aside from one exception, each of the books listed were published before Myanmar’s political and economic reforms began in 2011. The country has changed a great deal over the past few years, so I’m looking forward to reading new works that depict the “new” Myanmar (insofar as I know, none yet exist) as well as seeing greater literary freedoms utilised by Burmese writers. But of course it goes without saying that becoming familiar with Myanmar’s turbulent and complicated past is necessary to understanding the situation in the present day.
So here, in no particular order, are my favourite books…
1. The Trouser People, Andrew Marshall (2002)
Due to the country’s dictatorial past, a lot of books on Myanmar are distressing and depressing: this one is too, but there’s also a lot of humour in it. Marshall, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist who currently works for Reuters, retraces the steps of a highly eccentric British civil servant and adventurer called Sir George Scott, who was knocking through Myanmar’s jungles back in the 19th century. The historical research is superbly intriguing and is paired well with what has and hadn’t changed in Myanmar over the last hundred years or so.
For example, the origin of the incredibly popular lotteries (the mobile versions of which play some great disco tunes nowadays) can be traced back to the reign of King Thibaw, who was Myanmar’s last monarch as he was deposed of by the British (FYI – a wonderful account of the king’s exile and life thereafter can be found in Amitav Ghosh’s A Glass Palace).
“Misruled by a feeble, gin-soaked tyrant and his evil queen, the kingdom slid towards anarchy. In a last-ditch attempt to refill the royal coffers, Thibaw’s ministers seized upon the idea of public lotteries. Tickets could soon be bought at booths on every street corner, although many people were bullied into buying them by roving thugs employed by lottery managers.”
2. The Burman – His Life and Notions, Shway Yoe (Sir George Scott), (1882)
Anyone who reads this book will understand Marshall’s fascination with Sir George Scott, who spent three decades of his life in Myanmar and travelled extensively – often with the purpose of “negotiating” deals with the leaders of ethnic minority groups to surrender to the British Empire. Scott was nothing short of obsessed with local customs, geography and history and this book is the product of his extremely copious note-taking skills. As the title suggests, Scott’s approach was simply to record his detailed observations, which makes it more of a book to dip in and out of than to read from start to end. Have a flick through – chapters such as “Ear boring,” “Lucky and unlucky days” and “Wizards, doctors and wise men” certainly piqued my curiosity…
While some of Scott’s commentary strays into the cringe-worthy and antiquated, the Scottish journalist (who is also credited with introducing football to Myanmar) is for the most part entertaining and insightful.
He writes this of the dual education system in place in colonial-administrated Burma:
“In the English school you learned to make money, and in the Burmese school you learned to be happy and contented.”
3. Twilight over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess, Inge Sargent (1994)
This is an extraordinary and tragic memoir written by the Austrian wife of the prince of Hsipaw in Shan State. It opens dramatically when the couple arrive in Yangon by ship in 1953 – as it is only then that Sargent discovers her new royal role (and the regal name immediately bestowed on her, “Thusanda”). Her husband Sao Kya Seng embarks on a series of reforms to improve health and education and redistribute land in a non-feudal manner and as a result, quickly becomes a popular but “reluctant prince”. The couple have two children and “Thusanda” feels great affection for the mountains and peoples of Shan State – she describes everyday encounters with unabashed girlish delight. Unfortunately, a significant flaw in this otherwise captivating book is that it’s written in the third person – which makes for awkward passages of glowing self-description:
“It was Thusanda in her courtly splendor who stunned the assembled guests into admiring exclamations. As Sao led her through the assembled crowd, ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ were audible from all directions.”
Sargent’s fairytale life is shattered when her husband disappears shortly after a military coup led by General Ne Win takes place in 1962. He is never seen again, despite her desperate efforts to find him in the years that followed, both in Myanmar and Europe. The famed Sao Kya Seng is presumed to have been tortured and killed in prison. It’s simply heartbreaking.
4. Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant, Benedict Rogers (2010)
Putting a biography together about one of the world’s most notorious and reclusive dictators couldn’t have been anything other than an extremely tough task. Basic information such as Senior General Than Shwe’s date and place of birth are speculated rather than known – which arguably contributed to the aura of fear that surrounds him to the present day. Rogers never met his subject, who took over from Ne Win in 1992 and ruled with an iron fist until his resignation in 2011. However the writer and human rights advocate is clear about presenting rumours as such and acknowledges a natural temptation towards bias – fortunately his efforts to avoid it appear convincing. Nonetheless, Than Shwe’s resignation (just one year after his biography was published) was a stunning move and took many by surprise: general consensus was that power would not be relinquished other than in the event of his death, and certainly not then followed by the ushering in of a more democratic form of governance.
“Most people agree that if Than Shwe were to die tomorrow, Maung Aye would succeed him automatically, because of his position in the hierarchy. But if Than Shwe can transfer power to a person in a manner and timing of his choice, his successor is more likely to be General Thura Shwe Mann.”
Than Shwe ultimately handpicked President Thein Sein as his successor, however many claim that his retirement is partial at best and that he stepped down voluntarily in order to avoid the possibility of being prosecuted for human rights abuses committed under his watch.
5. Nor Iron Bars A Cage, Ma Thanegi (2013)
Ma Thanegi is a fesity, forceful writer: she’s sort of Myanmar’s answer to Germaine Greer. Her irreverent memoir recounts nearly one thousand days spent as a political prisoner under a harsh military junta – her “crime” was serving as Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal assistant. She was arrested in 1989, the year after the opposition leader’s election victory was declared null by authorities and followed by a violent crackdown against the nationwide pro-democracy protests. Ma Thanegi begins by asserting that the international media exaggerated Insein Prison’s reputation for torture and that some female prisoners falsely claimed to have been raped in the misguided belief that it would somehow further the cause of democracy in Myanmar.
“It does not matter to me whether readers believe my accounts or not; they have the right to believe what they want. What disgusts me is the number of people I have met who were actually disappointed or upset that we weren’t raped by the male guards.”
While the quality of writing is sometimes uneven, Ma Thanegi presents an intimate account of life as a female political prisoner with an eye for both the absurd and redeeming. The friendships she struck up with the sparrows and mice that sometimes entered her cell were among my favourite passages. Her voice is refreshingly authentic.
6. The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma, Thant Myint-U (2008)
The combination of genres this book comprises – memoir, travelogue, politics and history – makes it the perfect beginning to your Myanmar debriefing. It’s intensely readable and engaging – which makes the process of absorbing a vast quantity of information perfectly possible and not at all overwhelming. Thant Myint-U is a former UN peacekeeper and his grandfather was the third Secretary General of the UN from 1961 to 1971 (and is credited with playing a major role in averting the Cuban missile crisis). Thant Myint-U vividly describes how he felt as a young man returning to Myanmar to attend his grandfather’s funeral, which was turned into a nasty power play between the military and U Nu’s loyal supporters – many of whom were students. Thant Myint-U currently serves as the chairperson of Yangon Heritage Trust, a non-profit organisation that is working hard to protect Yangon’s architectural past. When Obama visited Yangon late last year, he and Thant Myint-U took a walk together to survey his plans. Impressive.
7. Finding George Orwell in Burma, Emma Larkin (2004)
There are three reasons why I really, really like this book. The prose is superb, it investigates the contradictions within George Orwell during the time he served as a jaded British policeman in colonial-administered Burma, as well as offering insightful commentary on the harsh realities of everyday life in Myanmar under junta rule. Emma Larkin is a pseudonym: little is known about the American journalist who made discreet, repeated visits to carry out research while managing to protect both herself and her sources. I was lucky enough to interview Larkin last year – you can read the full interview here.
When Orwell began his five-year stint in Myanmar in 1922, violent crime was so rife that it was considered one of the most dangerous places in Asia. The anarchy was almost always attributed to the so-called racial inferiority of the Burmese. While Myanmar nowadays has some of the lowest crime rates in Asia, Larkin points out a new and worrying trend of law enforcers once again distorting the truth:
“In order to please the central military command, the police leave crimes unreported, so that their division will look good and crime-free, at least on paper. When people go to the station to report crimes, the police often ask them if they are sure they want to file details and try to convince them not to do so. I once had my wallet stolen in Mandalay, and when I suggested to the friends that I was with that I should report it to the police they laughed.”
8. From the Land of Green Ghosts, Pascal Khoo Thwe (2002)
Pascal Khoo Thwe’s memoir is rooted in the mysticism of his childhood and the dramatically painful struggles of his early adulthood. While most books tend to divide readers into those who loved or loathed, this book (at least anecdotally speaking) seems to be roundly adored. I’ve never heard a bad word said about it.
Pascal was born in a remote area of Myanmar: so remote that the installation of a lone traffic light almost immediately caused an accident and was promptly removed. However it was less his village’s physical remoteness than the regime’s iron clad grip on the flow of information that created the time capsule conditions in which he grew up. Below is one of many examples:
“In 1977 we were finally told that the Americans had landed on the moon… We also heard that Elvis Presley was dead.”
News of the death of The King caused intense public grief and non-stop musical renditions. The socialist government felt so threatened by this outward display of pro-Americanism that it issued a decree stating that guitar players were decadent “street ghosts.”
Pascal was born into the Padaung tribe, which is arguably one of the world’s most identifiable. Female Padaungs (or at least, those conferred with the honour) wear brass coils around their elongated necks, which has led to them being dubbed ‘giraffe necks’. His own grandmother’s neck was 14 inches long, which no doubt added to the aura that surrounded her while she told incredible ancestral tales.
Pascal’s life is turned upside down when Myanmar’s political situation takes a series of deeply sinister turns. He joins a guerilla army after his girlfriend is raped and murdered, and manages to survive the hellish conditions of jungle warfare before fleeing to Thailand. A chance encounter eventually lands him in Cambridge University. You simply couldn’t make it up.
9. The Road to Wanting, Wendy Law-Yone (2010)
Could there be a dreamier title for a book? I doubt it – particularly as this particular ‘wanting’ is an actual town on the Chinese-Myanmar border (and FYI ‘Muse’ is another border town imbibed with a similarly haunting melancholy). This is the story of Na Ga, who was separated from her poverty-stricken family at a young age and endures slap after slap in the face (often quite literally) in quick succession. She forms a relationship in Thailand with a farang of questionable intent, and who sets her off on a long journey – the purpose of which this resilient woman questions every step of the way. The introduction is unforgettable and the prose is particularly well-crafted: I struggled to put it down long after I should have been asleep.
The Road to Wanting was long-listed for the Orange Prize in 2011.