Zarganar: My prison memories and quest to free Myanmar’s political prisoners

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 4 September 2014

Zarganar: Beloved Burmese comedian, former political prisoner and human rights activist
Zarganar: Beloved Burmese comedian, former political prisoner and human rights activist

Zarganar is widely considered to be Myanmar’s most popular comedian, as well as being a prolific writer, poet and filmmaker. An outspoken critic of the former military junta, the four-time political prisoner, whose real name is U Maung Thura, spent a total of 11 years behind bars. He was released in 2011 during a presidential amnesty granted to prisoners of conscience. In an exclusive interview with Mizzima Business Weekly’s Jessica Mudditt, Zarganar spoke about his campaign to secure the release of remaining political prisoners and military intelligence officers, as well as his unlikely friendship with a murderer known as Buffalo, who helped him find the path to forgiveness.

What are you currently working on?

I have so many plans, but my focus at the moment is on securing the release of every remaining political prisoner. I’m on the clarification for political prisoners committee, which is trying to formally clarify the status of 32 people who were excluded from last year’s presidential amnesty. The government classifies these individuals as criminals and terrorists and therefore refuses to recognise them as political prisoners. They were found guilty of bombing and setting fire to a village in Shan State, as well as murder and rape. None were provided with a fair trial and I strongly believe the rape and murder charges are false. As members of the Shan State Army, their objective was political: they attacked an area where government troops were living – it was a battlefield at the time. No one was killed when the village was destroyed. Most have been in prison for at least a decade and we feel that enough is enough.

Our committee has called on the government many times to have these 32 people reclassified as political prisoners and to set them free. Unfortunately, it seems that the government has no intention of carrying on with the process of releasing all political prisoners. No further amnesties have been granted since January 1 despite the fact that President U Thein Sein pledged last year that there would be no more political prisoners left in Myanmar.

What progress is being made towards having those prisoners released?

Last March, an important meeting took place between the government and civil society groups, but I wasn’t able to attend because I had kidney stones and needed an operation to remove them. In previous meetings, I’ve always taken the role of moderator and facilitator – I am the only bridge that exists between the two sides. During that meeting there were a lot of disputes, with both sides blaming the other – and now most committee members want to resign. But if we disband the committee, those 32 people will die in prison. We cannot destroy their hope. So my goal is to try to persuade members of the government and civil society to return to the table for discussions.

You are also working to obtain the release of former military intelligence officers jailed in the aftermath of the purge of Military Intelligence in 2004. What motivated you to take up their cause?

Some of the former military intelligence officers who remain behind bars were actually the ones who sent me to prison and tortured me. But I have forgiven them. I think it’s important to bear in mind the context of the country’s past political situation. These people are human beings and my fellow Burmese citizens, so I feel I must support their release. And every member of the committee agrees and has signed a petition in support.

This evening I will meet with U Soe Thein, Minister of the President’s Office, to discuss the possibility of arranging a meeting to review their cases. I have also requested a meeting with the Minister of Home Affairs, Lieutenant-General Ko Ko. And last weekend I had the chance to discuss the release of both political prisoners and military intelligence officers with President U Thein Sein and House Speaker [Thura] U Shwe Mann. All so far have expressed their agreement.

Was it your first meeting with the President?

No, I’ve met the President several times but it was my first visit to his farmhouse in Nay Pyi Taw. It has a very nice view. The purpose of me being there was to get footage of him on the farm, which will be shown as part of a youth festival and exhibition on International Peace Day on September 21.

I got some great shots of him sowing rice in a paddy field and preparing food for his cows while dressed in a cotton western-style shirt, rather than traditional Burmese dress. People will see him as a normal man rather than the president of the country and they will hear him say that he is creating programs to support the youth and farmers and that he will keep up the momentum of the peace process. In the film he says, “Farmers are the fathers of our country – and I am the son of the farmers.”

The President himself is a keen farmer; before joining military he’d had a lot of farming experience. Nowadays he’s very interested in planting crops and breeding cows.

However, the project also gave me the opportunity to discuss the release of political prisoners and military intelligence officers in more detail after our meeting in the President’s office on Saturday [August 23]. This was very timely, because my aim is to have every prisoner released on International Peace Day. President U Thein Sein said he agrees with my position and will discuss the matter with the special security and defence committee, of which he serves as chairman.

How much public support is there for the release of former military intelligence officers? Could there be a public backlash if they are released?

Possibly, because some Burmese still fear the military intelligence and would feel angry about it. I can understand their point of view – I have Burmese friends in Singapore and the United States who also totally disagree with me on this. But I tell them that I was the one imprisoned and tortured, not them. I lost so much in my life as a result of military rule. Both my parents died while I was in prison and I didn’t get the chance to see their dead bodies. My wife and two children left Myanmar about eight years ago and are now US citizens. My wife refuses to return to Myanmar because she doesn’t trust the government. You could say our marriage has broken down. But although the junta ripped my family apart, I don’t want revenge. I just want to see my country improve.

Is your ability to move forward without bitterness something you attribute to being a practicing Buddhist?

No, it’s not concerned with Buddhism. While in prison I read Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom. In it he writes about why it’s important to forgive and forget. As for me, I have “edited” his sentiment: I can forgive but I’ll never forget [laughs].

Your ability to forgive those responsible for the suffering you endured goes beyond abstract forgiveness.

As you know, I was sent to prison four times. The second time was before the elections in 1990, when I received a five-year sentence and was sent to Insein prison. At the time, the prison was extremely crowded and political prisoners shared cells with criminals. They often stole my food and were generally very rude people.

I was sharing a cell with a murderer called Buffalo. During the uprising of ‘88 he killed at least 20 people; mostly police. He told me he slit their throats. Yet he was very smart and I came to love him because he supported all the political prisoners. If we didn’t get food, he would do something about it. He had many connections with the wardens and was able to get things we couldn’t. We were roommates and friends for two years, from 1990 until 1992.

Then, when I was transferred to Myiktyina prison in 2008 I was reunited with a lot of my friends – including Buffalo. He’d been released in 2005 and had promised me he’d never kill anyone again. ‘Why did you do it?’ I asked him. His reply was that the person he murdered was a member of the Special Branch. He’d got the death penalty but it’s been commuted to a life sentence. I think he has 13 years left to serve.

Anyhow, he supported me in prison once again – he even got me a mobile phone so that I could call my friends and relatives outside Myanmar! Buffalo was a very popular inmate and he was powerful too, amongst both inmates and wardens. He had many privileges and often did repairs at the wardens’ homes. And whenever he re-entered the prison compound, he was never searched. Buffalo also had his own small business – and a corrupt one, yes. Some of the inmates were very wealthy jade merchants or human smugglers and he’d ask them if they wanted a “comfortable stay” when they arrived – in return for cash payments, of course. He’d then use the money to obtain mobile phones and other things from the wardens. Everyone was dependent on him.

One day Buffalo told me that a member of military intelligence was being held in a separate compound from ours. That person, it turned out, had tortured me very badly. He once buried me up to my neck and drove a jeep very fast towards me while shouting that he was going to crush my skull. He terrified me. When I told Buffalo this, he offered to have him killed, saying that no one would ever find out. I refused and said I wanted to meet him instead.

Buffalo agreed and when I saw him, I said, “Uncle Colonel, do you remember me?”

He did and we shook hands. He used to be such a big man but had grown very skinny – and very depressed. His family was also in prison so he could only eat prison food, which was totally inadequate.

I’ll never forget what he said to me next. He begged me to forgive him for what he did to me and he wept. I think it was from that time on that I was able to forgive.

But I did say to him that day: “Are you insane or were you following orders from your superiors?”

He cried a lot and said it was all his fault; that all the blame was his. I wasn’t sure whether to believe that though.

Afterwards I got Buffalo to give him my coffee every morning, as well as some vegetables and dried fish. On the day I left prison I bid him farewell him and promised to work to secure his release. That made him cry. I still send him food parcels and books every month.

Is your focus on the release of certain prisoners or a broader range of issues?

My focus isn’t only on the prisoners. I want to move our country forward and I believe that introducing a federalist system of governance is very important, as well as changing the constitution so that the military aren’t allocated 25 percent of parliamentary seats.

Are you confident these changes will occur before the general elections due late next year?

No, I’m not. The general elections of 2015 are not my heartbeat, you could say. My vision is 2020. But civil society groups need to start working together with the government, the opposition, the military and the ethnic minority parties in order to achieve these long term goals, such as power sharing between the states and union level government. One positive development is that during meetings last week that involved the military and ethnic minority groups, it was agreed that members of the military will start taking part in classes on federalism.

With so much going on in your life, do you have any time left to tell jokes?

I do still perform, and as a comedian, I often use humour to get my point across. For example, when I met with senior members of the military quite recently, I said to them, “Do you know how you can get 100 percent of the peoples’ love?”

“How? How?” they asked me.

“Well, if you completely withdraw from parliament you will get all of their love: every single person will applaud you and want to kiss you.”

They laughed at that. But I don’t believe the military will withdraw before 2015.

Would you like to become a politician?

I’ve always been interested in politics and since I was a young man I’ve read many books on the subject. My mother stood as an independent candidate – which at the time was something I tried to discourage because I thought that as a literary person, she lacked knowledge about politics. Ultimately, she didn’t listen to me and she didn’t win.

As for me personally, I didn’t try to enter politics despite my interest in it because the only route available was through the ruling party at the time, which didn’t appeal.

Nonetheless, politics has been at the centre of my career as a comedian. Nowadays a lot of people are asking me, “What do you want to do now – arts or politics?”

My answer is that I want to be free. I want to sing songs, dance, make films and write articles, novels and poems. I’m so happy doing those things. And although I would like to dedicate 100 percent of my life to politics, the time isn’t right. I want to focus on moving our country onto the right path and encouraging people – especially young people – to participate in the process. I want to be like Arsenal’s coach Arsene Wenger – he’s very good at scouting for new blood in football. I want to keep searching for new blood to serve my country.

Note: On 7 October 2014, 3,073 prisoners were released in a mass presidential pardon. President Thein Sein wrote on his Facebook page that the decision was made in the interests of “humanity, state peace and stability, rule of law and national solidarity”. Among those freed was former former Brigadier General Thein Swe, a senior member of Military Intelligence and the father of Sonny Swe, co-founder of The Myanmar Times and now Mizzima’s chief executive. Sonny Swe also served nine years in prison before his release in 2012.

Click here to read my news article on Sonny’s release.

Click here to read an interview with former Brigadier General Thein Swe


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Fox News comes unhinged with Dr Ablow’s racial slurs against Obama

Keith Ablow. Source: Cable Kooks
Keith Ablow. Source: Cable Kooks

The racial slurs levelled against President Obama this week by a member of Fox News’ ‘Medical A Team’ (whatever that means?!) Dr Keith Ablow have made headlines around the world – and for good reason. Ablow has accused Obama of seeking to infect Americans with Ebola because “his affiliations are with Africa.” While reductionist statements are common among US conservatives, his took offensiveness to an entirely new level.

Ablow’s conspiracy theory may be summarised as follows: Obama is not acting in the best interests of Americans because he is African and therefore ideologically opposed to sealing off US borders with Ebola-infected countries.

His premise begins with the president’s name itself.

Dr Ablow said: “This guy [President Barack Obama]… has names very similar to two of our arch-enemies, Osama, well, Obama. And Hussein. Hussein.”

While speaking with Fox News Radio, Ablow accused the president of believing – “if only unconsciously” – that the US has inflicted a “plague of colonialism” on the world and that travel restrictions on African countries would thus be unfair.

Whilst Ablow’s arguments are too ridiculous to dismantle piece-by-piece, a quick glance over his Wikipedia page reveals that the psychiatrist-cum-media-personality is no stranger to controversy – and may in fact court it, as I will endeavour to illustrate below.

Yet before documenting Ablow’s most notorious gaffes in recent years, may I not-so-respectfully point out that his own name is rather unfortunate in the context of his profession as a psychiatrist (he wanted to get personal, right?). And come to think of it, does “Ablow” not sound a little like “Ebola”? Hmmm… must be sinister…

According to Wikipedia, “Ablow has made a number of controversial statements, including psychological assessments of various celebrities he has never examined that have drawn criticism from other practitioners in his field, as well as from various organisations and groups which were offended by his comments.”

Remark 1 – 

On August 12, 2014, Dr Ablow said that First Lady Michelle Obama “needs to drop a few [pounds].”

He apparently continued on this track whilst appearing on a television show aired later that month: he told female panelists that they too needed to lose weight.

Remark 2  -

During the 2012 Republican primary elections, Ablow penned a column arguing that Newt Gingrich’s three marriages made him more qualified to be president.

He wrote: “When three women want to sign on for life with a man who is now running for president, I worry more about whether we’ll be clamoring for a third Gingrich term, not whether we’ll want to let him go after one.”

Rod Dreher of The American Conservative was one of many who publicly voiced criticism over Dr Ablow’s remarks.

“At some point, you have to wonder when shamelessness crosses the line from character defect to psychopathology. If only Dr. Leo Spaceman were a Republican, he could have a lucrative career on Fox,” he said.

Remark 3  -

In April 2011, Ablow wrote a health column for which criticised designer Jenna Lyons for publishing an advertisement that showed her painting her young son’s toenails a shade of hot pink.

Ablow asserted that gender distinctions are “part of the magnificent synergy that creates and sustains the human race”.

Despite the ensuing controversy this caused, Ablow held firm (in contrast to the subsequent apologies he proffered following the outcry over remarks 1 and 2). He re-posted the column on his Facebook page as proof of his conviction.

Remark 4 -

Ablow is keen on volunteering diagnoses for public figures, despite the fact that he has never personally treated them. One of the most notable concerned Vice President Joe Biden: following Biden’s speech in the 2012 VP Performance, Ablow wrote a column for that suggested he suffered from dementia.


Whilst Ablow is indeed a qualified psychiatrist, the bulk of his professional time is spent in media. In addition to writing health columns for, Ablow has published 15 books and made countless TV appearances – including the Oprah Winfrey Show. He is also a radio broadcast regular and his articles have appeared in a variety of print publications.

Ablow hosted his own TV show for a little over year, before it was axed in 2007 due to ratings that averaged out at one percent of America’s TV audience. On October 17, 2006 “The Dr Keith Ablow Show” secured an exclusive interview with John Mark Karr, who falsely confessed to murdering the child beauty pageant star, Jon-Benet Ramsey. Ablow surreptitiously videotaped his source and afterwards stated that John Mark Karr was a “textbook case of pedophilia” and would pose a threat to society after being released from prison.

Ablow severed his ties with the American Psychiatric Association in 2012, when he announced in a column that he had “resigned in protest” – but neglected to mention the reasons for doing so. The column was titled, “Be wary of the American Psychiatric Association” and you can read it here.

Ever the optimist, in January 2013 Ablow expressed an ambition to take part in politics. Despite a complete lack of experience, Ablow suggested he contest the seat left vacant by John Kerry as a Republican candidate. He backed down two months later to make way for other Republican hopefuls.

No doubt President Obama isn’t losing sleep over Ablow’s latest remark – yet the fact that Fox News and others continue to give Dr Ablow air-time is both worrying and incomprehensible to many. Surely there’s a better candidate out there?

Taking a stand against hate speech in Myanmar: an interview with Nay Phone Latt

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 18 September 2014

Nay Phone Latt: Former political prisoner and blogger, MIDO founder, PEN Myanmar secretary and campaigner against hate speech
Nay Phone Latt: Former political prisoner and blogger, MIDO founder, PEN Myanmar secretary and campaigner against hate speech

Former political prisoner Nay Phone Latt is the secretary of PEN Myanmar and executive director of the advocacy group, Myanmar ICT Development Organization (MIDO), which he founded in February 2012. In April the 34-year-old launched a campaign against hate speech on social media called Panzagar (“Flower Speech”). He spoke to Mizzima Business Weekly’s Jessica Mudditt about his passion for information and communications technology and his efforts to create a more tolerant society.

What sparked your interest in ICT?

It was during the 18 months I spent in Singapore from 2006 that I learnt how powerful it can be when used effectively. Myanmar was completely different back then – we had very little electricity and even less access to the internet, whereas in Singapore, my friends never needed to shut down their computer or to log off from Gmail.  I started working as the editor of an online magazine and my friends taught me how to blog. I really enjoyed it because I could write whatever I wanted and in my own language. So when I came back to Myanmar I wanted to keep blogging – but at the time even using Gmail was illegal. I knew of the dangers of blogging so I never posted political content on my own blog – not even during the Saffron Revolution in 2007. I used to send articles to my friends with blogs overseas. However just before the Saffron Revolution I organised a seminar called “Why we blog” to try to introduce people to this type of technology – but after that I became well known to the military government.

Were you aware of the risk you were taking by promoting blogging in Myanmar then?

Yes I was, but that was also partly because I come from a political family – my parents and grandparents were NLD members and I was a NLD youth leader. I knew I could end up in prison at any time; so many people were being sent to jail. So it wasn’t a big shock when I was interrogated. I was forced to hand over my Gmail password – I was told I would be hung if I refused. I had several different accounts and I gave military intelligence a password to an account that I thought was “safe.” However they found a cartoon of [Senior] General Than Shwe that someone had sent me and I got a 16-year sentence for that. I got another five-and-a-half years for owning a VCD of one of Zarganar’s performance that was a bit critical of the regime.

How did you react to such a harsh sentence?

The thing that saved me was that I knew I wasn’t alone – so many of us were in the same situation. Zarganar was also in Insein prison at the time, although we weren’t able to talk to each other because we were kept in separate parts of the prison. And although the food was really bad and we couldn’t go outside, I had a daily schedule that kept me from getting too bored. I spent an hour reading, meditating, learning English, relaxing ? and I also taught some of my cellmates about ICT.

What were your reasons for founding MIDO?

I decided to set up MIDO because Myanmar’s political situation had changed somewhat: things were more open. However the problem is that although the country is more open and there are new forms of technology available, awareness about ICT remains very low because it’s not a subject taught in schools. The only people who have a chance to learn about ICT are those who can afford to attend a costly private school. And the University of Computer Studies in Yangon lacks basic facilities. So the first project I set up was ICT training for staff at local organisations, who were able to learn how to use the internet effectively and why hate speech is dangerous and unacceptable. We were invited to run classes for members of the Chin Youth Associations last September and we also have connections with the National League for Democracy, of which I’m a member. I’ve given lectures at NLD headquarters around the country as well as many other different organisations. I’d also like to work with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Information to create a long term solution for addressing the gap in our education system regarding ICT, but so far it hasn’t happened.

Why did you decide to campaign against hate speech?

I am really worried about our country’s future. The religious conflicts that exist aren’t a new problem – it’s been a technique used by every government, including the British administration. If we look back throughout our history we can clearly understand the phenomenon as a “divide and destroy” tactic used to prevent people from being united and therefore more powerful. But the problem now is that the young generation are spending so much of their time on social media that they aren’t learning about this and don’t understand the real perspective behind the violent events that are taking place. Our reading culture has changed – attention spans are shorter and most young people just want to digest very small amounts of information. For example, when I post an article on my Facebook page, in less than a minute there are so many “likes” – but they obviously hadn’t even had time to read the article! This is one of the reasons why I don’t keep a blog anymore – and I know of other bloggers who have also given up. However I do have plans to write a book about my time in prison – but I want to focus on the positive things that happened, rather than all the negative stuff.

What’s the most common justification you hear from those who believe hate speech is acceptable?

People say they have the right to express themselves however they please. We respond by explaining the difference between saying something like, “I hate you” and “I hate them and want to kill them.” Some forms of hatred are very dangerous for society and shouldn’t be tolerated.

A poster for MIDO's Panzagar campaign against hate speech
A poster for MIDO’s Panzagar campaign against hate speech

Who are the targets of hate speech?

It’s a big problem in Rakhine State, but hate speech has now spread from previously being targeted towards the Rohingya people specifically to Muslims in general. There’s also a lot of hate speech about foreigners in Rakhine State. Hate speech against the gay community has flared up over the last six months after the media reported the marriage of a gay couple. Then there’s hate speech about China – not against the people but their government. Although internet penetration rates are still low, the problem is getting worse and my concern is that it will continue to worsen unless people take action.

Describe your involvement with PEN’s research project on hate speech.

We are monitoring four aspects: print media, online media, social media and content on VCDs. I’m responsible for monitoring social media, which is mostly scrutinising Facebook accounts. I take screen shots of pages that contain hate speech. It’s a three month project and we’ll publish a report of our findings on International Peace Day on September 21. We’ll distribute the report to members of the government and civil society groups so that people become more aware of the issue, and hopefully take action. It will also be available to download on PEN Myanmar’s website.

What forms of hate speech exist in the media?

Following the riots in Mandalay, for example, there were some very problematic statements made by members of the [regional] government. We believe that statements that incite hatred and violence should not be published and editors need to start taking responsibility to ensure this. The problem is that there are so many new journals now, but very few journalists – as well as editors – are well trained in media ethics. Some lack any concept of it.

Are those using hate speech fanatics?

There appear to be two types of people using hate speech – some are doing it intentionally while others are actually paid staff. I don’t want to discuss who it is that might be paying people to spread hate speech, but the fact that some people are constantly online and within a minute after posting something on their Facebook account there are an enormous number of “likes” and “shares” indicates that it’s an organised activity by a large group of people. I’ve also noticed that many pages share a lot of similarities and use the Buddhist flag or national flag, or an image of the Buddha as profile shots.

You were in jail when Time magazine named you one of its 100 “Courageous Heroes” in 2010. Were you aware of the honour?

Yes I was – a warder told me. It gave me strength and it was also a very useful thing for political prisoners in general, as well as for me personally. After I received the award, the warders knew that I was known in the international media and organisations so they didn’t dare to treat me as badly as others, particularly the criminals, who were regularly beaten. I was even allowed to start receiving English-language books from my parents – I told the warders that I would tell the international media if they didn’t allow it! My parents visited me every month and exile media groups would then call them to ask what I had said. Knowing that I hadn’t been cut off from the outside world was very good for me.

British International School opens in Myanmar

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly in April 2014

A graphic of BISY's front building
A graphic of BISY’s front building

The British International School Yangon will open its doors to pre-nursery and primary aged pupils in August 2014. It is governed by the UK-based, not-for-profit British Schools Foundation (BSF), which operates a network of nine British international schools in 10 countries. Mizzima Business Weekly talks to headmaster Adam Johnston.

Why did the British International School Yangon feel that the time was right to come to Myanmar?

Members of our board had been coming to Yangon quite regularly to get a feel for the market and we were aware that there was a strong demand among expats. Some families have a mum or a dad working in Yangon and flying back on the weekends to Bangkok where the children go to school, which isn’t ideal. A similar sort of thing happened in terms of the demand for international schools in Kuala Lumpur. BSF opened a school there in 2009, using exactly the same programme we are in Yangon: we’re moving into an already refurbished building. [The school plans to expand into a purpose facility will be completed by 2016-17]. Within 12 to 16 months of that opening we had 180 children enrolled and another 50 banging on the door, so to speak. A year later we were able to move more than 200 pupils into the new campus.

Headmaster Adam Johnson
Headmaster Adam Johnson

What are some of the features of Yangon’s campus?

We’ll have maximum class sizes of 20, and Mac laptops will be connected to interactive whiteboards – the largest ones available. We’ll also set up an iPad programme that begins from Year Four. Part of the latest learning assessment material is conducted through an iPad, and children will be able to use this technology for photos, downloads and all sorts of things. But we’re not going to go crazy on technology. We’ve had a lot of training from experts who have come out from the UK and have helped us to create the best methods of utilising iPads for educational purposes. We’ve heard about what other schools are finding difficult and what not to do.

The campus building itself has a huge amount of natural light – it has two sections which are made completely of glass and all of our classrooms have large open glass sections. This will also allow parents to be shown around and to see what’s being done. I want them to see the kids enjoying their work and our teachers in action. Teaching is a bit of a drama performance – you must engage students. And without a doubt, some of the teachers I have coming from our Kuala Lumpur campus are entertainers!

The Early Years classrooms will all have doors leading to an outside learning area, which will be undercover from the sun and rain. This will allow for continuous learning to progress from the inside to the outside of the classroom.

Graphic of BISY's library
Graphic of BISY’s library

Can you please describe the British national curriculum?

There’s a focus on a certain amount of academic rigour, but we also have the flexibility to incorporate extra elements into it. As a British school, we want to get beyond the regular curriculum. It’s not that it would be wishy-washy though. For example, I’ve just spoken to two companies who are in the process of creating 10 cellos, 10 violins and 10 violas which will be tailor made for children from Year 2 to Year 6, along with saxophones and trombones.

Another aspect is that international schools adapt their curriculum to suit their environment: sometimes too much. When schools try to run two different curriculums side-by-side, for example, possibly along with bilingual learning, you don’t often hear success stories coming out of that.

I am, however, looking for a Myanmar language teacher and we may also offer Chinese, and we do want some local staff in our team. I’m not 100 percent sure at this stage, as it will all depend on who turns up on that first day. At the moment, 99 percent of the interest we’ve had in enrolments has been from Europeans.

A graphic of BISY's classrooms
A graphic of BISY’s classrooms

Will all the school’s employees be British?

We require our staff to hold British qualifications, or qualifications that are of the same standard and level as that required to teach the British curriculum. I myself hold an Australian passport, but I’m more experienced in teaching the British national curriculum than any other. I’ve received hundreds of CVs, however the minimum level of experience in teaching the British curriculum we require is four years.

A graphic of BISY's playground
A graphic of BISY’s playground

Do prospective students need to be fluent in English?

No. All students do some pre-entry assessment tests, which gives an idea of what level of English is spoken. It will be possible for one of our teachers to provide one-on-one literacy lessons for an hour during regular English lessons, working on phonics, grammar and sentence work. Yes, there would be additional fees but after the term is over we can then reassess whether a child can access a full hour of literacy in the classroom. You’d be amazed how a child can improve their language skills when they’re immersed in a one language environment.

For more information, visit or contact

Fees: Primary school fees are USD$19,300 per year plus a $5,000 enrolment charge, ($1,500 of which is refundable if three months notice is given of departure).

Mr Crispo serves up Yangon’s best pizza: A review of Parami Pizza

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 28 August 2014

Parami Pizza's prosciutto e funghi
Parami Pizza’s prosciutto e funghi

Francesco Crispo knows more than a thing or two about how to make a great pizza. For the past 12 years he’s been consumed with honing his craft, which was first cultivated while working under a renowned Italian chef in the Caribbean’s Dominican Republic for four years. The accountant-turned-chef was even born in Naples, which in the 16th century became the birthplace of modern day pizza. Luckily for Yangonites, Mr Crispo (whose name couldn’t be more apt) arrived in the commercial capital three months ago to become executive chef of Parami Pizza, which opened in Yangon’s northern township of Mayangone on July 25.

“We ferment the yeast for at least 24 hours before using it: if it’s any less than that, a person’s stomach may start to feel strange a few hours after eating a pizza,” Mr Crispo told Mizzima Business Weekly while furiously rolling identically sized balls of dough.

Mr Crispo said that most pizza chefs have their own individual style of creating a pizza base – his preference is for a soft yet crispy one, “So that you can hear the crunch.”

However he added that he always takes his customers’ tastebuds into account, which is why he thinned down the crusts a little since the restaurant first opened.

Parami Pizza's stylish interior
Parami Pizza’s stylish interior

Parami Pizza imports the finest quality Italian ingredients for its pizzas, such as flour, wild mushrooms and tomato sauce (as well as risotto, pasta, olives and coffee – to name but a few). However importing foreign produce is not without its obstacles in Yangon, as some of the ingredients have never before set foot in Myanmar and raise eyebrows when they arrive.

“Sometimes when our orders from Italian suppliers are delivered, the customs department asks us to supply additional paperwork before the goods can be released – they say they don’t know what it is we’ve had delivered. This can make things difficult because the delays sometimes result in us lacking every ingredient we need on any given day,” Mr Crispo said.

Francesco Crispo
Francesco Crispo

“But we always serve up the best food we can according to our supplies; even if that means having to apologise to customers for not being able to provide a particular item on our menu,” he added.

Another challenge Parami Pizza currently faces is the lack of reliable wood suppliers in Yangon. Strips of wood are generally sold on the street-side or bought from local farmers after being exposed to heavy monsoon rains, which is highly problematic for a restaurant seeking to cook pizza in the traditional Italian style using a wood fired oven.

“We’ll have to wait a month before our stock of wood dries out, so in the meantime our pizzas are cooked using gas. For more than 10 years I’ve cooked pizzas in a wood fired oven: wood is my baby!” Mr Crispo said with a somewhat bittersweet laugh.

He said he is so determined to have the wood dried out as quickly as possible that he heats it in the oven every morning when he arrives at work.

Parami Pizza's outdoor dining area
Parami Pizza’s outdoor dining area

Fortunately, Parami Pizza’s general managers Nat Hutley and Nico Elliot (who also established the highly popular Union Bar and Gekko Bar) were far-sighted enough to purchase a combination oven that allows the use of either wood or gas.

“In the past 10 years gas ovens have become very good – it’s difficult to taste the difference,” Mr Crispo explained.

Pizza prices start at USD$9 (for the Parami Special) while the Norcia pizza, which features artichokes, parmesan flakes and black truffles, tops the list at $16. The Prosciutto e Funghi ($12) is highly recommended and has already established itself as a favourite among diners, as it contains a delectable combination of ham, basil, tomato, cheese, king mushrooms and adorably tiny wild mushrooms.

However Parami Pizza isn’t limited to pizzas alone. Its menu includes a wide range of antipasto dishes, salads, pastas and risottos, a daily soup special ($4), as well as the Milanese specialty Osso Bucco (sheared veal shanks served with vegetables and risotto), which will set you back $24.

The coffee is excellent (and also includes liquor coffee) and there are Italian aperitifs such as Campari ($6), while cocktails are priced between $7 and $8 and include the romantically named, “Breakfast at Cipriani.”

Bar staff serving up liquid treats
Bar staff serving up liquid treats

Many of Parami Pizza’s 20 kitchen staff have worked in Italian restaurants abroad and although only around 50 percent speak English, Mr Crispo dismissed the idea that communication was a problem.

“I’ve often worked with kitchen staff who don’t speak English. It doesn’t matter because I show people how to cook; I don’t need to tell them,” he said.

“I love Myanmar people – here in Yangon I start my day with a smile. I’ve worked in 11 different countries and I believe that Myanmar people are the nicest. They keep me calm,” he added.

Mr Franceso’s days are long because he refuses to leave the restaurant until it’s closed and arrives before it opens (other staff work either the lunch or dinner shift). His sense of personal responsibility for his diners’ satisfaction is admirable – and the results tangible.

Pumpkin soup - one of the daily specials
Pumpkin soup – one of the daily specials

“I often get calls from customers after I leave a restaurant. When I left one particular restaurant in the UAE, customers continued to contact me over the following year. Some would send me photos of food on their smartphones with a message saying, ‘Look what they serve now!’” he said with a grin.

On the day Mizzima Business Weekly visited Parami Pizza, the inside dining area became increasingly busy from noon: to the point of virtually every seat being occupied (the outdoor terrace will open once the monsoon season ends). According to Restaurant Manager Ko Myo Paing Aung, the evenings are even busier.

“It wasn’t busy the first day we opened – but that’s not been the case ever since,” said Mr Crispo.

Parami Pizza is open daily from 11am until midnight and it is located on 11/8 (7th Quarter) on the corner of Malikha and Parami roads in Mayangone Township.

For more information, call (01) 667 449 or visit Parami Pizza’s Facebook page 

Strut it: Myanmar’s male modelling industry

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 7 August 2014

Models Kaung Sit Thway (left), Hpone Thaik (middle) and Kyaw Ko Ko Wai (right)
Models Kaung Sit Thway (left), Phone Thike (middle) and Kyaw Ko Ko Wai (right)

Former model John Lwin is the CEO of Stars and Models International and is arguably the most powerful force in Myanmar’s male modeling industry. He has 200 models on his books; some of whom include Myanmar’s best known film stars. In 1995, Mr Lwin organized Myanmar’s first fashion show and in December 2013 he acquired the copyright of Manhunt International, which will give Myanmar’s male models the first opportunity to compete internationally.

Yet Mr Lwin’s entry into the world of male modeling was completely accidental.

“In 1988 Myanmar completely collapsed and my father told me that if I remained here I’d have no future. He enrolled me in a three month English speaking course in Singapore, but I didn’t want to go. At the airport I cried and threw my shoes in protest.”

Stars and Models International poster
Stars and Models International poster

Yet within a couple of months, 22-year-old Mr Lwin began to enjoy his new lifestyle in Singapore and told his father he’d enrolled in a hotel management course. To supplement his father’s $500 monthly allowance, Mr Lwin began working in a cassette factory.

“I worked at the factory from 11pm until 7am and then slept on the bus that got me to college by 9am. I was very unhappy.”

While standing bleary eyed at a bus stop one morning, he noticed a woman sizing him up.

“I thought she was trying to steal my bag so I held it close. But then she said, ‘Do you want to be a model?’”

John Lwin's career as a successful male began in Singapore  in the 1990s
John Lwin’s career as a successful male began in Singapore in the 1990s

Mr Lwin had no idea what modeling involved, but when he was told he could earn up to $10,000 a month, he didn’t hesitate to arrange a meeting. Within a few months he was making $15,000 a month, travelling extensively throughout the region and in 1992 won the title of Singapore’s “Face of the Year.”

“I was the only Burmese model in Singapore at that time and most assumed I was of Malay descent. But it wasn’t that I loved modeling – I was doing it for the money,” he said.

Five years later, Mr Lwin was approached by a famous Singaporean designer called Bobby Chng, whose clothes he’d modeled in the past.

Bobby’s offer to enter a clothing export joint venture was financially unappealing to a highly paid male model, but when Mr Lwin stumbled and fell on a pavement while racing to a fashion show, he started to think twice about his long term prospects (the damage to his chin alone lost him a week of work).

Mr Lwin agreed to set up Myanmar Asia Trading, which involved exporting male fashion wear from Myanmar to Singapore. His network of contacts in the fashion industry expanded and he was invited to organize Myanmar’s first fashion show in 1995. Its success prompted him to set up Myanmar’s first modeling agency, Stars and Models International.

How a male model is born

Along with those enrolled at his training academy, John Lwin regularly scours the streets of Yangon to scout for untapped male beauty.

Kyaw Ko Ko Wai
Kyaw Ko Ko Wai

“I saw one guy in a tea shop – I asked him to stand up to determine his height and asked if he’d like to be a model. He’s now making $50,000 a month,” he said with a laugh.

While Mr Lwin says he can’t put into words what the “X Factor” is, certain traits aren’t negotiable.

“I don’t want anyone over 25 – that’s getting old,” he said.

Unlike much of the rest of the world, a male model’s height (or lack of) isn’t a deal breaker in Myanmar, he said. However long hair and facial hair is. Those who look Korean are far more likely to become commercially successful, he said.

Furthermore, many male models incorrectly assume that advice on regular exercise and eating healthily can be ignored.

“They believe they can make it with their face alone – but that’s an unwise decision to make,” Mr Lwin said.

Some of Stars and Models International's contracted male models
Some of Stars and Models International’s contracted male models

Despite the fact that Myanmar has an abundance of attractive men of Indian descent, this is a no-go zone in terms of Myanmar’s modeling industry.

“I have one singer on our books who’s handsome but looks a little Indian. He’s on a 10 year contract and is doing very well because he has a beautiful voice, but when shooting his music videos, I usually never show his face. He’s Muslim and there are problems with Muslims, so it wouldn’t work,” Mr Lwin said.

Freelance fashion photographer Ko Taik told Mizzima Business Weekly that he often feels frustrated while shooting male models.

“Females are far easier to shoot. Women have more experience and their poses are more original. Males are more difficult because their poses are often awkward. They need a lot of direction from the photographer and getting a male model to relax is hard. They always seem to want to look powerful but a relaxed posture is almost always better. But if a male model has experience with a modelling agency they know what to do. And male models turn up on time, while women usually don’t,” he said.

While male models are, on the whole, less prone to egotism than their female counterparts, Mr Lwin takes a strictly no-nonsense approach when dealing those who step out of line.

John Lwin, CEO of Stars and Models International
John Lwin, CEO of Stars and Models International

“Sometimes I call a model and their mother answers the phone and says, ‘Talk to me – my son is busy.’ I’ve even had to drive to models’ homes, where I then stand out the front and scream at them. Then I freeze the model for at least three months – I give them no work whatsoever.”

“A lot of people in this industry are scared of me,” he added.

Mr Lwin said he’s recently adopted a new approach to keep his talent pool in check.

“I don’t let anyone become famous for at least six months anymore, because their heads just aren’t ready for it and they end up crashing. I make my models go through a lot of training and jobs like ushering before I allow something big to come along,” he said.

Manhunt – Myanmar’s biggest male modelling competition

John Lwin is an unapologetically ambitious entrepreneur and thus in December last year he acquired the copyright for Manhunt International – which for the past three years has been considered the ultimate platform for male models to gain exposure on a purely local level.

The local version of Manhunt has been headed by Htay Min Htun of Myanmar Model Management and attracts more than 300 competitors from across the country. Expats in Singapore also reportedly return to compete for the title. The competition is held in October and is aired twice daily on MRTV4 for a week. The winner receives 1.5 million lakh – half of which goes towards a modeling contract.

U Aung Paing Oo, 26, is a trainer at Myanmar Model Management and he told Mizzima Business Weekly that if further negotiations are unsuccessful, his company will continue to run Manhunt in Myanmar, even if it requires changing the name of the competition.

Model Kyaw Ko Ko Wai, who is also a trainer at Stars and Models International, was awarded second place in Manhunt’s 2013 competition.

Manhunt 2013 runner-up Kyaw Ko Ko Wai
Manhunt 2013 runner-up Kyaw Ko Ko Wai

“It was an experience I’ll never forget because it was so competitive. There was so much pressure to perform.”

The winners of Manhunt are often subject to various forms of gossip and backlash – rumours abound that the competition is predetermined to award those with close relationships with the judges.

“People say nasty things about the winners but our competition is fair and completely unbiased,” U Aung Paing Oo said.

Some are hopeful that by engaging with the internationally recognized Manhunt International competition, Mr Lwin will provide much needed opportunities for Myanmar’s male models, who are often subject to illegitimate business proposals.

For years, Mr Lwin has received a steady stream of emails from China inquiring about his male models, who propose shared contractual arrangements.

“I worry about the possibility of human trafficking – none of these people ever actually come to Myanmar to meet with me in person.”

Photo courtesy of Stars and Models International
Photo courtesy of Stars and Models International

Two years ago, Mr Lwin was contacted by an organization in Indonesia who claimed to be casting male models for a well known TV series that could purportedly lead to three year modelling contracts, international assignments and a salary of $8,000 a month.

“So we selected three models and flew to Indonesia for a meeting. On the first night, a gay man took us out for dinner and asked me if one of my models would accompany him for a drink later that night. I refused. His phone was then permanently off and we ended up having to pay for the hotel bill and airfares – which was contrary to the original agreement,” he said.

“Singapore’s male model industry looks for height, muscle build and a sharp face. Hong Kong’s models most often have chubby faces, while in mainland China, height and strong cheekbones are in vogue. Myanmar models often don’t fit these profiles,” said Mr Lwin.

No pay for editorial shoots

The possibility to work overseas is much needed, as Myanmar’s fashion magazines and journals rarely pay models for editorial shoots – whether it’s a cover or an inside spread.

“The model’s name and agency name is credited – that’s it,” Mr Lwin said.

He said that Myanmar’s models are willing to work for free to gain exposure; even movie stars don’t expect remuneration.

“The problem is that all models will shoot for free – they must come together and refuse to work without pay. I think the time will soon come when this changes,” he added.

While commercial product advertising pays well, the vast majority of local and international fashion labels are unwilling to shoot with Myanmar models.

“When we’ve approached men’s clothing companies for shoots – or even events like Myanmar Fashion Week – they tell us that the collars or what not might get dirty in the process and refuse to provide us with clothing. The local fashion industry has to change: how else can they market their clothes? Most often, models bring their own clothes to a shoot or a designer creates something for them.”

For those like U Aung Paing Oo, who never wanted to divert to the more lucrative alternatives of singing or acting, making a living as a model wasn’t viable.

“It’s difficult to make ends meet through modeling alone. I had to supplement my income by working for my father’s car import company. Working as a trainer is a much better alternative financially,” he said.

U Aung Paing Oo leading a modelling class
U Aung Paing Oo leading a modelling class

“If somebody just wants to be a model – he may get work twice a month and then needs to be ‘happy’ in his home for the rest of the time,” said Hpone Thaik.

Flocking female fans

There are of course upsides to being a male model – such as having a flock of female fans.

“Sure, I get a lot of attention when I go out. I’m a single guy and it’s fun,” Kaung Sitt Thway said with a grin.

Hpone Thaik, 29, is one of Myanmar’s top male models and he’s starred in several TV series, films and commercials. In July last year he married Myanmar’s superstar singer Chan Chan (who also models with Stars and Models International) and the couple have a five-month-old baby.

“I actually have more female fans now than I did before Chan and Chan and I got married. When I post pictures of my baby girl on Facebook, women write lovely things about me loving my family,” he said.

Hpone Thaik does have one memorable stalker though. For more than a year, he received hand-written love letters and phone calls from a young woman in Meiktila. She even posted him a CD containing images of international male models, complete with tips on how to strike a pose.

Hpone Thaik said he never felt stressed by her fanaticism, but was grateful when things finally came to a head. When the woman had learned that Hpone Thaik was in Magwe, she hopped on a motorbike and drove four hours just to see her idol in the flesh.

“When she saw that I was there with Chan Chan her face fell. She cried a lot and after that I didn’t hear from her again,” he said.

This article was featured as Mizzima Business Weekly's cover story on August 7 2014
This article was featured as Mizzima Business Weekly’s cover story on August 7 2014


“Most models come from middle class families. Wealthy young people aren’t attracted to modeling – they prefer to study and go clubbing and look down on modelling,” said Kyaw Ko Ko Wai.

He said that whilst some models have acquired reputations as socially immorally party-people, as well as being money hungry by seducing the wealthy.

However there are also known cases of “rich people dating models for fun – most wouldn’t marry them,” Kyaw Ko Ko Wai said.

According to Hpone Thaik, many sections of society assume that male models are gay simply because they wear make-up.

“Educated people understand the fashion industry and don’t share these views,” he said.

Finding Emma Larkin in Myanmar

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 28 July 2014

Source: Wikicommons
Source: Wikicommons

The award-winning Finding George Orwell in Burma is a non-fiction account of a woman who retraces George Orwell’s footsteps during the five years he served as a colonial police officer in what was then a province of British India. After his return to Britain in 1927, George Orwell (whose real name was Eric Blair) wrote a scathing account of colonial rule called Burmese Days, as well as the dystopian classics Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four - the latter of which depicts a society shackled by its extreme authoritarian rulers. Recounting her visits to Yangon, Twante, Pyin Oo Lwin, Mawlamyine and Katha, where Orwell served as a police officer, the author shed new light on the creative influence Myanmar had on his later works and political outlook. Extensive interviews with sources – connected and unconnected to Orwell – also provide a glimpse into Burmese society during the 1990s and early 21st century, when it was truly Orwellian.

Finding George Orwell in Burma was written by an American journalist who uses the pen name Emma Larkin. The author has never disclosed her identity and little is known about her, except that she was born and raised in Asia and that she studied Burmese in London. In an exclusive interview with Mizzima Business Weekly to mark the 10th anniversary of the publication of Finding George Orwell in Burma, Emma Larkin discusses contemporary Myanmar and explains why the time is not yet right to shed her nom de plume.

Which came first – your interest in George Orwell or your interest in Myanmar?

It was a case of both working in parallel. I’d read Orwell’s books and while I was travelling around Burma [during the 1990s] I developed more and more questions about the country that I couldn’t find answers to. His later books, such as Animal Farm, Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Burmese Days really spoke to me in a literary sense. I found his work very intriguing and came up with the idea to write a book about Orwell’s time in Burma and how it influenced his writing.

In previous interviews you said that you would not disclose your identity to protect your sources and to be able to return to Myanmar. Is that still the case, 10 years on?

Actually in terms of Burma, I think I probably wouldn’t need to keep a pen name anymore. However I’m working on a book about Thailand and things here are quite tense. As I live here permanently, it turns out it’s quite useful to have a pen name and I’d like to hang onto it for a couple more years. If you’d asked me just three months ago, I would have answered the question differently, but since the coup [on May 22] I need to be more careful than ever about protecting my identity – and it’s becoming increasingly difficult in this era of social media and what not. I was just talking to a friend about a protester who was arrested in Bangkok last month for reading Nineteen-Eighty-Four. I never thought that would ever happen in Thailand – it used to be Burma where something like that could occur. It’s very strange and worrying.

How often do you visit Myanmar? Have you noticed a change in atmosphere since the transition to quasi-civilian rule in 2011?

I’ve always lived in Bangkok, so Burma is close and I used to come about three or four times a year. But of late I’ve not done so as frequently because I’m working on my new book. My most recent visit was back in February. My last few trips have just been to Yangon and I can definitely see a dramatic change. One thing is that everyone is so busy – Yangon used to be a city stagnating but now it’s a city on the move. In the past, no one ever had anything to do except sit in a teashop.

That reminds me of a passage in your book when you say to a source, “I don’t want to take up too much of your time” and he replies, “Time! Time is the one thing in Burma we have a lot of. We are forced to spend our days quite listlessly. After all, what is there to do?”

When I visit nowadays I’m lucky if I have 15 minutes with that guy! So that’s definitely a turnaround. However I’d need to travel outside Yangon to get a sense of whether change has really occurred. I suspect that life doesn’t feel very different in the villages.

Are you and your sources cynical about the reform process in Myanmar?

It’s funny to hear you say “sources” because I’ve known the people in my book for so long now that I think of them as my friends. In February people were – I don’t think cynical is the right word – but I would definitely say that the euphoria had died down and there was a general idea that perhaps not that much has changed in terms of day-to-day life. For the first two years after the reforms began there was great sense of excitement and energy, but I no longer see that.

Referring to Finding George Orwell in Burma in an essay in 2008 called Being Eric/Being George: Or, What it’s Really Like to Become Someone Else, you wrote, “The book was a non-fiction account of life in Burma, a country ruled by a military dictatorship that is – I have to say it – truly Orwellian.” Have your views changed much since then?

Burma is no longer an Orwellian state – if anything it would be Thailand. When I wrote about Burma there was extreme propaganda, censorship and the distortion of truth – that’s no longer occurring. Wikileaks and whistleblowers such as Snowden demonstrate that there are still pockets of that which is Orwellian all over the world.

Most biographers agree that Eric Blair chose to write under the pen name George Orwell out of a fear of failure. You adopted a pen name for purely practical reasons. Your book has won several awards but has it ever been hard to have to shun any public recognition for your work?

I went to a boarding school in Britain and the headmistress there told me that I would never amount to anything. So yes, I would like her to know! But aside from that, I’m really quite happy with the way things are. I’m not an attention seeker and I prefer to write books rather to turn into the story itself.

Have you ever published books under your own name?

Yes I have. But they were not the kind of books I write as Emma Larkin.

The fact that you have remained anonymous is something of a triumph over military intelligence and testimony to the strength of your network of contacts, inside and outside Myanmar. How do you think you’ve managed to stay under the radar for so long?

I think what likely happened is that whatever local file was being kept on me may have been lost or scattered at around the time the former chief of [Military] Intelligence and then Prime Minister Khin Nyunt was placed under house arrest [in 2004]. There was so much else going on at the time – perhaps that’s why I was able to continue with my research.

You have said your cover was nearly blown several times. Could you describe such an encounter?

I was on a train once and I met a man who at the time I just thought was friendly and charming – he wasn’t in a uniform or anything. But I still took the precaution of getting off a station earlier than him. After checking into the hotel, I realised the man had checked into the room right next door to mine.

Did you immediately check out of the hotel?

I actually left the country. When I encountered these kinds of problems along the way I’d ask my friends what they thought I should do. They told me that as soon as I went to another hotel, the hotel staff would have to inform the police, as that was standard procedure back then, so they’d know exactly where to find me. That made changing hotels pointless – my friends told me to leave Burma, wait a while, and then return.

How long did it take to research your book? Did the fact that you spoke Myanmar arouse suspicions?

It took me three years to research and write it. I did indeed speak Burmese – though not elegantly [laughs] – and yes, I was a lone, white, female solo traveller. So I really stuck out and needed to be careful. But my task was easier in some ways than for journalists, who need to come in and get the information they need quickly. I was able to take things slower to stay under the radar. Burma was a lot cheaper back then so I was able to make the small advance for my book last quite a while longer than it would now…

Did you ever interview Daw Aung San Suu Kyi?

I saw her speaking outside her home but no, I never interviewed her. I would have been automatically blacklisted if I had. But actually, what I really admired at the time was the bravery of the normal people who came out to listen to her.

Do you make anything of the fact that Winston, the name of the main character in Nineteen-Eighty-Four, is a popular name in Myanmar?

I hadn’t thought of that! [Laughs]  Yes sure, I have friends called Winston. But I think there are many old-fashioned Christian names in Burma that are still quite popular – Penelope also comes to mind. I think it’s just part of the country having been insulated in a sort of time warp for so many years, rather than there being any sort of connection to Nineteen-Eighty-Four.

In your book, you write, “The only recorded memory of Orwell in Burma dates back to his time in Rangoon and doesn’t show him in the best light.” You then describe a Myanmar lecturer recalling that as a young boy, he and his friends were messing about and accidentally knocked into Eric Blair at Rangoon Railway Station. He retaliated by lifting his cane and almost hitting a child on the head with it, before whacking him on the back at the last minute. Others described him as “every bit the imperial officer.” Do you separate the man from the writer or do you think Orwell’s experience in Myanmar profoundly changed him?

I think it’s important to remember that both Orwell’s maternal and paternal sides had served in the colonies – him doing so was expected and in his blood, you could say. But why he chose to serve in the police force mystifies me to this day. Why not the civil service? What does seem apparent is that his experiences in Burma changed him and enabled him to go back and write books that were critical of colonialism and totalitarianism. As for some of the attitudes he expressed while serving in Burma, well, I think he was a product of his times. For him to have stood out in a significant way from the chit-chatterers at the colonial clubs in Burma, who would complain about this and that, would have been very exceptional indeed. He was part of a very large colonialist system.

Do you think Orwell joined the imperial police to find material for books?

No, I don’t think he did. The great thing about Orwell is that every single thing he ever wrote has been published – even the things he wrote as a young boy.  The Complete Works of George Orwell is a 20-volume series: of course ordinary people don’t own it but they can be accessed in libraries. So when I read the things he’d written before he left for Burma, I could see that it’s all there and that his motivations were straightforward and practical. Up until then his writing wasn’t political. It was the experience that changed him.

Your book also reveals that George Orwell, who was born in India in 1903, had Anglo-Burmese cousins. Is there any chance he may have had Burmese blood? Some have hypothesised that there is an autobiographical element to the main character in Burmese Days, Flory, whose birthmark was teasingly referred to as a “having lick of the tar brush” and that he felt a sense of shame about this.

Orwell did have cousins who were Burmese – the birth certificates and marriage certificates have been found. A later biographer discovered a passport of his that had never been seen and it recorded the presence of blue tattoos on his hands that were inked in Burma. But as to whether Orwell had Burmese blood is a far less likely possibility. I’m cautious about reading too much between the lines of his work. But it would be interesting to talk more to his relatives and I hope that more archive material will become available in the future so that we can learn more about him.

You say “Burma” as opposed to “Myanmar” – why is that?

For me it’s not a political issue but a grammatical problem. We don’t say, for example, that a person is “America” and their language is “America” so for me it’s problematic to say “Myanmar people” and “Myanmar language.” So until that’s sorted out I will continue to use Burma.

Other books by Emma Larkin include Everything is Broken: The Untold Story of Disaster Under Burma’s Military Regime (2010).


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