Best books on Myanmar: My personal favourites

You won't be starved for choice when it comes to books about Myanmar
You won’t be starved for choice when it comes to books about Myanmar

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).

Marshall writes:

“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.”

38th Street is home to Bagan Book House and a collection of open air bookstores
38th Street is home to Bagan Book House and a collection of open air bookstores

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.

Why Indonesia should not execute Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran

The death sentence in Indonesia is carried out by a 12 man firing squad. The doomed are lined up against a concrete wall, blindfolded, and shot through their skulls multiple times. This is the fate awaiting the two “masterminds” of the Australian Bali 9, who smuggled drugs into Indonesia against the stupidest of odds. However the consequences for killing Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, who have spent the past decade on death row, is a heightened disrespect for Indonesia among the international community. It will be confirmed as a country that still doesn’t get it; because it lacks a moral compass in a modern world, where so-called weaknesses should be rehabilitated rather than exterminated. States that carry out the death penalty for drug charges are quite obviously unable to cope with the idea that humans have experimented with mind-warping substances since history began.

Why is Indonesia’s government so upset, so affected by it? Maybe it’s because they feel they are defined by it -but perhaps it’s something more than that. After all, why did  the Bali 9 feel Indonesia was the best bet, despite having the death penalty? To kill those filling the supply side of the drugs market is short-sighted and offers no solution for the next generation. The executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran will be in vain, because after them, another line of young men will be shot too. And so on and so on.

Exploring Pakokku, the birthplace of Myanmar’s Saffron Revolution

Published in My Magical Myanmar 2014

Where it all began: Myo Ma Ahle Monastery
Where it all began: Myo Ma Ahle Monastery

For those wanting to get off the proverbial beaten track after spending a few days in the tourist mecca of Bagan, set aside a short trip to the small town of Pakokku. It’s just an hour’s drive away from Bagan, but aside from the odd abandoned temple decaying in Pakokku’s tobacco fields, the two places have nothing in common (except, of course, for the pounding dry heat common to central Myanmar).

Pakokku lies along the Ayeyarwady River in Magway Region and a recently constructed bridge across the river – which is the country’s longest – makes getting there a cinch. It’s also possible to take a scenic ferry ride to or from Bagan’s Nyaung U, or an onward bus to Monywa. My husband and I booked a driver-slash-guide in Bagan at a cost of $40.

A traditional Burmese loom
A traditional Burmese loom

The land surrounding Ayeyarwady River is exceptionally fertile: field upon field is used to cultivate tobacco, cotton, rice, chilli, peanuts and even sesame. Harvested tobacco is most often used to create traditional cigars, which are known as cheroots and emit a surprisingly pleasant aroma when lit. Visiting one of Pakokku’s bustling cheroot workshops, which are largely staffed by women young and old, is a must (for health reasons, the same can’t be said for smoking one…). Tobacco is Pakokku’s top trade item, along with an infinitely more expensive commodity: oil. The Yenangyaung oil fields were built in the 19th century during British colonial rule and have been operating almost continuously ever since. I say “almost” because a Japanese bomb destroyed the facility’s equipment during the Second World War, however it was up and running again almost immediately after the war’s eventual end.

A cheroot workshop. FYI cheroots are most often made by women but almost always smoked by men...
A cheroot workshop. FYI cheroots are most often made by women but almost always smoked by men…

Pakokku is also well known for its local variety of thanakha, which is a distinctive yellowish paste made from ground bark and widely available at its markets. It’s wildly popular amongst men and women alike, as even the least observant visitor to Myanmar will attest. Thanakha has been used for centuries as a cosmetic (it highlights the cheekbones more boldly than any blush), but it also serves a practical purpose: protecting the skin from sunburn. It is also worn at night because its ability to reduce excessive oil (that is, blemishes) produces wondrous results (I’ve gone through several tubs of it!).

A friendly Pakokku local
A friendly Pakokku local

Agriculture aside, Pakkoku produces beautiful rattan furniture and home wares, velvet slippers and traditional silks, with market prices being infinitely better value than those in Bagan. There are also a number of slipper making factories – the buildings are nondescript but you’ll know you’ve stumbled upon one when you see row upon row of soles laid out the front to dry in the sun. I visited a few of these workhouses and was distressed to see several children labouring away.

Dickensian huh
Dickensian huh

Pakokku has secured a place in Myanmar’s recent history that is unlikely ever to be forgotten. The dramatic events at Myo Ma Ahle Monastery in 2007 made international headlines and were arguably the impetus for fundamental political change in Myanmar. In protest against rising fuel prices, the monastery’s monks staged a demonstration, which ended in a violent crackdown by the authorities. Young monks retaliated by taking a number of government officials hostage, and when the deadline issued for an official apology from the government came and went, the number of protesting monks grew exponentially. Civilians in Buddhist majority Myanmar are highly respectful of monks and the affront to them led to nationwide protests. The monks’ demands expanded to include the release of all political prisoners, including global democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who was still under house arrest.

The entire movement was violently suppressed and democratic reforms were still half a decade off, but the courage of the Burmese people didn’t go unnoticed by the outside world. The reaction on social media sites led some pundits to claim that the Saffron Revolution gave birth to “open-sourced politics” in a wider sense. Paying a visit to Myo Ma Ahle Monastery is essential for anyone with a keen interest in Myanmar’s political reforms and its future. It’s possible to visit Myo Ma Ahle Monastery – having a driver will make locating it a whole lot easier than going it alone (as it’s certainly not the only monastery in Pakkokku!).

A shrine at Myo Ma Ahle Monastery
A shrine at Myo Ma Ahle Monastery

Our driver didn’t speak much English and left us at the gate – although we were slightly hesitant about wandering around (there were no other tourists in sight), we were warmly welcomed inside the temple by a senior monk and he was even good enough to pose with us for photos (but sadly, we didn’t know enough Burmese to have a chat). On our way out, I saw a monk on a wooden balcony above and gestured to ask whether it was okay for me to take a photo of him. He said a few words in Burmese and sort of waved at me before dashing back inside the monastery.

Just as I was saying: “I guess not…” to my husband, the monk reappeared. He was brandishing a smartphone and started snapping away at me! It was a nice moment.

Not at all shy
Not at all shy

For those in Pakokku during either late May or the end of the June, experiencing the month-long Thiho Shin Pagoda festival is likely to become the highlight of your visit to Myanmar. The pagoda itself is the most famous in Pakokku and was built 800 years ago by King Alaungsithu during the Pagan dynasty. Every year it comes to life with traditional forms of entertainment, such as the musical plays drawn from Buddhist scriptures known as zat-pwe and the nha-par-thwar, a dance and song performed as a duet.

Working away, all day
Working away, all day

Pakokku’s attractions are compact enough to be covered in half a day, but those able to spend a weekend there will be amply rewarded – its townspeople are extremely friendly and hospitable. However accommodation options remain limited, both in terms of quantity and amenities. At the 100-year-old Mya Yatanar Inn, guests can savour Grandma Mya Mya’s home-cooked meals, but less enjoyable is the fact that electricity isn’t available throughout the day (at best). Meanwhile, the pricier rooms at Tha Pye No Guesthouse include most mod cons, but the cheaper ones have been described as “cell-like.” Yet regardless of how much time a person is able or willing to spend in Pakokku, everyone is sure to leave with memories authentically Myanmar.


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