Photocopied memories of Orwell’s Myanmar
I had one goal when I decided to travel to Myanmar (Burma) this year: Find George Orwell, the English writer whose progressive work has shaped my worldview.
I knew I needed all the right tools. Inside my bag were a dog-eared and yellowing copy of Emma Larkin’s “Finding George Orwell in Burma,” a notebook, a pen and a camera — preferably with the lens that Orwell used during the years he spent on this long-isolated nation when it was still a British colony in the 1920s.
The immigration officer in Yangon International Airport greeted me with “sawadeeka” as I handed her my fancy-covered passport, thinking I was Thai.
“I’m from the Philippines,” I told her with a smile. But I didn’t tell her that, moments ago, I was scared to write the word “journalist” on my arrival card, that I feared I would never find Orwell beyond the country’s old name and its places that are now concealed in parenthesis, that I had heard about the reports of human rights violations beyond the postcard-perfect sceneries and glittering pagodas.
I didn’t tell her that I flew 2,000 miles from a country that also became a footnote to imperialism, and that I would be both scared and fascinated to find here traces of the fragile democracy that I had momentarily left behind.
In Yangon (Rangoon), the former capital of Myanmar, there are still echoes of the country’s colonial past in the Gothic buildings of Pansodan street. The country gained its independence from British imperial rule in 1948, but how much have things changed?
Private cars and buses now jam the narrow roads of its largest city, but the silence in its avenues is pervasive, similar to how the first monsoon rains muted a huge digital billboard flashing a video of Aung San Suu Kyi—Myanmar’s de facto head of state and an internationally celebrated dissident. Today, the famed image of the woman who became a symbol for peace and democracy is being blurred by her silence on the religious violence in Rakhine State. She’s The Lady of Democracy, the face of the 8888 Uprising, but what she has now is only partial authority in a still military-dominated parliament.
“Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else,” Orwell wrote in “1984.” The realities he had experienced in Burma when he served there as a member of the Indian Imperial Police from 1922-1927 stayed on his mind when he returned to England, became a writer and denounced authority and imperialism. He carried his memories like a burden that added weight to his pen. But now that his words transcended literature, I wonder now under which context his readers grasp those memories.
From Yangon to the ancient town of Bagan, at the center of Burmese public life are its tea shops and small bookstores, where politics and literature mix in a long line of tables on the sidewalk, along with colorful plastic stools and wooden carts in the corner. There I found Orwell — personified in photocopied versions of his first novel “Burmese Days” — sitting on top of a fold-up wooden table at the entrance of Shwezigon pagoda, a Buddhist temple located in the town of Nyaung-U in Mandalay region. The novel, first published not in Orwell’s hometown but in the United States in 1934, now sat beside books written by and about Suu Kyi, Burmese folktales and memoirs.
A female hawker offered me and my companion a copy of Penguin’s Twentieth Century Classics edition, bundled with 10 pieces of mass-produced postcards for 10,000 kyat (around P400). I scanned its cheap cardstock cover; on it was an image of a young Burmese woman wearing the traditional pair of ingyi and longyi, with the pages printed on thin bond paper.
We skipped the offer, only to find more stalls selling the same pirated copies for a cheaper price. Every stall had the book’s translated versions in German, French, Italian and Spanish. In my mind, I couldn’t fathom how Orwell’s writing, once banned by the authoritarian government, is now being sold as a staple tourist item and feted like a national treasure. An insistent hawker convinced me to buy an English copy for 4,500 kyat (P175).
For some Myanmar people, Orwell is a prophet. He was an omniscient writer who authored not just one but three novels about their country: “Burmese Days,” a depiction of the imperial rule; “Animal Farm,” on Ne Win’s tragic “Burmese Way to Socialism”; and “1984,” on the totalitarian regime.
In “Burmese Days,” Larkin said that Orwell “condemned a political framework that made good men—both Burmese and British—do bad things.” The book’s depiction of both indigenous corruption and imperial bigotry apparently sits well with Myanmar’s present anticolonial policies. But while the novel is now widely accepted in Myanmar, I never found a copy of his two other more popular books.
Myanmar’s relationship with Orwell baffles me, and I wonder what this says about the country’s complicated political and cultural landscape.
Looking at my photocopied version of “Burmese Days,” I think about the time when choosing to say Burma instead of Myanmar was equal to choosing freedom and justice. I think about the horrors inflicted by an authoritarian regime and the abject poverty that imprisoned people. I think about the Philippines, and how our shared history of imperialism, military rule and colonialism created stories of fear, resilience and defiance. I think about how these stories are no longer restrained in the world of whispered conversations and hushed voices, stories that we can freely read from books in the sidewalk. Like a pirated book, these tales can be easily replicated, destroyed and retold in various ways.
Orwell wrote: “Every generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.”
Later, in a quaint bookshop in Bagan, I found a cheaper copy of “Burmese Days,” priced at only 3,000 kyat (P115). I did a facepalm and thought I needed to be a little wiser, too. But the lesson always comes after every mistake.
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Mariejo S. Ramos, 24, wants to find the truth beyond the “newspeak,” like Orwell did.
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