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Book Reflections – Under the Dragon: A Journey Through Burma by Rory Maclean

Book cover – Under the Dragon

Like most people I knew of the military junta in Burma, of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest and of the oppression and poverty of the Burmese people. In the mid to late 1990s when my friends and I started to travel outside of Australia we talked about Burma: should we go there and risk supporting the junta (we had heard that tourists were forced to stay in government run hotels, use government run tours etc and pay in USD, which all went to the junta) or could tourists go and somehow the local people would also benefit. I decided not to go.

Our situation today is like Rangoon’s weather… A great rainy downpour that bubbles our hopes down the drains, then sunshine making everything looking picture-perfect. But really all is withering in thirsty drought, terrible dry-season drought.

In 2014 I met a woman who supports a group of women in Burma to make clothes and helps them to sell the clothes. By that point Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and had encouraged foreigners to visit. We started to plan a trip but in the end my work travel schedule prevented us from going. A few friends have gone to Burma and followed the tourist trail. All have talked in awed tones about how fast Burma is changing and how I should go before it’s developed too much. I’m not sure what motivates that sort of travel. I think it is the search for authenticity that drives it but surely the well-trodden tourist trail established by the junta keeps tourists away from authentic Burma anyway? Are we kidding ourselves and entering into mutual exploitation; we exploit exotic cultures and the tourism operators exploit us. This passage shows that Maclean thinks along similar lines.

For the affluent modern tourist, travel is not a necessity. Few of us really need to strike out into the unknown, except out of desire to inject the exotic into our regulated existences

Burma is undeniably exotic with

One of the world’s most complex racial mixes: twenty-one major ethnic groups, divided into seven divisions and seven minority states, speaking over a hundred languages.

What chance does Burma ever have of harmony in that context? Looking around the Middle East and central Asia, the Kurds, Circassians, Armenians, Chechens, Druze, Alawites, Sufis, Shia, Coptic, Sunni, Turkic, Arab, Jewish don’t coexist in harmony. In Europe the largest minority group, the Roma are severely marginalized and the jews have suffered pogrom after pogrom and the Holocaust and now the Israelis are trying to annihilate the Palestinians. In China the Han majority dominate everything and the many other minority groups are marginalized. The indigenous people of Australia and the Americas have worse literacy and health than their invaders The most successful mixed country I know of is Ecuador, where some of the indigenous languages are recognized by the government. I hope that Burma can be a shining light to the rest of the world but considering the heavy intervention from China in Burmese affairs and the greedy grab for hydrocarbon resources I doubt it.

George Orwell served in the Indian Imperial Police in Burma. While reflecting that Big Brother and double-think could have been invented in Burma, Maclean writes

The thought reminded me of an old joke. Burmese Days, based on Orwell’s time as a policeman here in the twenties, is a good book, but not as good as his second novel about the country, Nineteen Eighty-four.

Maclean was angry about the brutal oppression of the Burmese people by the junta and as he travelled around the country he spoke to any person who was brave enough to tell him their terrible stories. He collated those stories into the book and wrote fictional accounts as well, making a hybrid between a travel story and collection of short stories. At times I was unsettled when trying to discern whether I was reading fiction or fact but then I let go and enjoyed the book. He wrote this about the treatment of the people who lived in the village at Pagan among the temples because their village was unsightly to tourists:

The residents, many of whom had lived in the same house for generations, were told to pack their belongings. Compensation of only 250 kyat – about  $2 – was to be paid per property… Two weeks later the lorries and bulldozers arrived. The people were taken away and two hundred homes destroyed. The old village was replaced by a tourist enclave of modern hotels catering for dollar-bearing foreigners. The dispossessed residents were given plots of barren land three miles away.

In several places in the text he idealises the stoicism of the Burmese people but is this a modern form of the noble savage?

The native people, in spite of their bondage … appear to be free of envy and greed, seem to be at peace with themselves, remain cheerful, modest and happy. They smile, while telling a tragic story of eviction and execution.

Maclean often doesn’t tell the reader what language the Burmese people used when talking to him. I don’t think that he speaks any of the Burmese languages so then I assume that he was only able to talk to Burmese that can speak English. Surely that introduces a significant bias into his interactions because how many peasants would be able to speak English?

A Buddhist tells Maclean

It is not good to pray and ask for anything. One has to do good deeds and transmit pure, clean radiation to all corners of the earth, below and above.

Radiation? I asked

Mettá we call it. A sort of loving kindness. A universal kindness.

Maclean includes a section on the repression of journalists. I’m so lucky to have been born in Australia where everyone takes pleasure in openly speaking their mind about all topics without every worrying about repercussions. Through my job I spend time in regimes that do not allow such freedoms and that is why I blog anonymously

The Burmese constitution granted every citizen freedom of speech, expression and publication ‘to the extent that such freedom is not contrary to the interests of the working people and socialism’.

Transportation, like most systems in modern Burma, had been structured to hinder communication. Rather than linking, it isolated towns, individuals and thought.

When we were in Cuzco, Peru in 2003, booked onto a hike to Macchu Picchu, our guide told us that we couldn’t go because they couldn’t fit us in. We had booked months beforehand and already paid and I suspected that they had double booked. After much arguing the guide offered us a suitable solution. I am not proud to say that I wanted to continue arguing to try to get him to admit that he was at fault. He became angry and silenced me by saying that we tourists were all the same and couldn’t ever be satisfied. It was eye-opening for me and ever since then I have tried to not be demanding and to be appreciative and easy to satisfy. When Maclean became frustrated about a train that didn’t leave on time no other passenger was bothered. He asked the conductor why the train was so late leaving and all other passengers looked away, presumably happy that it left at all. He went on to say that the Burmese have a saying that I enjoyed reading:

You can’t make oil from one grain of sesame seed

As you would know from reading my blog I don’t like verbosity and neither does Maclean

Ma Swe had learned the importance of succinct expression. She had an ear for the leanness of good writing.

Maclean met a repellant Burmese man who had lived in Australia for many years and now was back in Burma and was obsessed with exploiting the system to maximize his wealth. The man, Michael Naga, said something about his connection with his family left behind in Burma that I think would resonate with many diaspora

We stayed in touch at first, until we started speaking different languages. How could they understand about health care and Christmas holidays and buying a second family car?

At times I felt that Maclean, and especially his girlfriend Katrin, were judgemental and lacking in empathy towards the people who were successful in Burma. Of course it is natural to feel scornful of those who profit while the majority suffer but until we have been placed in that position and tested ourselves as to whether we would starve and suffer with our children our grasp any opportunity to have a more comfortable life we don’t have the right to make moral judgements. Maclean lost some of my respect because of his binary viewpoint that the entire proletariat are good and all others are bad. On the whole I found his girlfriend unlikable and cold and I hope that I don’t encounter her in my travels.

It’s a good book and it’s amazing that Maclean made this arduous journey and wrote about the cultural practices and experiences of the Burmese people that he met.

You can read a good review here

https://sholmes7blog.wordpress.com/2013/10/18/book-review-under-the-dragon-by-rory-maclean/

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This entry was posted on February 24, 2017 by in travel writing and tagged , , , , , , , , .
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