After nearly 20 years going in and out of Burma to write two books on the country under a pseudonym, Emma Larkin often heard the junta-governed former British colony described as an “Orwellian” state.
But Burma was Orwellian in another more literal sense: this was where George Orwell served in the police while the country was still a part of British India. Larkin started working on the premise that Orwell’s allegorical satire on revolution (Animal Farm) and novel set in a future super-state of dystopian surveillance and control (Nineteen Eighty-four) were based on his experience in the colonial police in Burma in the 1920s.
In Finding George Orwell in Burma, Larkin travels up and down a country under the iron fist of a military junta that was known by an Orwellian sounding acronym SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council). She retraces Orwell’s steps to the cities he served in: Rangoon, Moulmein and the little town of Katha in the north, the setting for his novel Burmese Days.
Just like George Orwell was a pen name for Eric Blair, so is Emma Larkin, since it was impossible for journalists and writers to get visas to Burma. When Larkin’s book was published in 2004, a monk’s uprising had just been crushed, it had been 25 years since the student revolution of 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, and it looked like Burma would remain forever in darkness.
But in 2011, Burma took dramatic steps towards political reform. Suu Kyi was released, the press was freed, elections are due next year, and although democratisation is slow and fragile, Burma is changing. Suu Kyi is herself on a visit to Nepal this weekend to receive a freedom award.
FINDING GEORGE ORWELL IN BURMA
By Emma Larkin
The Penguin Press 2004
Larkin takes us back to days when political dissidents, students, monks were being detained, tortured and disappeared even on flimsy suspicion of harbouring “incorrect ideas." British-era prisons in Mae Sot and Insein became notorious concentration camps. Burmese political dissidents had an unspoken understanding that if one of them was taken in and tortured, they would hold out for three days: enough time for their comrades to go into hiding.
Everywhere she looks in Burma, Larkin sees people that remind her of Winston Smith, Julia, Farmer Jones, Snowball, or Napoleon. She finds evidence that Orwell himself was inspired by the colonial administration he was reluctantly a part of. Rangoon was in a state of perpetual war with ethnic separatists, echoing the slogan “War is Peace” from Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Larkin reminds us that Orwell had foreseen Burma’s downfall along ethnic faultlines as far back as the 1930s. There was resonance even then with the Animal Farm slogan “All Animals Are Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others” in the treatment of minorities by the Burman elite. That intolerance is now manifested in pogroms against the Rohingya and other Muslim communities by a militant Buddhist clergy. In fact, for a Nepali reader there could even be an echo of the Brahmanisation of Nepal with the Burmanisation of Burma.
Larkin finds Orwell trapped between his resentment of the Empire he represented and the Burmese people’s resentment of him. In fact, Orwell seems to not have been particularly popular among his British colleagues either.
The history of Burma after the military coup in 1962 by Gen Ne Win retold the farce of Animal Farm even better than Orwell’s original. Just as the pigs led the uprising against oppressive Farmer Jones only to allow corruption and greed to ruin the farm, Burma’s quaintly Marxist-Buddhist socialism soon went astray, turning one of Asia’s richest countries into its poorest.
Orwell actually wrote only one novel about Burma: Burmese Days. Animal Farm was the only George Orwell book to be translated into Burmese (called ‘Four-legged Revolution’) and the BBC Burmese Service even serialised it, but the book was never really popular because most intellectuals and dissidents were leftists.
Although Orwell meant it as a satire on the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s purges, Larkin says she often felt in Burma like she was living a real-life version of Animal Farm. She regards Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four as a part of Orwell’s trilogy of Burmese history.
Emma Larkin and photographer Nic Dunlop will be speaking on Burma at 6 to 7.30PM on Friday, 13 June at Yala Maya Kendra, Patan.
The Lady speaks
Too little, or too much freedom, Kunda Dixit