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Under the Dragon was launched to synchronise with the the 8.8.88 anniversary, and its sub-title is "Travels in a Betrayed Land". No prizes for guessing that this is not going to be one of those travel books so detested by pro-democracy campaigners: an account by some traveller, however well-intentioned, who spends time in Burma, finds the culture colourful and people warm and delightful, and limits himself to what is on public view. No, Under the Dragon is a campaigning book; and as such it is powerfully written - evidently aimed not at readers who know Burma already, or even those who might be thinking of going there in the future, but the Western public at large. It gives democracy activists what they have long been asking for - a travel book about Burma that puts human rights at the top of the agenda.
77-85 Fulham Palace Road,
Hammersmith, London W6 8JB .
|The author is Rory MacLean, who repeats the pattern of his earlier well-received volume about Russia, Stalin's Nose. Once again, Under the Dragon is in the form of a travelogue, interspersed with personal stories of Burmese people - part fact, part fiction, with identities and circumstances altered for their protection. Rory MacLean travels with his wife, who is a basket maker, and their search for a particular kind of rare Burmese basket gives them the excuse to visit some remote parts of the country.
MacLean writes with flair, and has taken trouble to get most of his background details correct; each of his stories sounds as if it could well be true. His publishers, HarperCollins, put all their weight behind the book, and British newspapers have been full of reviews - favourable ones, in nearly every case. So he seems on target to make an impression on the average British reader.
For people who already know Burma well, I would say - yes, this is an unusually perceptive book. As you would expect, the personal tales have been selected to make particular points about the political and social situation. The first story is about a 14-year-old Burmese girl who is seduced by a British architect after the arrest of her father leaves her without protection. She is eventually abandoned by the architect, then tricked into the sex trade in Bangkok, and finally returns to Burma to die of AIDS. The story is told at length and from the girl's point of view; few would not find it acutely distressing. Next we are introduced to "Colonel Than", who becomes the MacLeans' guide around Rangoon - he speaks an incredible flowery English which is reproduced in every detail.
If this all sounds uncomfortable, it is. Rory MacLean has chosen to start with the most jarring aspects of Burmese society. However, before long, the book turns into something more like the usual Burmese travelogue. After a spell in central Burma, we are off to the far east of the country - Lashio, Hsipaw and Namhsam. Although MacLean decries the growing influence of Chinese people in Burma, this does not stop him giving a sympathetic account of the life of some of Burma's ethnic Chinese; and he ends with quite an alarming off-road journey in the company of a sort of small local warlord, in a part of Shan State where territory is still jealously guarded by the remains of insurgent armies.
This is not a book for the squeamish, or those who wish to be reassured. However, it will certainly be read by many who find conventional travelogues insipid, and play its part in forming public opinion.
by Mya Than Tint
Tel: 662 253 3009 ($23)
|Censorship in Burma, as in other countries with authoritarian
regimes, is designed to cut out anything that could be interpreted as being
at variance with the party line. But a lot else gets left out more or less
by mistake. To play safe, the State-controlled mass media in Burma cover
only stories that redound to the credit of the State, or describe the wicked
deeds of its enemies. A whole area of politically neutral information only
gets published in the weekly and monthly magazines, often with sadly small
circulations. Collections like this one fill an important need for Burmese
Most of the stories tell of great hardship, from poverty or dislocation and worse caused by the long-running insurgencies. There are recurring themes - young couples in love almost always seem to have to elope to escape from the opposition of one or other set of parents, but usually get looked after by relatives and often get accepted back by their parents in the end. There are many stories of the heroic efforts of women deserted by their husbands or whose husbands have died, struggling to bring up a family with no state support system but often great kindness on the part of neighbours. The reader gets a good picture of the intricacies of the bazaar system, of the flower sellers and the hangers-on employed on the buses and the trains. But there are more exotic trades too- in the theatre and on the waterways and working with elephants. In one story towards the end of the book - 'Bitter-sweet smell of success' - the interviewee complains that the people the author writes about are all too ordinary- why not include famous artists and actresses? But then the lesson from this same interview is clearly that money does not bring happiness, and one suspects that the author's choice of subject reflects his own belief in that truism.
The translation is excellent, with a minimum of explanatory footnotes
and a useful short glossary at the back. U Win Pe's illustrations are elegant
and evocative, particularly the one on page 86 showing approximately 49
passengers in and on a pick-up truck built to carry 15.
The Challenge of Change in a Divided Society started its life as a collection of papers presented at an Oxford conference on Burma in 1991. The conference brought together a wide range of people working on Burma at the time and examined what were the key issues of the day: the attempt to write a new constitution, the new alliances between armed opposition groups, and ongoing economic reform, among others.
Those who attended the conference and who have written chapters in this book represent very different points of view and the book is thus fairly balanced as well as informative. The book is divided into four parts: "Politics and Constitution-Making", "Foreign Policy", "Views from the Periphery" and "The Challenges of Development". In three of these four parts, authors with contrasting approaches examine the relevant issues.
|Overall, the book is
a welcome addition to the still extremely limited literature in English
on contemporary Burma. The only serious drawback of the book is its
timing. More than six years on, some of the main points examined
in these chapters remain relevant. The debate over the proper international
response to the ongoing crisis in Burma remains as unresolved today as
when the conference was held. But many of the specific topics examined
in the book are no longer particularly important, at least in comparison
with other potential issues. The course of the civil war has changed
dramatically in the intervening periods, as has the direction of the Burmese
economy. While individual authors have tried to update their chapters,
much remains somewhat dated.
What is not dated, however, and what is perhaps the best chapter in
the book, is the call for urgent international attention to Burma's "silent
emergency". The author of this chapter, Rolf Carriere provides a
vivid portrait of the extent of the humanitarian disaster taking place
in Burma today and makes a strong case for immediate outside aid. While other "Burma issues" come and go, the continued relevance of Carriere's
chapter is a reminder of the often overlooked humanitarian emergency which
was present in 1991 and remains with us today.