Many first novels are autobiographical. So it is with George Orwell’s Burmese Days (London, 1934). Orwell, who has assumed a status close to that of a political saint, never sought this status. Burmese Days is a good book without being a great book. The essay about Burma, however, for which Orwell will always be remembered is Shooting an Elephant (London, 1936), which contends that colonialism corrupts both colonialists and those whom they rule.
Staircase in the Shwedagon
Buddhist Temple in Yangon.
How true is this? When it comes to the British Empire, some nations accept the notion of the benefits colonial rule brought them, while others reject any idea that their colonial heritage has any such benefits. Those that wish to retain a link with their British colonial power have usually joined the Commonwealth of Nations. We should not be surprised that Ireland did not wish to join the Commonwealth, but what about Burma?
Burma is not a member of the Commonwealth. Nor is there reason to assume that independent rule will be any better than colonial rule. Burma is now officially known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. The measures Burma has taken to distance itself from its former colonial master are somewhat absurd. Burmese drivers drive on the right hand side of the road, but the vehicles are a mix of left and right-hand drive.
The capital was transferred from Rangoon (now Yangon) to Naypyidaw, a city so isolated and lacking in activity that it is known as a ghost town. Most nations with official ties with Burma, including Australia (but not the People’s Republic of China), have retained their embassies in Yangon.
The Army still dominates Burma’s politics. It is now well known that pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi plays a role in the Burmese Government. Suu Kyi’s party won a majority in the 2015 elections. She is State Counsellor, a post akin to Prime Minister, due to her birth status. The Army nominates a quarter of the seats of the lower house of parliament.
Since Burma gained its independence in 1948, the Army has ruled harshly. Border tribes, especially the Karen, have been treated with condign savagery. It would be hard to argue that Burma in the last 60 years under military rule has been better off than under colonialism. But things are changing.
The Army has realised that modernity is catching up with military rule. The Army can’t prevent the Burmese people using social media such as mobile phones, email, Twitter and other digital means of keeping in touch. While it is not setting the bar too high, even membership of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has implications for social justice.
The Army has realised that Burma will be peaceful only when it becomes a genuine federal union. There are five main ethnic groups, among which the Bamar predominate, and numerous other ethnic groups. A genuine federal union can only be achieved when both sides compromise. “Burma” is a name derived from the Bamar, while “Myanmar” is intended to encompass all the peoples of the federal state.
The episode with the Rohingyas has shown Burma in a very bad light. According to the Government, the Rohingyas don’t exist. They are not recorded in any census since colonial times.
It would be a mistake to assume that the Rohingya episode is characteristic of the rest of Burma. The Army seems to have been making a genuine effort over the last two years to democratise Burma. Suu Kyi’s power is constrained by constitutional arrangements, which she has accepted. Some influence is better than none. In a way, the Army is bowing to the inevitable: it is difficult to keep people down in the digital age.
Burma is not a rich country but absolute poverty is not common. In the “dry area” around Bagan, the water supply can be intermittent. Farming can be quite productive, as the well-cultivated and neatly planted crops of cabbage and cauliflower testify. Much of Burma’s agriculture depends on the monsoon. If the monsoon fails, there are dire consequences. The mighty Irrawaddy, one of Asia’s great rivers, is a lifeline for Burma. Even at the end of the dry season, it flows strongly. Crewmen on the bow of the riverboats “mark twain” with bamboo poles.
Tourism is developing. The golden Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is one of the world’s great religious sites. Burma could hardly be called a hermit kingdom. Potential visitors can obtain a visa online in a hour. Many Burmese have never seen a Westerner but they are friendly. The Burmese stress that they want to earn a living, not live on handouts.
Jeffry Babb spent several weeks riding through the back roads of Burma.