Big Brother’s Burmese Comeback

Why the country George Orwell once skewered is finally embracing its non-native son.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images
Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images

No one gets off easy in George Orwell’s 1934 novel Burmese Days. Set in colonial Burma, where Orwell served as an imperial police officer in the 1920s, the book casts a uniformly harsh light on British expatriates, Burmese "natives," and everyone in between. He characterizes the British as uppity, bigoted, and cruel; the Burmese as greedy, devious, and corrupt. It’s hard to say which group comes out looking worse.

It’s not difficult to imagine why the book fell out of favor with Myanmar’s leaders decades ago. Intent on renouncing ugly colonial legacies and crafting a glorified national image, successive socialist and military regimes banned Burmese Days, along with countless other titles thought to cast the country and its leaders in a less than ideal light. Many translated copies were destroyed and new ones were outlawed in an effort to scrub the Burmese psyche of passages like this one:

"Living and working among Orientals would try the patience of a saint… Almost every day…the High School boys, with their young, yellow faces-faces smooth as gold coins, full of that maddening contempt that sits so naturally on the Mongolian face-sneered at them as they went past, sometimes hooted after them with hyena-like laughter."

But things are changing quickly and dramatically in the land Orwell knew as Burma. Myanmar’s publishing industry has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past year, driven by both literary innovation and a growing demand for books about Myanmar’s forgotten history and politics. This weekend, the country will host its second annual literary festival, where artists and writers will once again test the boundaries of their newfound creative freedom, and discuss the role of literature in the country’s political transition. The first festival, held last February, was hosted by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s all a far cry from the days of the junta, when political poets were forced to write in symbols to get past government censors.

Against this backdrop, Orwell’s debut novel is finally making a comeback.

Nearly 80 years after its first printing, Burmese Days has a new translation, a new Yangon publisher, and a new generation of Burmese readers. But what’s really remarkable about the novel’s rebirth is the extent to which Myanmar’s government is celebrating it.

The Ministry of Information, once the dread of authors and publishers alike, has not only stopped censoring Orwell’s books, but has also taken the extraordinary step of bestowing upon Burmese Days the government’s highest literary award. A 10-member panel of judges voted unanimously in favor of the book, over 170 other titles last November. It’s quite a reversal, and one that may signal much about how Myanmar’s perceptions of its history and its people are rapidly changing as it undergoes political transition.

Just a few years ago, the notion that Myanmar’s government would honor a book written by Orwell, whose work is explicitly political — even subversive — would have been unthinkable. The military regime went to great extremes to silence political dialogue and quell dissent, from censoring and shuttering newspapers to intermittently closing schools and colleges. The Ministry of Information’s press scrutiny board routinely screened literary works for veiled references to Aung San Suu Kyi (usually images of roses) and scrubbed them of any and all criticism of the government. Maung Myint Kywe, who translated Burmese Days in 2012, told Foreign Policy that his translation "slept in the hands of [his] publisher for eight years," because the Ministry of Information’s scrutiny board wouldn’t allow it to be printed uncensored. Yet, last November, the same office honored his translation of Orwell’s novel, which not only highlights the corruption and cronyism endemic to Burmese politics, but also details a painful colonial history that many leaders would rather forget.

For decades, the government tried to erase, or at least eschew, its connection to imperial Britain: Changing names of cities and towns, overhauling educational curricula, and, of course, banning or censoring books that contained versions of history unsanctioned by government officials. The ministry’s sudden embrace of Burmese Days may suggest that official minds are finally opening up to that history, taking the bad with the good, and coming to see the novel not as a political statement or a seditious threat but as a part of the nation’s cultural fabric.

It’s something that ordinary Burmese have already been doing for decades by secretly passing around Xeroxed and tattered copies of Orwell’s other books, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four — both of which were banned under the military regime because of their politically subversive content. As Emma Larkin wrote in her 2005 travelogue Secret Histories, Burmese citizens have long drawn parallels between Orwell’s novels and their own lives under military rule. When Animal Farm was broadcast by BBC’s Burmese radio service several years ago, people talked about it for weeks, according to Larkin, matching up its characters with the country’s own political leaders. She writes: "Could you compare ‘the Lady’, as democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is known, to the exiled porcine revolutionary Snowball? And which pig was General Ne Win? Was he Major, the imperious old pig with a vision who died so suddenly? (Hopefully.) Or was he Napoleon, the grotesque ruler who grew stronger and more deranged each day? (Probably.)"

Western travel writers tend to treat Orwell as a posthumous ambassador to a long-lost Burma, and they use his chronicles of the country as a convenient frame for shallowly touring the country’s cultural treasures. But Orwell’s experience of the colonized country was far from romantic. He was sharply critical of British imperialism and cognizant of its effects on the local economy, and people. 

This is reflected in the protagonist of Burmese Days, John Flory, a British teak merchant whose peculiar affection for the local culture and people stands in conflict with his priorities as a colonial businessman. The British Raj "is a despotism — benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism, with theft as its final object," Flory says in the novel. "The official holds the Burman down while the businessman goes through his pockets." (As an imperial police officer, Orwell was complicit, as he was surely aware, of the imperial sins he vividly renders.) Flory’s friendship with an Indian doctor and his well-known sympathies for the Burmese frequently put him at odds with his fellow expatriates. Nevertheless, his sympathies don’t prevent him from cruelly casting aside his Burmese mistress when an available white woman comes along, nor does it deter him from betraying the doctor in order to stay in the good graces of his British friends. It’s a scathing portrait of expatriate life in colonial Burma, and one in which the Burmese, unfortunately, lose every time.

The novel’s value, according to translator Maung Myint Kywe, is rooted in this sad history of Britain’s dominion over the Burmese. "The young boys and girls today don’t know about the life under colonial rule," he told Foreign Policy. "I want them to know how the people were degraded and humiliated, how they would suffer if the country falls into the hands of another. We were not savage like the British thought of us. We were not like the British thought."

Although Burmese Days could conceivably be useful in bolstering a national identity crafted in opposition to British colonialism, the novel’s treatment of its Burmese characters and its portrayal of Burmese officials as greedy and corrupt ensured its pariah status. In particular, the depiction of the unscrupulous local magistrate, U Po Kyin — a conniving man obsessed with gaining power and prestige at any cost — might have hit a little too close to home for some Burmese authorities, even as recently as a few years ago. But perhaps, as Maung Myint Kywe suggests, that’s not such a bad thing.

Kenneth Wong, a Burmese-American journalist, put it this way: "The portrayal of the magistrate U Po Kyin would make any Burmese uncomfortable, because he is the embodiment of the sadistic, selfish, corrupt, opportunistic officials most ordinary Burmese have to deal with daily. Today, many might still recognize U Po Kyin in a teashop owner, a district police chief, or a minister of Parliament in Naypyidaw," he said, referring to the country’s capital. "Perhaps confronting that through another look at Orwell’s masterpiece is an indication that the Burmese are now more open to looking at themselves squarely in the mirror, warts and all."

But what’s remarkable is that Myanmar’s government might be willing to do the same. Orwell’s depiction of the corrupt official still rings true in many areas of the government. In spite of President Thein Sein’s democratic reforms, the daily reality of Burmese politics hasn’t changed all that much. The government is still run largely by members of the military, cronyism remains rampant, and there are surely more than few U Po Kyins left in public office all over the country. Is the Ministry of Information’s embrace of Burmese Days a tacit acknowledgement of that reality? That the novel won in the category of "informative literature," which almost always goes to non-fiction works — in 2011, for example, a translation of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations took the prize — seems telling its own right.

But Maung Myint Kywe is skeptical. "I am sure the Literary Board has no motive of this kind. Their attitude is not like that," he said. "The government is practicing literary freedom to some extent … But this [literary freedom] is still in an infant state."

Perhaps a case in point: A member of the board that selected the prize winners, Maung Paw Tun, told Foreign Policy that the panel had also considered Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, which tells the story of a man who rebels against an omnipresent, authoritarian state. They chose Burmese Days, instead, for reasons that Maung Paw Tun said he "had no right to tell."

Given that context, the ministry’s recognition of Burmese Days seems to underscore what the new government has yet to formally acknowledge: Myanmar’s long history of brutalizing, neglecting, surveiling, controlling, and manipulating its citizens under decades of authoritarian rule. Honoring Nineteen-Eighty-Four would have made a strong statement about the country’s conflicted, Orwellian past.

It may be that the award is merely a diplomatic nod to the West, a gesture at progress meant to curry international goodwill as Myanmar’s leaders try to repair the country’s tainted public image. It’s worth noting that this weekend’s literary festival, like the one before it, was organized by Jane Heyn, the wife of the British ambassador to Myanmar. And it was hosted by Aung San Suu Kyi, whose marriage to a British national has been a major barrier to her planned presidential bid in 2015. The ministry’s decision to honor the work of a famous British author may be politically expedient at the moment, particularly as her party grows more influential. Perhaps that’s the takeaway here — that, despite achieving new literary freedoms, Burma is still a place where politics invariably defines art.

Thurein Win contributed reporting from Myanmar.

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