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Thread: In Myanmar Outpost, a Fading Orwellian Link

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    In Myanmar Outpost, a Fading Orwellian Link

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/24/wo...bal-home&_r=1&

    KATHA, Myanmar — George Orwell created his first novel, “Burmese Days,” a scathing portrait of the imperious attitudes of the British, from this former colonial outpost on the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy River. His brutish characters swilled too much whiskey at a whites-only club, and wilted in the vaporous heat. A train that crawled through the jungle from Mandalay provided a lifeline to the outside world.


    The British have long gone, but Katha, camouflaged in the book as Kyauktada, survives as isolated as ever, one of the most tantalizingly difficult places to reach in the rugged precincts of northern Myanmar, formerly Burma.

    The remaining whiff of Orwell, whose five years at various stations in Burma as an officer of the Imperial Police Force ended here in 1927, is a spacious two-story wooden house with fireplaces and a once-elegant staircase. Paint peels off the walls, and dust coats the interior. The outdoor kitchen where Orwell’s servants cooked his meals lies in ruin, the roof missing and dead leaves piled on the floor. The family members of a government official squat in an annex, and hang their laundry outside the front door.

    Most people in this town of 23,830 — like the British, the local authorities keep precise records — appear unfamiliar with Orwell. The junta that ruled Myanmar admired the anti-imperial spirit of “Burmese Days,” but translations in Burmese were scarce, said Nyo Ko Naing, a cartoonist and graphic designer who has joined a small group of local Orwell aficionados to encourage the authorities to restore the house and its unkempt garden, with its three acres of frangipani and flame trees.

    Last month, a minister from the provincial capital came to inspect the house. Mr. Nyo Ko Naing has mounted photographs of Orwell memorabilia in his wife’s restaurant to pique interest. Among the exhibits: an old cover of “Burmese Days” with an Englishman lounging with his feet up and his dog comfortably resting on a stool next to him. A forlorn Burmese servant stands behind, waving a fan to cool his master.

    “We don’t have formal word from the government yet,” Mr. Nyo Ko Naing said. “But we hope they will restore it.”

    Hardy Orwell readers from abroad drift into Katha from the occasional leisure cruises that ply the Irrawaddy. The other option is a jaw-shattering six-hour road trip, from Bhamo, near the Chinese border, which means traversing 100 miles over gullies of dirt and rock at a plodding pace like the train in 1927.

    Wildlife smugglers are willing to take passengers from Bhamo to Katha for $350 round trip, more expensive than most domestic air tickets. The price is steep because human passengers take the place of the smugglers’ usual fare: fat Burmese cobras packed in wooden crates for transport to China.

    Convoys of motorbikes weighed down with illicit loads of teakwood heading for buyers in China are the only passing traffic.

    The novel is full of references to what Orwell called “wood extraction,” but the forests that lured the British to Burma have been decimated by rampant illegal logging. A landscape of low-lying scrub and plantings of new rubber trees testifies to that. The sublime wild orchids of Orwell’s period — nestled in tree trunks, hanging from eaves — have vanished.

    Some things in Katha remain intact. Orwell wrote of a dawn market brimming with “pomelos hanging on strings like green moons,” “brittle dried fish tied in bundles,” “ducks split open and cured like hams,” and “chickens cheeping in wicker cages.”

    That variety still exists. On a recent morning, there were globes of mauve eggplant; baskets of pale green tamarind leaves; five kinds of brown mushrooms; slivers of yellow bamboo shoots; tiny crimson chilies; pyramids of pink lychees; and seven crates of different size brown, tawny and white eggs. Hawkers of heart-shaped green betel leaves did a brisk business.

    Missing delicacies from Orwell’s era were the “heliotrope-colored prawns the size of lobsters.”

    “We get them only occasionally,” said Ma Nge, a fish seller, blood oozing through her fingers from the catfish she was dicing on a wooden board. Flies clambered over the rows of fish laid out on her counter, as her husband, Ye Myint, swatted them away with a bedraggled T-shirt.

    The snobbery and ignorance of the British overseers in Burma are exemplified by Orwell’s youngest creation, a 22-year-old naïf named Elizabeth Lackersteen who arrives here with her blond hair bobbed into an Eton crop, the mode of the late 1920s, and wearing fashionable tortoiseshell glasses. She comes in search of a husband.

    Flory, a British timber merchant with a birthmark down one side of his face, the only character who shows empathy with the Burmese and who despises the boozers and bores of the British Club, falls for her.

    He tries to interest her in local culture, taking her to a pwe, a Burmese play performed by gaslight outdoors on the street. She recoils at the “smelly natives,” calls most things “beastly” and prefers to laze in a drawing room perfumed by “chintz and dying flowers.”

    Elizabeth’s favorite haunt is the British Club, where the men wear khaki shorts and topee hats and berate the Burmese servants for running low on ice for their tumblers of whiskey and gin. The club, a modest tin-roofed building, still stands, a short walk from Orwell’s house. En route, the tennis court from the novel has been modernized with a hard surface, and Ko Toe, 39, a professional coach, teaches classes in the mornings and evenings.

    Remarkably, an original official diary dated 1874 to 1949 with almost daily entries in spidery handwriting in Burmese script tells much of what happened from the time the British came until after they left at independence in 1948.

    The pages are curled from age and heat, the ink faded. But entries about salaries, costs of transportation, and George V ascending to the British throne in May 1910 are still legible.

    In the novel, Elizabeth spurns Flory, who, overcome by desolation and rage, shoots himself. In turn, she is spurned by Lieutenant Verrall, a rude — even by British Club standards — polo-playing young army officer. At the end of the novel, the villain, U Po Kyin, an exceptionally rotund magistrate, moves to another district for a plum job.

    “The bad guys win,” said Mr. Nyo Ko Naing, who has read the novel five times, searching for authenticity about old Katha. “I hate the judge. All the characters of the Myanmar military regime share the same character as the judge. I like Flory. He has a good heart.”

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    I like Orwell, always comes across as a proper 'salt of the earth' kind of guy. He was banging on about poverty before anyone else and was never afraid to say the un-sayable in polite society.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Steve@thaib View Post
    I like Orwell, always comes across as a proper 'salt of the earth' kind of guy. He was banging on about poverty before anyone else and was never afraid to say the un-sayable in polite society.
    Having read Animal Farm and Ninteen Eighty Four I've found Orwell to be scathing and very obvious in his metaphors.

    But oddly enough, this is what I like about Orwell's writing, he sets out a society (Stalinist communism in Animal Farm and Nazi Fascism in Nineteen Eighty-Four) and shows us exactly why it's wrong about it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mjwx View Post
    Having read Animal Farm and Ninteen Eighty Four I've found Orwell to be scathing and very obvious in his metaphors.
    Scathing is a good description of his account of British colonialism in Burmese Days. A good but depressing read.

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    Quote Originally Posted by PadMC View Post
    Scathing is a good description of his account of British colonialism in Burmese Days. A good but depressing read.
    Really? I didn't find Burmese Days particularly scathing and I suspect that most in the village would pine for those gentler times.

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    ^ There wasn't one likable character in the whole book. It's recognised as being Anti Imperialist and all that take me east of Suez carry on. I have read somewhere that Orwell's old commander in Burma recommended he be horse whipped after he read the book...
    So you reckon the locals would want Miss Elizabeth and the other fella Ellis back?

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    Quote Originally Posted by PadMC View Post
    ^ There wasn't one likable character in the whole book. It's recognised as being Anti Imperialist and all that take me east of Suez carry on. I have read somewhere that Orwell's old commander in Burma recommended he be horse whipped after he read the book...
    So you reckon the locals would want Miss Elizabeth and the other fella Ellis back?
    ;0
    Actually I think they might ....
    It's no worse than any other imperialistic stuff I've read and depending upon what happens to you in the end may be much better.
    I assume you have some idea about how the locals have been treated over the last 40 years with nobody vocal or eloquent to defend them.

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    Quote Originally Posted by t0rn View Post
    I assume you have some idea about how the locals have been treated over the last 40 years with nobody vocal or eloquent to defend them.
    Yes. They've had a tough time since those times for sure...

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    And they still do, even in the areas we're allowed to see - hadrcore for a road, that'l need some rocks, a few hundred women armed with small hammers ...... not nice to see at all

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    Quote Originally Posted by PadMC View Post
    ^ There wasn't one likable character in the whole book. It's recognised as being Anti Imperialist and all that take me east of Suez carry on. I have read somewhere that Orwell's old commander in Burma recommended he be horse whipped after he read the book...
    So you reckon the locals would want Miss Elizabeth and the other fella Ellis back?
    I did not enjoy the book much either - and really the British badly messed up in Burma!
    Its My Life .....!

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    Quote Originally Posted by K2 View Post
    I did not enjoy the book much either - and really the British badly messed up in Burma!
    Most of the Orwell stuff I've read has been a bit heavy and not really enjoyable, Animal Farm, Down and Out etc., I think of it more as important social commentary that kicks against the accepted norms of the time. Not the kind of stuff to read on the beach I think.

    It looks like the British ( Us! ) messed up in a lot of places. We have our fingerprints on Palestine, Pakistan, Afghanistan - it's a pretty long list apart from Burma.

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    Yeah Singapore is doing so badly.

    The greater sins of colonialism was giving the places back too soon without having raised them to a greater level of self determination, without creating a stronger system of civil rights.

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    Quote Originally Posted by LivinLOS View Post
    Yeah Singapore is doing so badly.

    The greater sins of colonialism was giving the places back too soon without having raised them to a greater level of self determination, without creating a stronger system of civil rights.
    I didn't say we messed up all of them...

    I have always believed the the empire was broken up in a fairly enlightened way but there's no denying that we made mistakes on the way out of some places and some of the partitioning, Pakistan / India for example, were not great.

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    Very often they were done purposefully to weaken.. look at the Thai Malay issues..

    But I think you have to view colonial issues through the lens of the time.. it was not without its sins, but also benefits.. you could argue that staying on longer would have been less of a sin in many, even most cases..

    I am typing this looking out of a bar in Cambodia.. how well they could have done with just a decade more development ?? Maybe the devastation and genocide could have been avoided and this really been a Riviera of the east.

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    Quote Originally Posted by LivinLOS View Post
    ...I am typing this looking out of a bar in Cambodia.. how well they could have done with just a decade more development ?? Maybe the devastation and genocide could have been avoided and this really been a Riviera of the east.
    Maybe, but maybe old scores were going to be settled regardless of what point in time colonial powers exited or partitions came down.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Steve@thaib View Post
    Maybe, but maybe old scores were going to be settled regardless of what point in time colonial powers exited or partitions came down.
    that's maybe true.. but similar issues have happened from Zimbabwe to Myanmar to Congo to Cambodia.. these countries suffered inequality under colonial rule, no doubt about it, but was life safer, more stable, and generally improving ?? And did things get worse or better when left to self determination.

    Morally the greater good would have been achieved, had we brought more of the population to a greater level of development, to a stronger level of civil society, to a higher standard of educations.. that required more engagement not simply handovers, more nurturing and guidance. A hard balance to achieve no doubt but I always feel we left them to early, not yet strong enough to resist dictators and false democracy.
    Last edited by LivinLOS; 5th June 2013 at 15:04.

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    Zimbabwe is a good example. The population could not wait to get rid of the colonial power and there was not a whole lot of thought given to what would happen when they left. That tribal mindset would have been seen regardless of what time in history they got to go at each other.

    Parts of Asia would, I think, have been far better off without any western influence ( Vietnam, Cambodia maybe ) but Africa was always going to be a bloodbath as soon as we turned our back.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Steve@thaib View Post
    Most of the Orwell stuff I've read has been a bit heavy and not really enjoyable, Animal Farm, Down and Out etc., I think of it more as important social commentary that kicks against the accepted norms of the time. Not the kind of stuff to read on the beach I think.
    Down and out in Paris and London is my Favourite of his books. A lot of it is darkly comical and it has some memorable characters. In it's case its the Hotel and catering industry that comes in for a lot of Orwell's criticism and ire. 1984 has to be one of the most depressing books I've ever read.

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    Quote Originally Posted by LivinLOS View Post
    Very often they were done purposefully to weaken.. look at the Thai Malay issues..

    But I think you have to view colonial issues through the lens of the time.. it was not without its sins, but also benefits.. you could argue that staying on longer would have been less of a sin in many, even most cases..

    I am typing this looking out of a bar in Cambodia.. how well they could have done with just a decade more development ?? Maybe the devastation and genocide could have been avoided and this really been a Riviera of the east.
    I'd have to disagree.

    I think the opposite would have happened and we would have seen more revolutions and more bloodshed.

    Cambodia is a good example, Held by the French, then the Japanese, after that the French couldn't hold it again. It would have been more blood.

    The Malay and Singaporean governments are far from perfect, but it could have been a lot worse if they gained independence through drawn out wars. You would have seen some real tyrants in the end as good men rarely fight those kinds of wars.

    Further to this, I dont beleive you can force someone to be "raised" or "developed", they have to choose to do so of their own accord.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mjwx View Post
    Further to this, I dont beleive you can force someone to be "raised" or "developed", they have to choose to do so of their own accord.
    So what was it that international trade and commerce, farming, tobacco and coffee.. The roads, the rail, the ports.. Brought to countries like Zimbabwe then ?? Infrastructure, schooling, utilities like water, electric, etc.. Transport and commerce.. In turn economic activity communications and education.. A greater middle class and stronger civil society.. Law courts, due process and citizens / civil rights.. land rights, private property ownership, business law.. Etc

    That to me is development.. That in turn brings hospitals, medical, quality of life upgrades to so many.. How many ex colonial countries after handover progressed better than they were progressing at the time..

    Of course I don't pretend it was some magnanimous gesture.. Countries resources were used to the betterment of the imperial power.. But I just see so many have backslid, when they were at one stage on the edge of modernity. Myanmar being a ideal example..

    I was just talking with someone in a bar the other night.. It must be very strange, as a Cambodian, to look out at your country, and see the crumbling remnants of once grand colonial residences, or like down in kep, where there's villa after villa, in ruins covered in vines and decay.. And feel your living in a country that's gone backwards in its development.. I have grown up in years without wars, so I have only seen the new improve upon the old, the places I have lived have become more than they were. But looking at these abandoned grand casinos and hill stations like bokor.. These derelict beach villas or crumbling old villas in the city.. It's like living in the ruins of so much wasted potential.

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