Nibbling on finger-food at a low breakfast table in northern Myanmar, members of the Katha Township Development Committee sat and discussed the novel Burmese Days, George Orwell‘s caustic homage to the “dirty work of Empire“.
“I don’t like the behaviour of the Burmese in the book. The way it shows Myanmar people,” said Kyaw Swe, a baker, railing against one of the characters in the book, the scheming judge U Po Kyin. “The judge’s character is most like the Myanmar character.”
It is no coincidence that Kyaw Swe and his colleagues are debating the once-banned semi-fictitious novel set in the 1920s. As residents of the quiet riverside town of Katha, they are successors to the “Orientals” reviled in the book by Orwell, the British satirist who went on to write Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The remote town, thinly disguised as Kyauktada in the book, is the real-life setting of Orwell’s first novel, which is no kinder to the “natives” than to the bigoted, brandy-soaked empire-builders of the British Raj.
Orwell said the town had “not changed greatly between the days of Marco Polo and 1910”, when the British established a railway terminus.
A century later, horse-drawn Hackney carriages can still be seen whisking people past the colonial prison, school, hospital, tin-roofed church and pagoda, which “rose from the trees like a slender spear tipped with gold”.
Once forbidden, now feted
Eighty years after its original publication, Burmese Days is enjoying a revival thanks to its recent translation into Burmese. Astonishingly, it won a government award for literature last year.
Some of Orwell’s depictions, particularly the fictitious magistrate U Po Kyin, are as apt today as they were when he served as a colonial policeman in Katha, Kyaw Swe said. In the book, U Po Kyin supplements his meagre salary by accepting bribes from both litigants, known euphemistically in Myanmar as taking “tea money”.
Indeed, Orwell’s publishers considered the original text of Burmese Days to be too realistic and made him change the names of some characters to avoid accusations of libel. “There is a little bit of the ‘tea-money’ culture left. A government civil servant can’t live on their earnings,” Kyaw Swe said.
His remarks ring true: Myanmar is ranked one of the 20 most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International. The average annual income of a low-level civil servant was around 300,000 kyat (approximately $300) in 2010, according to the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
However, his comments are breathtaking given that such unguarded public criticism of government would have landed him in a cramped cell just three years ago. He would have likely joined the hundreds of other political prisoners across the country, many of whom were brutally tortured.
Once pulped now feted publication
After decades of thuggish misrule by a string of secretive military juntas, things are beginning to change. A pack of retired generals took power in Myanmar in 2011 and began unravelling half a century of paranoid isolationism.
Last year, the government released most political prisoners and dropped farcical censorship laws that epitomised “Orwellian” totalitarianism. Western governments have tentatively swapped diplomatic sticks for carrots. But the optimism is tempered by mounting religious violence, faltering peace talks with ethnic armed groups and the military‘s enduring stranglehold on parliament.
|Orwell said Katha had ‘not changed greatly between the days of Marco Polo and 1910’. A century later, horse-drawn carriages can still be seen on the streets [Hereward Holland/Al Jazeera]
Yet the government’s shifting attitude towards Burmese Days is symbolic of its fledgling democratic ambitions. An early translation of the novel was pulped by Myanmar’s socialist regime in the 1960s. For decades, photocopies of Orwell’s works were traded in secret. Now, translations feted by the Ministry of Information, the same institution that once banned them, are flying off the shelves.
One of the larger bookstores in Yangon, Inwa Books, has run out of copies of Burmese Days. “It’s very strange for it to be forbidden and now it wins awards,” said Bo Maung, a member of civil society in Katha, reflecting on his favourite Orwell novel.
As author Emma Larkin joked in her travelogue Finding Orwell in Burma, he did not pen only one novel about Burma, but wrote an unwitting and eerily prescient trilogy.
Burmese Days exposed the brutality and racism of colonial rule. Animal Farm is an allegorical tale of a socialist revolution gone wrong, later mirrored by dictator Ne Win’s disastrous “Burmese Way to Socialism” in the 1960s.
And in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s sketch of a “horrifying and soulless dystopia paints a chillingly accurate picture of Burma”, Larkin wrote of rule under the military government in 2004.
Myanmar flung open its doors to foreigners in 2011. Since then, tens of thousands of sandal-shod tourists have arrived to marvel at thousand-year-old temples, picturesque lakes and the crumbling grandeur of colonial architecture.
Few attempt the arduous 13-hour train or boat ride up-river from Mandalay. Those pilgrims who do are richly rewarded with colonial buildings that acted as the props for Orwell’s fiction, like an abandoned theatre set.
We are trying to democratise the state. There are many changes, but we have to wait some time and it will gradually improve.
Earlier this month, after several red herrings, amateur historian and Orwell fanatic Nyo Ko Naing identified what he believes to be the novelist’s old residence. The two-story teak house sits on raised brick stilts across a dirt track from the tin-roofed St Paul’s Church. A blue satellite dish protrudes from the dilapidated veranda of the house that now belongs to a police major.
In the country’s commercial capital, Yangon, foreign diplomats eulogise the reformers at the top of the government, but Nyo Ko Naing said little has changed at lower levels of the administration. “Their behaviour is old. The new face of Myanmar is for the internationals,” he claimed. “The government has changed, but there is no change.”
Immigration officer Kyaw Swe – who shares the same name as the baker – disagrees, pointing to the creation of the Township Development Committee sitting around the breakfast table.
The group, comprised of government officials and three civil society organisations, allows the people to request services for the first time, says the immigration officer. “Before 2011, all the administration was top to bottom and now it’s… inverted. It’s based on what the people want,” he said.
The government has even said it will give historian Nyo Ko Naing and his friends money to convert a red-brick colonial mansion, formerly the district commissioner’s house, into a museum celebrating the author.
“We are trying to democratise the state,” said Khin Maung Toe, chairman of the Township Development Committee. “There are many changes, but we have to wait some time and it will gradually improve.”