(Finished this book June 16, 2011)
To preface this post, I want to say two things. 1. I knew nothing about Burma when I started reading this book other than general knowledge about conflict there and that it is a country in Southeast Asia. 2. I haven’t read 1984 or Animal Farm, but they are both on my list and I had a general idea about plotlines.
After reading this book, I feel much more knowledgeable about all things Burma and all things Orwell.
First of all, I would suggest reading Animal Farm and 1984 before reading this book. But if you’re like me and don’t have time to do so, then you’ll be okay. (And it will only kind of ruin those books – most of us already know what they’re mostly about anyway, do we not? Like I said, I still want to read them.)
Why didn’t I take the time to read them first? I was desperate to learn about Burma because I just started tutoring a Burmese young woman, Mu Mu, in ESL. I’ve only been tutoring her for about a month, but I really enjoy it. Mu Mu is 27 and married. Her husband, Htoo Wah, knows a good amount of English, but she has been home with the kids since they arrived in the US almost two years ago. Before that, she and her husband lived in a refugee camp on the Burmese border in Thailand. Anyway, I started reading this book the week before I met her. I wanted to know more about her background and where she comes from.
Finding George Orwell in Burma is written like a travel diary. The author almost literally travels the steps of George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair – his given name) as she travels to the places he lived when serving in the British Police Force in colonized Burma.
In short, he hated it there. Although people who knew him while he was there said he didn’t outwardly show this hatred, most believe it came out later in his writing: 1984 and Animal Farm. They believe Burma introduced Orwell to the idea of totalitarianism and showed him firsthand how it can go terribly, horribly wrong.
Near the beginning of the book, Emma meets an old Burmese scholar who refers to Orwell as “the prophet.” He believes that Orwell had foreseen the atrocities that were to happen in Burma and wrote about the totalitarian state in 1984 as a warning.
Books are banned in Burma. All written word has to go through the military government for approval. English-language books are sold on the black market, kept in extensive (but hidden) home libraries, and hoarded like treasure. (It made me feel all the more thankful for freedom of speech here in the good old US of A.) All media and printed information must go through the government; many risk their lives to print fact instead of government-approved fiction. Internet access is spotty, like electricity, and all information passed on the Web is open to government scrutiny.
Universities in Burma are state-run and failing. It can take students years to get a degree, and then, a biology student probably never explored a cadaver, a chemistry student never mixed chemicals. Universities are closed down randomly – whenever there is fear that a student uprising might occur. The military government fears student uprising because that has been the only legitimate threat in the past.
Minority groups in Burma are not treated well. They are pushed to the outside, abused, taken advantage of, pushed into physical labor “for the good of the country” and many are pushed out of their homes into refugee camps.
The daughter of the biggest former democracy-pushing politician is under house arrest because the government fears her followers might rise if given their leader.
As Emma Larkin traveled around Burma, she had to check-in with the police wherever she went. Some foreigners are allowed to enter as tourists, more every year, but their trips are highly scrutinized. Tour guides must only use government-approved information. When Emma ventured outside the typical tourist areas, she garnered much attention. She had to be extremely careful when interviewing anyone as the government pays everyday citizens to spy on their own neighbors.
Despite how sad this book made me about the state of affairs in Burma, I’m glad I read it. The tie-in between George Orwell and Burma’s situation is undeniable. Discovering a bit about Burma’s past and present was helpful while working to understand where Mu Mu came from and the kinds of things she wants to learn.
Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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