Friday, 22 July 2011

Winds Of Change

I'd forgotten about submitting this review. Nor did I expect it to be out today.

It's been a while since I wrote this and things in Burma don't appear to be improving as fast as hoped. So Aung San Suu Kyi is allowed to tour the country - but no politics, please, says its "civilian" government.

Big deal. They kicked out Michelle Yeoh, allegedly, for her role in the Suu Kyi biopic. Might it have been something she said about the film?

Change. It's in my pocket but not, it seems, in Burma. Not yet.

Winds of change
For years one of the world's last remaining military dictatorships, Burma is now under a civilian government. But it remains to be seen whether the country can move on from the bleak days chronicled in this book

first published in The Star, 22 July 2011

After ruling the country for over 30 years, the Burmese junta was dissolved and replaced by an elected civilian government early this year. Naysayers can perhaps be forgiven for their scepticism, though: the junta has historically been seen as a fickle, paranoid entity that relies on spin and brute force to cling to power.

The elections that paved the way for the junta's dissolution is widely believed to have been a sham, an attempt to rebrand old lamps as new.

The collapse of the ancient Danok pagoda in 2009 could have been an influencing factor in the rebranding exercise. In Everything Is Broken, American journalist and author Emma Larkin describes the event as a possible ill omen for the junta, a divine rejection of its legitimacy.

The pagoda's collapse was particularly significant in the light of the fact that the wife of a junta official, Senior General Than Shwe (now retired), had performed a religious ceremony there mere weeks before the collapse.

Wishful thinkers would probably have seen this incident as one in a series of heavenly wake-up calls for the junta, a follow-up to the last one in May 2008. That year, cyclone Nargis wreaked havoc and destruction in Burma's Irrawady Delta. In their attempts to control and, as usual, spin the situation, the junta placed numerous stumbling blocks in front of mostly foreign aid agencies trying to enter the country to help.

The state-run media was virtually blowing sunshine and scattering flower petals everywhere to mask the scale of the destruction, decrying foreign press coverage of the disaster as a "skyful of lies".

Larkin was one of the few foreign journalists who managed to sneak in as part of an aid group's entourage.

"Emma Larkin" is a nom de plume, and there's a good reason why. This bleak, cheerless chronicle of the cyclone's aftermath has little good to say about the Burmese junta and their handling of what is said to be the worst natural disaster in the country's recorded history.

Broken families, broken bodies, broken bridges, broken chains of command, broken everything. The title comes from an oft-heard phrase during Larkin's interviews with affected locals.

It is hard to read this painfully one-sided, unflattering, monochromatic portrait of the junta and its key figures. It is, after all, The Untold Story Of Disaster Under Burma's Military Regime.

Burma's military rulers, Than Shwe in particular, are cast as a hermitic, paranoid, superstitious and xenophobic lot who are scared stiff of the big wide world and rely on astrology and religious and magical rituals to bring good luck, accrue merit and ward off enemies.

The reader feels despair, pity and rage at the victims' plight, at the scenes of horror in the disaster zones, and at the darkly comic cruelty of the regime's clumsy efforts to maintain control of the situation. The collapse of the Danok pagoda is perhaps the only bright spot among the pages.

Larkin says her pseudonym protects the locals who spoke to her; talking to the foreign press is dicey business for the Burmese.

"The worst thing that would happen to me is that I would get deported," she said in an online interview.

She also implies that it is the regime's control of the country and all public discourse within that drives writers like herself to dig deep and chronicle events in countries such as Burma.

"As a result of the regime's actions, stories are vanishing, history is being rewritten, memories are being eroded and stories lost."

However, her efforts to hide her identity and assure her return to Burma later works against her in that this work can be seen as an attack on the Burmese junta by someone hiding behind a false name, rather than a true-to-life account of events after Nargis.

Larkin's storytelling, however, makes her sound more credible than Burma's state media. Or is it because she paints the kind of picture some of us want to see?

Maybe it all depends on what happens in Burma in the coming months. Any change for the better in the country is good news for everyone. After decades of rule by a schizophrenic military regime, however, one can only hope that not everything there is broken, and that there will be fewer pieces to pick up when the real healing begins.

Everything is Broken
The Untold Story of Disaster Under Burma's Military Regime

Emma Larkin
Granta Publications (2010)
265 pages
ISBN: 978-1-84708-180-3


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