Books: Roads to Mandalay

Burma's tranquillity hides tumult. Behind the tourist paradise of gongs and pagodas, Justin Wintle finds a country in crisis
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Under the Dragon: travels in a betrayed land

by Rory MacLean

HarperCollins, pounds 16.99

Nothing happens in Burma, but then nothing is expected to happen." So wrote Paul Theroux in 1975, in The Great Railway Bazaar. Yet, even then, serious Burma-watchers knew the country was in turmoil: that the central government, since 1962 under the dictatorship of General Ne Win, was at war with half a dozen "minorities" at least, as also with a Beijing-backed communist front.

Communist insurgency, I suspect, was one reason why the West chose not to peer too closely beneath the veil Ne Win had so deftly cocooned his country in. In the wake of Vietnam, of Cambodia and Laos, there was a reluctance to become involved. If Ne Win was fighting communism, then he couldn't be all bad. So long as the reds didn't actually take Rangoon, so long as they taxed Beijing's resources, why then it was even to the West's advantage to let the conflict run.

As for the minorities, well, minorities were a problem facing all south- east Asian administrations. Not every country succeeded with the relatively bloodless aplomb of the Thais, but even so, by an unwritten convention, minorities were strictly an internal matter. After all, who would have tolerated it if Suharto had started making noises about America's Indians, or Marcos about the Welsh?

As it happens, though, minorities are at the heart of a tragedy the dimensions of which the outside world is - thanks to the exemplary fortitude of the detained Burmese democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi - at last beginning to realise. It is just because the Burmese military has been at war for 50 years that it has managed to establish its murderous stranglehold over the whole of Burmese society.

That stranglehold encompasses every conceivable misdemeanour. The current junta, which shows no more signs of being dislodged now than it did in 1989, when Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, has abandoned all pretence at the rule of law. It has also abandoned its erstwhile sham socialism in favour of a plethora of shady joint-ventures with anyone - be they Western or fellow-Asian - prepared to tolerate its endemic inhumanity.

In the brochures, Burma can still be projected as a paradise of gongs and pagodas, of incense and tranquillity. Yet its considerable resources, which include oil, gems, jade, teak, tungsten, hydro-power and potential tourism, are pillaged for the personal benefit of the very few. To deliver on such contracts, and reap the benefits, the same oligarchy must guarantee secure access to these assets. And this in the past has been the problem. Much of Burma's natural wealth is deposited in the homelands of the Chin and Kachin, the Shan and Mon, the Karen and Karenni, the Wa and Rakhine.

Today, security is achieved at whatever the human cost. In Burma there are no rights, only a climate of rational paranoia. Freedom of speech does not exist. Even low-ranking soldiers seem licensed to loot as they please.

Corruption is the norm. Opponents of the junta risk arrest and imprisonment without trial. Extra-judicial executions are commonplace, as is torture. To build new hotels and roads, and work the mines, millions have been dragooned into ill-paid labour. Often heroin, another abundant local produce, is distributed in lieu of wages.

Nor does the government care to educate the masses with regard to HIV infection. Like brutality, like narcotics, Aids has become another means of people-control.

It is the minorities however, perhaps accounting for 30-40 per cent of the population, who have born the brunt. Prior to British colonisation, self-rule had been enjoyed by several of the "smaller peoples". Likewise, both before and after independence, Rangoon offered assurances regarding custom and autonomy. But these have proved at best insincere; hence the interminable wars. Now, thousands of their villages are destroyed and their inhabitants relocated, creating a huge refugee crisis in neighbouring Thailand. As the junta strengthens its hold, so ethnic cleansing and genocide become the order of the day.

In the West, the plight of the minorities has gone largely unremarked. The media, focused on Aung San Suu Kyi, tend to present Burma as a simple contest between good (the democrats) and evil (the military). But because of Burma's plurality of cultures, the reality is inevitably more complex. Christian leaders especially are wary of the National League for Democracy. Whatever else she is, Aung San Suu Kyi is a Burman, and her advocacy of the democratic ideal is couched, however brilliantly, in traditional Buddhist beliefs. There is no guarantee that the multi-ethnic solidarity she has called for will meet the aspirations of minorities.

This, then, is the "betrayed land" of Rory MacLean's subtitle. MacLean visited Burma in April 1997, with his wife Katrin. Both are Canadian. The ostensible purpose of their trip was to find a replica of an unusual basket they had seen in the storeroom of the British Museum's Ethnography Department. They took with them what seems to have been a very large bottle of Valium. Like others entering Burma on a tourist visa, their movements and the duration of their stay were restricted. In the event, they got as far as Hsipaw in Shan State, after taking in Rangoon, Pagan, Mandalay and Lashio.

Out of this mini-expedition is hatched Under the Dragon. It is, to say the least, a curious performance, though in keeping with the author's rightly praised travel books: Stalin's Nose and The Oatmeal Ark. MacLean's main claim to fame is a fusing of reportage and fiction. An observant eye is combined with flights of imagination. When the data runs dry, his method seems to be: turn on the literary faucet.

Here his faucet gushes lyrically and, for the most part, profitably. The main supports of Under the Dragon are empathetic reconstructions of the lives of four Burmese women: a prostitute, a sometime government press censor, a Chinese businesswoman, and the mother of a drugs bandit. Each is caught up in the Burmese tragedy, and each suffers. The orphaned Ni Ni is tricked into sex slavery in Thailand. Ma Swe abandons Rangoon after the disappearance of her photographer husband. May, unable to join her son in California, ekes out old age with her twin sister Kwan. Nan Si Si perpetually mourns the death of her one-night husband, a Karen soldier killed by the military many moons ago.

At the outset, MacLean tells us that of necessity he has changed the names and identities of his many witnesses to the junta's reign of terror. While this may have been the wise and moral course to take, when coupled with his fictionalising, it creates a problem of authenticity that some readers may find hard to set aside.

Of his four vignettes, the least successful is the story of Ni Ni. By the time MacLean sets foot in Burma Ni Ni is already dead - by inference from Aids. Probably she never really existed. Nonetheless, MacLean embroiders a suitably lurid biography. For Ni Ni the death march begins when she is seduced by an Englishman. "He wove her slim legs around him," MacLean fantasises, "lifted her petite hips towards him and lashed her feather-light sex with his own."

Such moments, tasteless in the context of the journey, are mercifully few. The three other vignettes are well, even beautifully crafted, while a reckless drive into the mountains with Nan Si Si's psychotic gun-toting drugs baron son Phahte (pronounced Paddy) is worth space in any anthology.

At the documentary level, the most interesting passages concern the influx of Chinese entrepreneurs into upper Burma. Quite clearly, the border with Yunnan now leaks like a sieve. MacLean, though, is thin on political analysis, a point if anything emphasised by an insubstantial meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi herself at the end. Instead, he prefers romantically to evoke what remains of an old culture.

Moving as this often is, one could wish his nose were a little harder. The scent of the minorities largely eludes him, while a rapport with Buddhism masks its downside. Since suffering only confirms Buddhist precepts, it may be asked whether Burma's majority religion isn't yet another factor the generals have turned to their advantage. Nor will the eventual advent of democracy necessarily rescue all that MacLean cherishes. More likely, it will encourage a riot of iconoclastic consumerism.