By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
If you venture through downtown Yangon and casually stroll into any one of the many Burmese bookstores that are open on the wayside, there is one book you will consistently find upon the shelves: Burmese Days by George Orwell. Orwell served in Burma from 1922 to 1927 as a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police force in Burma, and has attempted as faithful and as loving a retelling of his time in the country, weaving as colourful a story as his talents will allow. And since its publication in 1935, Burmese Days has been as much a part of Burma’s culture as the Glass Palace Chronicles.
But why? Before reading the book, I suppose you might be forgiven for thinking that Burmese Days belongs on the shelves in nearly every bookstore the country can afford: after all, it is about Burma, written by an author who has been praised as one of the best English writers in the past century. And certainly, if you read the book, and take it at face value, you might be enchanted by the sharpness of Orwell’s writing, the vividness of the landscape he conjures, and the strength of the characters he portrays. Everything seems true to life, as honest as the sky above us, in this aching retelling of the last days of British colonialism.
And that is what Burmese Days is: a love letter to the fading days of the British Empire. The main cast of characters are white people, most of whom despise Burma, and who frequently complain about the weather in Kyauktada and the insolence of the locals. Flory, our main character, is practically condemned for enjoying the company of the natives. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that by the end of the book, this attitude changes. The natives are still looked down on as the ‘lower people’, and the white people are still in power.
So why are the Burmese so keen to praise this book? After all, it hardly paints a flattering picture of the country folk. U Po Kyin is a conniving magistrate, who believes that whatever evil he does in this world will be forgiven by the pagodas he will build later in life. There’s Ma Hla May, John Flory’s mistress whom he casts aside once Miss Elizabeth Lackersteen comes into his life – she is vengeful, practically ruins Flory’s life, and then ends up working in a brothel somewhere. There’s Ko S’la, whose sole purpose in the story is to be Flory’s faithful servant, who in the end, once Flory dies (spoilers, oops), cannot find another work position as fulfilling as the one he enjoyed with Flory.
Perhaps the book fits into the reality that the Burmese were privy to in the days of English colonization; after all, we did not come into our own until well after colonization ended. But are we, and have we ever been, as uncivilized a country as George Orwell describes in his book? And what does it say about our people now that we still think that this book is sacred?
When the English arrived in Burma, they showed us that they were powerful – powerful enough to topple our kings, and in doing so, instated themselves in our heads as gods. Suddenly white was right; white was better; white meant power. Christianity was introduced to the country; and our lives took a different turn. Suddenly we were reduced to visitors in our own country, and the British – the masters – demanded complete and utter compliance. The division in the country became more apparent, more rampant; and whatever initial rebellion there might have been was quickly quelled into stagnant submission.
The effects of colonialization can still be felt today. The Burmese still view the white man with fear and respect. Some even go so far as to believe that the country would be in better hands if the British were still in power. And now, with Burma teetering on the edge of reformation, perhaps it is time to discard the notion that this single piece of literature, written by a foreign hand, is the perfect representation of our country.
Today, especially in remembrance of 8/8/88, we should remember that Burmese Days does not define Burma, or its many peoples, nor does it do justice to our character. Read the book, by all means; but afterwards, think about what it truly means to live through the days that we can honestly claim as Burmese.