New Straits Times, 19 January 2000: "Burma: Suffering is part of life."

Rory Maclean: Under the Dragon: Travels in a Betrayed Land. Flamingo, 1999. 224 pages. RM39.90 []

reviewed by Otto Steinmayer

A sad, sad book. A very sad book. We have all heard of Burma. Since Burma—none of the Burmese I have ever met use the name “Myanmar”—is a neighbour and fellow member of ASEAN, little news about actual conditions for ordinary Burmese makes it into our local media. Still, enough TV clips, radio and print accounts make their way out to ensure Burma’s infamous reputation as the land where everybody is miserable except for the handful of people who run it.

    Gibbon called history nothing more than the chronicle of the “crimes, follies, and disasters of mankind.” The same forms our daily diet of instant news and over the decades it’s easy for our feelings to be calloused. So we say, yeah, things are tough all over. Until a writer like Maclean comes along and, ignoring ideology and all but the most basic politics, shows us what brutality people have to face. The Burmese are abused, battered and crushed.

    Take Ma Ni Ni. Her father eked out a living as a masseur in a Rangoon hotel. His bicycle was stolen by a soldier. Ni Ni’s father ransomed it from a warrant officer (who had stolen it in turn) for 100 kyat, US$2.50 but also two months’ rent. The elder Ma lost his job, and during the uprising of 8.8.88 he vanished.

    Ni Ni went looking for her father through the bloody hell that the army had made of the city, a vain task. She saw nurses shot down at the hospital. When development replaced chaos she went to work as a laborer on a hotel project. The English architect lured her into being his concubine then abandoned her.

    Ni Ni got a job in Thailand, as a dishwasher, she thought; in fact she was kidnapped into prostitution. After some years, Thai authorities raided the brothel she was then imprisoned in and shipped her back to Burma, where she spent a year in detention: there was no one to claim her. A foreign charity offered her sanctuary and taught her to weave baskets, at which she excelled. Ni Ni was thus on the way to reclaiming her life when she died not long after, too young.

    This is the first person, the first story. Many other Burmans appear in Under the Dragon: a retired Sandhurst-trained colonel-turned monk; a censor at the state publishing department. She married a journalist, and that was the crime for which she was arrested. In prison she created a magazine of the mind, a heroic feat of memory and spirit, to stay sane and human. A trishaw driver who comes right out and says “Our leaders wish us ill.” A pair of ethnic Chinese twin sisters, who lost everything they had, first in racial violence instigated by the military government in the 602, then once again after 1988, when the SLORC introduced a cutthroat capitalism—based on foreign money—that destroyed their little business. Each life shows that in Burma all you need, whether you’re intellectual or working stiff, to attract the wrath of the dictatorship is to possess integrity and decency.

    Imagine these experiences multiplied by tens of millions. When such stories as Maclean tells are typical, who can calculate the frightful scale of sorrow and misery in the country? The thought of it freezes the heart.

    How can we face such tragedy? How could Maclean have faced such tragedy and horror closely enough to be able to write about them? In the first place, Maclean has a strong soul, and his strength comes from his humanity and compassion. In the second place he has his art. Under the Dragon is a beautifully written book.

    Don’t scoff at art. A philistine age may despise Maclean, thinking that he has “taken advantage” of other peoples’ pain in using it as an excuse to write a travel book. Hardly. A plain catalogue of case-studies might be less beautiful, more factual, and a lot fuller, but case-studies are just that: lists of victims, all of whom come to seem equally anonymous, equally wretched, in short, human sludge.

    Literary style rescues these unhappy people. The writer sees them and presents them as people of flesh and blood. He knows they struggled as well as suffered. Words restore their individuality and dignity. If they have lost at everything else, they have triumphed in endurance, and the writer’s careful beauty saves their achievement from oblivion and crowns it. This is no lie of rhetoric.

    Maclean did not go to Burma on purpose to tourist in hell. His wife, Katrin, suggested the trip. She is a basket-maker, and her object in going to Burma with her husband was to find whether a particularly lovely bamboo shopping basket she found in the British Museum was still made and used.

    Baskets are an apt metaphor. They are practical objects of art, light and strong. They are made by ordinary people the way they like best, and are part of everyday life. They are also going out of use. The generals’ wives prefer Hermès and Louis Vuitton, and modern commercial culture peddles cheap plastic sacks stamped with Disney characters to the poor. Baskets are the useful, the beautiful, the personal, the tried-and-true, everything that the military government would like to see erased from Burmese life in its greed to enrich itself and itself only.

    Katrin’s and Rory’s search for the basket is the thread that structures the journey. The quest gives them a sense of purpose, a reason for going to particular places. They did not have to go out looking for pathos; plenty of pathos found them on the way. Travel is Burma is rough. If they had not set a goal, they might have fled home, appalled, after a week in Rangoon.

    They persisted. After learning that the basket of their search was made by someone of the Palaung people, they went to Namhsan in the middle of the north country. The journey and the one night’s stay are nightmarish reading.

    The only way to get to Namhsan was to accept a ride from Phahte, “Honoured Uncle.” He turns out to be a petty chief, and by the time Maclean realizes the depth of the man’s depravity, it’s too late: he’s committed to a tour at gunpoint.

    Phahte is a drunk, an annoying loudmouth, a squalid slob, a pretended Christian and a real bigot, and an insatiable exactor of his subjects’ homage. Violent and volatile, he is as dangerous as only a man like him, in a position of absolute power, can be. A petty warlord is still a warlord. Phahte orders people to dinner. His most treasured ornament is his automatic pistol. He likes to shoot chickens, and there’s no doubt that he’d make as little scruple about shooting people.

    And yet Phahte’s mother is there also. Nothing in the book seems more poignant to me than the contrast of this thug and his patient mother, devoted to him but deeply saddened by his ferocious, mindless greed.

    Phahte is loyal to the generals. When he hears the name of Aung San Suu Kyi, he spits. Whatever else, something must be horribly wrong in state where such criminal types are allowed legitimize their tyrannies. We wish Burma well. Military governments are notoriously unstable and brittle. Change has come to Indonesia, and it must come one day to Burma, too. Then we will see that in fact it was the dictators who were the most miserable people in the land.