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Rediscovering Orwell

By Bertil Lintner

Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop by Emma Larkin. John Murray, 240 pages, £15.99

burma: the forgotten war by Jon Latimer. John Murray, 624 pages, £25

In burma there is a joke that George Orwell wrote not just one novel about the country, but three: a trilogy comprised of Burmese Days, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Burmese Days chronicles the country's difficult time under British colonialism, Animal Farm tells about a socialist revolution gone wrong, and Nineteen Eighty-Four predicts the emergence of the ultimate oppressive society some time in the future. Because Orwell died in 1950, well before the military seized power in Burma, some Burmese refer to him as "the prophet."

Orwell may not have had Burma in mind when he wrote Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, but there is no doubt that Big Brother is alive and well in Burma. A vast network of spies monitors the small talk in Burma's ubiquitous teashops - and should the griping turn into activism, an equally vast network of prisons stands ready to receive those who dare oppose the regime. Books, magazines, movies and even music are heavily censored. Crude government propaganda pours out through the official media, schools, universities and work places.

Billboards in cities and towns exhort the populace to "Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy," and "Crush all those holding negative views." As in Nineteen Eight-Four, Burma is a country where "in the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it."

Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair, served in the Imperial Police in Burma from 1922-27, and Ms. Larkin spent over a year visiting the places where he lived. She discovers a world of whispered conversations in teashops, and the exchange of books covered in brown paper so the spies cannot see what the people are actually reading.

The Burmese - even trishaw drivers, hairdressers and hotel bellboys - are avid readers. This is partly the continuation of a long literary tradition. But it is also the result of a political system where a silent activity like reading is one of the few ways in which ordinary people can find an outlet for their frustrations.

"Emma Larkin" is the pseudonym of a writer who was born and brought up in Asia and is fluent in several Asian languages, among them Burmese. She studied Asian history at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies in London, and has contributed to newspapers and magazines around the world before writing this book, her first. It is a marvellous combination of literary odyssey and political travelogue, a mixture that works because of Orwell's Burmese past, not to mention the jokes now told by Burmese intellectuals.

She talks to former political prisoners who, like Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, have committed no crime other than "telling the truth." A retired engineer teaches her to spot an informer or a secret police agent in a crowd. A young man wants to know what Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is all about. All her characters are real, and, yes, very Burmese as well. Intellectual dreamers read Ernest Hemingway and admire Abraham Lincoln - and wait for things to change. They are unable to move an inch without being spotted, and apprehended, by the government's security services.

Ms. Larkin finishes her journey in Katha in the far north, the setting for Burmese Days. While tracing Orwell's footsteps, she remarks on the fact that all of his novels end in defeat. The main characters try to fight the system, but just when you think they have surmounted the final obstacle, they lose the battle.

If that is a prophecy for Burma, the future for Ms. Larkin's Burmese friends is bleak indeed. Yet despite all the sorrow and the tragedies that have come to characterize modern Burmese history, Ms. Larkin remains optimistic. She looks forward to "the day when Orwell's unwitting prophecy will have been ridden out and the pages of my copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four can finally be closed."

In the meantime, however, her book is bound to be circulated secretly in Burmese teashops, covered in brown paper and read by candlelight at home, well out of sight of Big Brother's army of spies.

Jon Latimer's book title is a misnomer, since the war in Burma between Allied Forces and Japan is hardly "forgotten." Nevertheless, his study is worth reading, not because his heroes are "unsung," as he puts it, but because he chronicles the initial British defeat, ensuing stalemate, and eventual victory over the Japanese in minute detail and beautifully written prose.

The fighting in Burma may in fact be one of the most documented wars in Asian history. Only two years ago, the Imperial War Museum in London published a detailed, 456-page volume on the Burma campaign written by military historian Julian Thompson. Dozens of other books have also been written about the British retreat in 1942, the establishment of a Japanese-supported puppet administration in Burma, the Allies' alliances with local tribal guerrilla forces, and the ultimate defeat of the Japanese in one of the bloodiest campaigns of World War II.

However, once we put aside his unfortunate title, Mr. Latimer does add to our understanding with a very authoritative and comprehensive study. Drawing on wartime records in Washington, London, Edinburgh and the Gurkha Museum in Winchester, as well as interviews with surviving veterans, he makes the campaign come alive through the voices of the soldiers who fought it. Useful maps help the reader locate little-known places like the Kabaw Valley and Arakan Yoma, scenes of fierce battles between the Allies and the Japanese.

Most significantly, he tackles the war's legacies, which linger to this day: the rise of a military regime in Burma, and seemingly never-ending insurgencies among the tribes that were armed by the Allies to fight against the Japanese. The Karens and the Kachins fought for years for autonomy and even independence from Burma. In northeastern India, the base from which the campaign was launched, the Nagas have fought ever since for independence from India.

Mr. Latimer, who served for many years with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and as a military intelligence officer, is the author of several other books about World War II, including Tobruk 1941 and Alamein. But this may be his most outstanding study when it comes to detail and drama, because the Burma campaign was one of the biggest multiracial undertakings in the history of warfare.

The allied troops came not only from Britain and the United States but also from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, West, East and South Africa, and, overwhelmingly, from India. They included "Dogras, Sikhs, Punjabis, Kumaonis, Madrassis and Nepalese, representing every race and caste on the subcontinent."

Witness the construction of the 1,000-kilometer road from northeastern India through northern Burma to support the forces fighting the Japanese in China. According to Lt. Col. Frank Owen, a British war veteran and the author of The Campaign in Burma, "Chinese, Chins, Kachins, Indians, Nepalese, Nagas, Garos slashed, haled and piled. Negroes drove machines. Black, brown, yellow and white men toiled shoulder-deep in the streams, belt-deep in red mud." In the surrounding hills and mountains, Kachin and Karen guerrillas staged hit-and-run attacks on Japanese positions.

More than any author before him, Mr. Latimer captures the personalities of this unique campaign's leaders. Here is William "Uncle Bill" Slim, the avuncular commander of the Fourteenth Army who was backed by the aristocratic Lord Louis Mountbatten. Most colorful of all is the American Joseph Stilwell, who became known as "Vinegar Joe" because of his short temper and vitriolic verbal attacks on almost everyone around him, especially his British comrades in arms.

Orde Wingate, a British officer, was "a blend of mysticism, passion and complete self-confidence tinged with darkest depression; he was obsessive, rude and overbearing." But his special force, code-named the Chindits, thrust far behind the Japanese lines, gravely disrupting the enemy's supply lines. Wingate himself did not live to see the Japanese defeated, perishing in a plane crash in 1944.

The Japanese who died - and they numbered 190,000, three-fifths of the men who were sent there, or 13 times the number of Allied dead - are less remembered. Most Allied veterans carry "the same abiding hatred" of the Japanese adversary, who was considered merciless and brutal to the extreme. But David Wilson, chairman of the Burma Star Association of war veterans, once invited his former enemies to his home and a war memorial in York, England. He observed that "it is hard to think of these men, impeccably dressed in smart suits, as the savage enemy they once were, and their emotion is quite genuine when they lay their wreaths of chrysanthemums on our memorial."

When Mr. Wilson asked why they held a British memorial in such high esteem, he was told, "because it is part of our history too now. We have nothing in Japan to remind us of our friends and relatives who lie with yours in Burma. It is our privilege to remember them here." Such human touches make Mr. Latimer's book stand out among the many accounts of the Burma campaign.

Mr. Latimer belongs to the postwar generation of British soldiers and believes that "we must move on. The only Japanese I have ever met were rugby fans, and I like rugby fans." But racist attitudes prevailed among many British, and not only toward the Japanese.

When the Allied forces retook Rangoon from the Japanese in 1945, the Union Jack was hoisted over the Burmese capital by an Indian soldier, Mohammed Munsif Khan. After the partition of India in 1947, he worked in the Pakistan embassy in Beijing, then went to join his son in Britain. But he was stopped at London's Heathrow airport, and refused entry due to some "administrative error." Infuriated, he returned his medals, including the Burma Star.

Once the war was over, the camaraderie of the front lines also passed into history. Colonial haughtiness was back - and the people in the colonies began to fight for independence. To better understand how that battle began, Mr. Latimer's book is a must-read. More than just a history of the war, it is an account of how Asia's old order collapsed and gave way to new realities.

Mr. Lintner is a journalist based in Thailand and the author of several books on Burma.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, December, 2004

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