The spring 2008 cyclone that ripped through the Irawaddy Delta region, once again brought the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar to the forefront of world news for the worst of reasons. As if the country’s political and economic woes were not enough, Mother Nature dished out a disaster of her own. As the world rushed to the aid of the cyclone victims, the military regime that holds the country in its iron grip, just as swiftly blocked the flow of aid to those victims.
Until 1989, Myanmar was known as Burma, the name given it during British rule from 1885-1948. The country obtained independence after World War II and elected new leaders despite an economy tattered by years of fighting. But within a short time, a military coup ousted the government. While there have been internal changes in leadership, the military is still in firm control of the government and swiftly squashes any form of political dissent.
To understand Myanmar’s history, it’s helpful to read George Orwell’s, Burmese Days, a depressing, but illuminating novel set during British rule in Burma in the early 20th Century. Orwell had spent five years in Burma as a military policeman before writing the novel. Emma Larkin (pseudonym) visited Myanmar in 2003 and wrote a fascinating account of her attempts to understand the country through the lens of George Orwell’s writings. In Finding George Orwell in Burma, Larkin travels around the country, meeting casually with citizens as she gauges the literary and political undercurrents of an the country.
You may also want to read Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Prisoner of Conscience. Aung San Suu Kyi is a political activist who was essentially elected as Prime Minister of Myanmar in 1990 but was prevented from taking office by the military.