Burma is such an enigmatic country that the first question for any writer is what to call it. The nation has been known officially as Myanmar since 1989, when the then ruling junta discarded Burma along with other place names associated with British rule. But like all the decisions taken by the generals, it was made without any consultation with the population. The junta saw themselves as absolute monarchs and denied Burma’s peoples both democracy and human rights.
It is for that reason that the UK and US governments continue to use Burma as the country’s official name. So do I in my book, ASavage Dreamland: Journeys in Burma, as do all the writers listed below. But neither Burma nor Myanmar does justice to such an ethnically diverse nation. In Burmese, both names are explicit references to the Bamar – the majority ethnic group – and have little resonance for the 134 officially recognized minorities who make up at least a third of the country’s population.
I was inspired to write about Burma in part because it is such a dizzying mix of peoples, religions and landscapes. Yet, for all the diversity, Burma remains the least-known nation in south-east Asia and there is little contemporary writing about the country. That’s another legacy of the generals, who seized power in 1962 and ruled for almost 50 years. Not only did the junta censor local writers ruthlessly, often imprisoning them, they also sought to close off the country from the outside world.
Even now, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s government running Burma in an uneasy partnership with the military, press freedom remains a distant ideal. The country is full of voracious readers, though. In the historic downtown of Yangon – the former capital once known as Rangoon – there are many streetside book vendors, their battered and dusty tomes laid out on the pavements for passing pedestrians to sift through.
Pirate copies of George Orwell’s Burmese Days are a staple of those stalls. It’s a telling fact that it remains the most widely read English-language book about Burma, despite being first published in 1934. Almost all the finest travel writing on Burma was written before or just after the second world war. My book is an effort to redress the dearth of recent literature covering the country. Here is some of the finest writing on Burma that is available in English.