Big Brother's Burmese Comeback

Why the country George Orwell once skewered is finally embracing its non-native son.

No one gets off easy in George Orwell's 1934 novel Burmese Days. Set in colonial Burma, where Orwell served as an imperial police officer in the 1920s, the book casts a uniformly harsh light on British expatriates, Burmese "natives," and everyone in between. He characterizes the British as uppity, bigoted, and cruel; the Burmese as greedy, devious, and corrupt. It's hard to say which group comes out looking worse.

It's not difficult to imagine why the book fell out of favor with Myanmar's leaders decades ago. Intent on renouncing ugly colonial legacies and crafting a glorified national image, successive socialist and military regimes banned Burmese Days, along with countless other titles thought to cast the country and its leaders in a less than ideal light. Many translated copies were destroyed and new ones were outlawed in an effort to scrub the Burmese psyche of passages like this one:

"Living and working among Orientals would try the patience of a saint... Almost every day...the High School boys, with their young, yellow faces-faces smooth as gold coins, full of that maddening contempt that sits so naturally on the Mongolian face-sneered at them as they went past, sometimes hooted after them with hyena-like laughter."

But things are changing quickly and dramatically in the land Orwell knew as Burma. Myanmar's publishing industry has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past year, driven by both literary innovation and a growing demand for books about Myanmar's forgotten history and politics. This weekend, the country will host its second annual literary festival, where artists and writers will once again test the boundaries of their newfound creative freedom, and discuss the role of literature in the country's political transition. The first festival, held last February, was hosted by democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. It's all a far cry from the days of the junta, when political poets were forced to write in symbols to get past government censors.

Against this backdrop, Orwell's debut novel is finally making a comeback.

Nearly 80 years after its first printing, Burmese Days has a new translation, a new Yangon publisher, and a new generation of Burmese readers. But what's really remarkable about the novel's rebirth is the extent to which Myanmar's government is celebrating it.

The Ministry of Information, once the dread of authors and publishers alike, has not only stopped censoring Orwell's books, but has also taken the extraordinary step of bestowing upon Burmese Days the government's highest literary award. A 10-member panel of judges voted unanimously in favor of the book, over 170 other titles last November. It's quite a reversal, and one that may signal much about how Myanmar's perceptions of its history and its people are rapidly changing as it undergoes political transition.

Just a few years ago, the notion that Myanmar's government would honor a book written by Orwell, whose work is explicitly political -- even subversive -- would have been unthinkable. The military regime went to great extremes to silence political dialogue and quell dissent, from censoring and shuttering newspapers to intermittently closing schools and colleges. The Ministry of Information's press scrutiny board routinely screened literary works for veiled references to Aung San Suu Kyi (usually images of roses) and scrubbed them of any and all criticism of the government. Maung Myint Kywe, who translated Burmese Days in 2012, told Foreign Policy that his translation "slept in the hands of [his] publisher for eight years," because the Ministry of Information's scrutiny board wouldn't allow it to be printed uncensored. Yet, last November, the same office honored his translation of Orwell's novel, which not only highlights the corruption and cronyism endemic to Burmese politics, but also details a painful colonial history that many leaders would rather forget.

For decades, the government tried to erase, or at least eschew, its connection to imperial Britain: Changing names of cities and towns, overhauling educational curricula, and, of course, banning or censoring books that contained versions of history unsanctioned by government officials. The ministry's sudden embrace of Burmese Days may suggest that official minds are finally opening up to that history, taking the bad with the good, and coming to see the novel not as a political statement or a seditious threat but as a part of the nation's cultural fabric.

It's something that ordinary Burmese have already been doing for decades by secretly passing around Xeroxed and tattered copies of Orwell's other books, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four -- both of which were banned under the military regime because of their politically subversive content. As Emma Larkin wrote in her 2005 travelogue Secret Histories, Burmese citizens have long drawn parallels between Orwell's novels and their own lives under military rule. When Animal Farm was broadcast by BBC's Burmese radio service several years ago, people talked about it for weeks, according to Larkin, matching up its characters with the country's own political leaders. She writes: "Could you compare 'the Lady', as democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is known, to the exiled porcine revolutionary Snowball? And which pig was General Ne Win? Was he Major, the imperious old pig with a vision who died so suddenly? (Hopefully.) Or was he Napoleon, the grotesque ruler who grew stronger and more deranged each day? (Probably.)"

Western travel writers tend to treat Orwell as a posthumous ambassador to a long-lost Burma, and they use his chronicles of the country as a convenient frame for shallowly touring the country's cultural treasures. But Orwell's experience of the colonized country was far from romantic. He was sharply critical of British imperialism and cognizant of its effects on the local economy, and people. 

This is reflected in the protagonist of Burmese Days, John Flory, a British teak merchant whose peculiar affection for the local culture and people stands in conflict with his priorities as a colonial businessman. The British Raj "is a despotism -- benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism, with theft as its final object," Flory says in the novel. "The official holds the Burman down while the businessman goes through his pockets." (As an imperial police officer, Orwell was complicit, as he was surely aware, of the imperial sins he vividly renders.) Flory's friendship with an Indian doctor and his well-known sympathies for the Burmese frequently put him at odds with his fellow expatriates. Nevertheless, his sympathies don't prevent him from cruelly casting aside his Burmese mistress when an available white woman comes along, nor does it deter him from betraying the doctor in order to stay in the good graces of his British friends. It's a scathing portrait of expatriate life in colonial Burma, and one in which the Burmese, unfortunately, lose every time.

The novel's value, according to translator Maung Myint Kywe, is rooted in this sad history of Britain's dominion over the Burmese. "The young boys and girls today don't know about the life under colonial rule," he told Foreign Policy. "I want them to know how the people were degraded and humiliated, how they would suffer if the country falls into the hands of another. We were not savage like the British thought of us. We were not like the British thought."

Although Burmese Days could conceivably be useful in bolstering a national identity crafted in opposition to British colonialism, the novel's treatment of its Burmese characters and its portrayal of Burmese officials as greedy and corrupt ensured its pariah status. In particular, the depiction of the unscrupulous local magistrate, U Po Kyin -- a conniving man obsessed with gaining power and prestige at any cost -- might have hit a little too close to home for some Burmese authorities, even as recently as a few years ago. But perhaps, as Maung Myint Kywe suggests, that's not such a bad thing.

Kenneth Wong, a Burmese-American journalist, put it this way: "The portrayal of the magistrate U Po Kyin would make any Burmese uncomfortable, because he is the embodiment of the sadistic, selfish, corrupt, opportunistic officials most ordinary Burmese have to deal with daily. Today, many might still recognize U Po Kyin in a teashop owner, a district police chief, or a minister of Parliament in Naypyidaw," he said, referring to the country's capital. "Perhaps confronting that through another look at Orwell's masterpiece is an indication that the Burmese are now more open to looking at themselves squarely in the mirror, warts and all."

But what's remarkable is that Myanmar's government might be willing to do the same. Orwell's depiction of the corrupt official still rings true in many areas of the government. In spite of President Thein Sein's democratic reforms, the daily reality of Burmese politics hasn't changed all that much. The government is still run largely by members of the military, cronyism remains rampant, and there are surely more than few U Po Kyins left in public office all over the country. Is the Ministry of Information's embrace of Burmese Days a tacit acknowledgement of that reality? That the novel won in the category of "informative literature," which almost always goes to non-fiction works -- in 2011, for example, a translation of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations took the prize -- seems telling its own right.

But Maung Myint Kywe is skeptical. "I am sure the Literary Board has no motive of this kind. Their attitude is not like that," he said. "The government is practicing literary freedom to some extent ... But this [literary freedom] is still in an infant state."

Perhaps a case in point: A member of the board that selected the prize winners, Maung Paw Tun, told Foreign Policy that the panel had also considered Orwell's Nineteen-Eighty-Four, which tells the story of a man who rebels against an omnipresent, authoritarian state. They chose Burmese Days, instead, for reasons that Maung Paw Tun said he "had no right to tell."

Given that context, the ministry's recognition of Burmese Days seems to underscore what the new government has yet to formally acknowledge: Myanmar's long history of brutalizing, neglecting, surveiling, controlling, and manipulating its citizens under decades of authoritarian rule. Honoring Nineteen-Eighty-Four would have made a strong statement about the country's conflicted, Orwellian past.

It may be that the award is merely a diplomatic nod to the West, a gesture at progress meant to curry international goodwill as Myanmar's leaders try to repair the country's tainted public image. It's worth noting that this weekend's literary festival, like the one before it, was organized by Jane Heyn, the wife of the British ambassador to Myanmar. And it was hosted by Aung San Suu Kyi, whose marriage to a British national has been a major barrier to her planned presidential bid in 2015. The ministry's decision to honor the work of a famous British author may be politically expedient at the moment, particularly as her party grows more influential. Perhaps that's the takeaway here -- that, despite achieving new literary freedoms, Burma is still a place where politics invariably defines art.

Thurein Win contributed reporting from Myanmar.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images


Iran's Black Gold

A spike in Iran's oil exports raises fears Tehran will be less likely to cut a permanent nuclear deal.

Exports of Iranian crude oil jumped in January, raising concerns that the sanctions relief included in the interim nuclear agreement between Western countries and Tehran is giving a shot in the arm to the struggling Iranian economy that could weaken prospects for a comprehensive deal to derail Iranian nuclear weapons development.

Oil is the lifeblood of the Iranian economy, and Barack Obama's administration and its allies have spent years trying to strangle its oil industry as a way of forcing Tehran to the negotiating table. The International Energy Agency's monthly oil report estimated that Iranian oil exports spiked by about 100,000 barrels a day in January. That brought Iranian crude exports to just over 1.3 million barrels per day, worth almost $4 billion a month given the current price of oil.

Iran's growing oil revenues come amid signs that the Iranian economy more generally seems to be recovering from the darkest days of rampant inflation and a plunging currency, suggesting that the economic stranglehold that U.S. diplomats say pushed Iran to the negotiating table may be waning. The International Monetary Fund said this week that "the pace of contraction in [Iranian] economic activity is slowing" -- an assessment that hands a new weapon to opponents of the White House's interim nuclear deal with Tehran, who have long argued that the agreement was giving Iran too much financial relief.

"We need to ask ourselves, what has this policy of appeasement produced so far in Iran? The answer is economic growth, rising oil exports, long-range missile tests, promises to send warships to U.S. waters, and declarations that Iran will never dismantle its nuclear infrastructure," Sen. Mark Kirk (R.-Ill.) told Foreign Policy. Kirk is the author of Senate legislation that would tighten sanctions on Iran if the current talks fail and one of the most outspoken critics of the Obama administration's nuclear deal.

Crude exports are an important source of revenue for the Iranian government, but they had been slashed by years of oil sanctions organized by the United States and European countries. Before oil sanctions began in 2012, Iran exported about 2.5 million barrels per day, and exports fell as low as 760,000 barrels a day last fall.

Under the terms of the six-month interim agreement announced in November and finalized in January, Western countries relaxed efforts to continue squeezing Iranian oil exports. The partial relief, U.S. officials said, would still limit Iranian crude exports to about 1 million barrels of oil a day, but Iran is now clearly exporting significantly more than that.

The Iranian parliament passed a budget earlier this week proposed by President Hassan Rouhani based on revenue from 1.5 million barrels a day in exports. Tehran's clerical government provides its citizens with generous social benefits as a way of maintaining some popular support.

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said that U.S. officials are still reviewing the latest oil-export data, but reiterated that under the terms of the interim deal, Iran cannot increase its level of oil exports.

Since reaching an interim nuclear deal with Iran in November, critics have assailed the Obama administration for allegedly weakening the years-old economic sanctions, the one foreign-policy tool that seems to have worked on Iran. Administration officials have found themselves having to fend off claims that the deal is causing everything from improving inflation rates to overeager business deals.

President Barack Obama used a press conference with visiting French President François Hollande this week to warn that the United States would come down on sanctions violators "like a ton of bricks." The comment was a subtle dig at the private French trade delegation to Iran earlier this month that raised the ire of administration officials. More than 100 businesspeople went to Tehran to meet with officials and explore possible future opportunities. The group, the largest European delegation to visit Iran in 30 years, included French energy giant Total, carmaker Renault, and engineering firm Alstom.

The growing indications that Iran's economy is recovering from the impact of sanctions have led congressional critics of the deal to warn that the United States and its allies are gradually losing leverage over Tehran.

"Since this negotiation has begun, do you agree that Iran's inflation rate is way down, that their currency is way up, and that economic projections within the country are way up and that there are people from all over the world who are clamoring to do business with Iran?" Sen. Bob Corker (R.-Tenn.) asked Treasury Department sanctions chief David Cohen during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week.

Cohen responded that Iran's currency had stabilized as a result of Rouhani's election, not the nuclear deal.

The IMF said Wednesday that the Iranian economy remains weak overall and in need of major reforms, but future prospects have been buoyed by the temporary nuclear deal struck in January that could pave the way for the lifting of sanctions. The IMF said the Iranian economy could begin to stabilize and even grow 1 to 2 percent in 2014-15 but remain "highly uncertain." The comments come after the IMF's first trip back to the country since punishing international sanctions decimated the economy and drove down the value of Iran's currency. The IMF is expected to finish a full report on the trip in late March.

Some economists caution that improved prospects won't mean much if Iran can't reach a permanent deal with the West that repeals the vast majority of the sanctions, which are still in place.

"If there is no agreement, I think the 1 or 2 percent will prove too optimistic for next year," said Iranian economist Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a professor at Virginia Tech.

Still, the news is likely to stoke fears in Washington that the administration has given up too much in the interim deal.

Under the existing sanctions regime, revenues from Iranian oil exports are held in escrow accounts, which theoretically limits the amount of hard currency Tehran can receive. But Iran has managed to sidestep banking restrictions in the past, notably in deals with Turkey, and critics of the administration's approach worry that greater oil exports will translate into a stronger Iranian economy.

"Iran is gaining important negotiating leverage, while the United States' leverage is being diminished," Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told FP.

Dubowitz, a proponent of stronger sanctions against Iran, has for months warned that the partial sanctions relief included in the interim nuclear deal would offer large economic dividends to Iran. The White House says Iran would gain roughly $7 billion, but Dubowitz has said the true value of the relief is closer to $20 billion.

"That doesn't bode well for a diplomatic solution" to Iranian nuclear weapons development, Dubowitz added.

Atta Kenare – AFP – Getty