You have to figure out the first thing you need to do when you write about Burma. Since 1989, when the then-ruling junta changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar, the country has been known as Myanmar. But like all of the decisions made by the generals, this one was made without consulting the people who live in the area. The junta thought they were absolute monarchs and didn’t give Burma’s people democracy or human rights. It’s because of this that the UK and US governments keep calling the country Burma. It’s the same for me in my book, A Savage Dreamland: Journeys in Burma, as well as for all the other writers on the list below, too. But neither Burma nor Myanmar can do justice to a country with so many different ethnic groups. In Burmese, both names are direct references to the Bamar, the majority ethnic group. They don’t mean anything to the 134 officially recognized minorities, who make up at least a third of the country’s people.
When I saw how many different people, religions, and landscapes were in Burma I thought it would be interesting to write about. Burma is still the least-known country in south-east Asia, even though it has a lot of different things. There isn’t much new writing about the country, either. That’s another thing the generals did. They took power in 1962 and ruled for almost 50 years. People who were in charge of the country were very strict with local writers. They also tried to keep the country isolated from the rest of the world. In spite of the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is running Burma in an uneasy partnership with the military, press freedom is still an ideal that hasn’t come true yet. The country has a lot of people who read a lot. People who sell books on the streets in Yangon’s old town, which used to be called Rangoon, put their books out on the ground for people to look through. There are always copies of George Orwell’s book, “Burmese Days.” It’s interesting that it’s still the most popular English-language book about Burma, even though it was written in 1934. Most of the best travel writing about Burma was written before or right after the Second World War, which was a long time ago. My book is an attempt to fill in the gaps in recent literature about the country. People who speak English can read some of the best things that have been written in English about Burma.
Burmese Days by George Orwell
The title alone is enough to make this a must-have. Orwell worked as a policeman in Burma for five years in the 1920s. He was both disgusted and disgusted by the locals’ growing disdain for the British presence in their country at the same time. During this shocking picture of small-minded, deeply racist Brits living in a tiny up-country town, all that bile came out in full force. It is a very bad thing to say about imperial rule.
From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe
Pascal Khoo Thwe writes about his journey from Shan state to Cambridge University in a way that makes a mockery of the fact that English is his “second” language. His writing makes a mockery of this fact. When Aung San Suu Kyi became famous around the world in 1988, he was part of an anti-government uprising against the government. This book tells how he grew up in a remote village in Burma, where people still believe in animists. It also includes his time as a rebel soldier in the jungles of southern Burma. if the story wasn’t true, it would be hard to believe.
Golden Earth: Travels in Burma by Norman Lewis
Travel writing by Lewis was one of the best of the 20th century, and in this account of his trip to Burma in 1951, he is at his best. Lewis came to the country just three years after it became independent. It was already split up by political and ethnic lines. Even though the book was written a long time ago, there hasn’t been much major change in Burma.
Golden Parasol: A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma by Wendy Law-Yone
In Yangon, people remember the 1950s as a good time when Burma was still a new country and the military hadn’t yet taken over. After the 1962 coup, Law-memoir Yone’s shows how that optimism turned into disillusionment and then terror. It tells the story of her family, especially her father, a big-time newspaper editor who was imprisoned by the generals before fleeing to the US in a very unhappy state of mind.
Into Hidden Burma by Maurice Collis
Because Collis was a Briton who came to Burma during colonial times, it was a little different from other British officials. One day, he was on the boat to leave the country for good. He was a frustrated poet because he felt for the Burmese and their desire for independence. This book tells the story of how he went from Rakhine state to the far south of Myanmar through Yangon and the Ayeyarwady Delta. It gives an insider’s view of British rule.
Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig
This book is based on the true story of Craig’s mother, whose father was Indian Jewish and whose mother was from the Karen minority in southern Burma. It cleverly blends fact and fiction. When Craig was a child, his mother was a beauty queen and film star in the 1950s. At one point, she left her glamorous life in Rangoon to become a leader of a guerrilla army fighting for an independent Karen state.
Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma by George MacDonald Fraser
This is what happened to MacDonald Fraser’s fictional character Flashman: He didn’t go to Burma. That’s not the only thing. Fraser spent two years in Japan during World War II, fighting the Japanese. This account of his war, which borrows its title from Kipling, is starkly unfeeling. It’s told from the point of view of an infantryman, who has to be very narrow. But Fraser has a great ear for dialogue, and he has a way of making battle come alive for the reader.
The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong by W Somerset Maugham
Somerset Maugham is better known for writing about sundowners on South Sea islands and the high life on the French Riviera than he is for writing about a lot of different places. His 1922 trip through south-east Asia didn’t go as well as he thought it would. In Burma, he spent weeks riding a mule through the jungle and hills of Shan state, a journey that would be hard even now. He was a good observer of both people and landscapes, and now the book reads almost like an elegy for a long-gone way of life.
The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U
It’s another title that comes from Kipling, and Thant Myint-U goes back and forth through Burma’s early history, colonial times, independence and junta rule as he talks about his own memories. As you might expect from the grandson of U Thant, the UN secretary general in the 1960s, there’s a patrician tone to the writing, but the general history of Burma in this book is probably the best one out there.
Under the Dragon by Rory MacLean
This is one of the few travel books written about Burma in the junta era. It’s also one of the few. Maclean looks at the people he meets with the eyes of a novelist as he tries to find out where a basket from Burma came from when it was brought to England in colonial times. As a whole, Maclean is great at capturing the country under the generals as a place where beauty, kindness, and a strong religious faith mixed with ruthless cruelty.