Burma (as the author of this book chooses to call it) is not a country that has received much in the way of positive press or much in the way of good luck. Ruled for centuries by kings wielding absolute power, it was then controlled by the British up until the Second World War, a conflict which utterly decimated parts of the country. Having finally achieved independence, the country was taken over by the military, a coup which launched 50 years of brutal and repressive rule. Many around the world rejoiced when finally, in 2015, elections paved the way for Aung San Suu Kyi (or Daw Suu as she is commonly known) to become state counsellor of the new democracy. More recently however, a militant crackdown against the country’s Royingha Muslims coupled with Daw Suu’s lack of response, have cast a heavy shadow over that brief period of optimism.
David Eimer, who has travelled extensively in Myanmar since 2010 and who, in 2015, moved there, does little to change the record, painting a vivid portrait of a complex country that’s more savage than dreamland. Using Yangon as a base, his story begins in the rickety and dirty streets of that town, once treated by the British as an important trading post, but now desperately in need of renovation. From there he takes extended trips, all the way to the dying island civilisations in the far south; to the bizarrely empty capital city of Napyidaw, only founded by the army in 2002; and to numerous rural towns and villages in the north, east and west of the country, many home to a minority ethnic group fighting for the right to self-govern. Eimer resists any urge to romanticise these journeys. Transport is more often than not uncomfortable and inadequate, his destinations poor and unclean. Many areas are also fuelled by crime. Myanmar is the second largest producer of opium and illegal trade sees jade and rare animals smuggled to China.
Though there is little to rejoice about on this journey, there is a great deal of life. With the exacting eye of the journalist, Eimer focuses on the lives of normal people, befriending or quizzing those from different religions and cultures, including many on opposite sides of Myanmar’s ongoing and decades-long civil wars. Demonstrating a remarkable fortitude, Eimer enters forbidden towns and crosses forbidden borders, at one point spending the night with a group of guerrilla fighters.
So too does he penetrate the core of the pernicious Buddhist-inspired nationalism held by some, though by no means all of Myanmar’s majority group – the Bamar. It is this nationalism that has led to the long repression of Myanmar’s ethnic and religious minorities, in particular the Rohingya. Eimer makes a number of surreptitious journeys to meet Rohingya communities trapped within small towns in Rakhine State, their situation desperate. Throughout all of these stories, the presence of Aung San Suu Kyi weighs heavily – the general picture not one of outward hostility but certainly not one of praise. Within minority communities most of Eimer’s interviewees have little faith that Daw Suu can restrain the army, and none are confident that she will change Myanmar for the better, or uphold past promises.
The only thing Eimer doesn’t include in this packed account is any real detail about himself. Though presumably deliberate, the omission did leave this reader intrigued. Given the danger and discomfort, one can only guess what led him to study Myanmar with such fastidiousness. And study it he certainly did. It’s worth paying attention as you read A Savage Dreamland, because throughout the narrative Eimer interweaves a great number of stories from Myanmar’s past and, without a chronology, it does take some attention to keep up. From powerful sky lords to Orwellian observations and 20th century student protests, a great deal is covered, all of it fascinating and much of it bizarre. When it comes to the latter, nothing can beat the stories of Ne Win, the first general to control Myanmar – a man who ruled based on the advice of astrologers and numerologists and who once devalued the country’s currency by introducing 45 and 90 kyat notes just because they were variables on his lucky number.
It is stories such as these that stick more than anything. Though sometimes so strange they almost seem funny, the harsh result is ever present as Eimer confronts a country that has been catastrophically mismanaged. The real tragedy is that he can offer little hope that things will change.
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