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Jonathan Mirsky
AFTER THE FLOOD
Everything is Broken: The Untold Story of Disaster Under Burma's Military Regime
By Emma Larkin (Granta Books 265pp 12.99)

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On 2 May 2008 tropical cyclone Nargis struck Burma with such force that even today nobody knows how many people were killed, although the ruling military junta reported exactly how many chickens died. Here is the special quality of this regime, as Emma Larkin writes in her latest evocative book: 'Events happen in Burma, and then they are systematically unhappened.' Unhappened is a good word, and very Orwellian, an echo perhaps of Larkin's wonderful previous book on Orwell's early years in Burma.

Official Burmese lying is stupendous. 1,250,194 chickens died in the cyclone, the junta declared. They also said that 76.28 per cent of Rangoon's telephone lines were soon restored, together with 98.5 per cent of the water supply.

Those were obvious lies. But some of Larkin's details are unforgettably revealing. Once international aid was permitted, under cumbersome regulations, buffalos were obtained from the north-west to take the place of the thousands drowned in the delta. But 'Arakanese buffalo', Larkin writes, 'didn't understand the commands uttered by delta farmers who speak a different dialect from their counterparts in Arakan State.' Other animal stories told among the people are equally illuminating: 'a boy ... had been rescued by a crocodile, a girl ... survived by holding on to a goose, and a woman ... managed to catch hold of a python as it navigated the storm surge'. Larkin heard how people 'spoke with awe of how poisonous snakes had become entwined around their necks in the rising water but had not bitten them'.

Larkin has been to Burma many times, even a week after the cyclone when most foreigners were banned. She herself is somewhat mysterious: an American born and raised somewhere in Asia, she studied Burmese at London's School of Oriental and African Studies; 'Emma Larkin' is a pseudonym. Her Secret Histories: Finding Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, published in 2004 (reviewed LR December 04/January 05), is minutely observed: a Rangoon bookseller digs out a worm-eaten copy of Orwell's banned Nineteen Eighty-Four, and says that Burmese don't need to read it. 'They are already living inside Nineteen Eighty-Four in their daily lives.' During some of her post-cyclone weeks she gathered information for international aid agencies but was careful not to break any of the myriad regulations with which the junta hobbles foreigners.

Larkin is scrupulously fair. She pulls no punches about the junta, whose history she ably sketches, especially its paramount figure, the secretive, wooden and greedy General Than Shwe, who appears to think he is both a god and a previous king. The junta is so brutal that it even kills and imprisons monks, a savagery hitherto unheard of and profoundly shocking to Burmese. It enriches itself from foreign aid. But Larkin observes, too, that the generals' paranoia about foreigners was deepened by threats from outside. For years Western powers debated interfering in Burma; the American warships floating off the Burmese coast, ready to land supplies after the cyclone, looked menacing. Time magazine ran an article asking 'Is it Time to Invade Burma?'

The junta is corrupt and vicious but not stupid. It employed the 'tried-and-tested method that the generals had used before in times of crisis, and it boiled down to a simple strategy: toss out some concessionary crumbs to appease foreign detractors, hunker down, and wait for the storm to blow over'. The storm blew over, actually and figuratively; other international crises replaced Burma on the front (or even any) pages, and the only Burmese most foreigners have heard of, Aung San Suu Kyi, remains under house arrest. 'Righteous moral indignation', Larkin observes, 'had been traded in for a shoddy compromise with the regime', while 'psychological trauma was erupting all over the delta in ghastly and unnerving ways'.

Leaders like Than Shwe appeared in the totally controlled press accepting the gratitude of their subjects for orchestrated benevolence.

In the never-never land of the regime's imagination, survivors of the storm suffered no trauma and felt no grief at having lost family members, homes and livelihoods ... they sat smiling obediently amid mountains of Mama noodles and brightly colored plastic buckets.

And always there was the shame, the sort that we in the West can barely comprehend, which Larkin, as ever, describes with painful accuracy. After the storm, which tore off their clothes, many Burmese ended up naked.

In the very conservative village society of Burma the sense of shame this caused is hard to forget ... A young woman who had clung on to a tree for the duration of the storm refused to climb down when other survivors called to her because she no longer had any clothes on; she waited all day, until nightfall, and climbed down in the darkness.

Always, too, there were the dead, whose screams rural Burmese claimed they heard at night across the paddy fields. 'People wake up with the sensation that someone has been grasping at their arms or legs,' Larkin reports, 'in the same way people held on to each other during the storm.' Orwell, in his Burmese Days, didn't write more vividly than that.