Life in Burma: an expatriate’s point of view


BURMA CHRONICLES by Guy Delisle. Quebec, Canada: Drawn and Quarterly, 2008, 208 pp., $19.95 (cloth)

Over the past 20 years Burma has sunk ever further into an abyss of political oppression and economic malaise under a brutal military junta that shot monks on the streets of Yangon during the Saffron Revolution in September 2007, and then exacerbated the natural tragedy of cyclone Nargis this past May by hampering international relief efforts. Under this regime, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 13 of the past 19 years and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has not been allowed to take control of the government despite winning a landslide victory in the 1990 elections.

The new constitution, “approved” in a rigged referendum held in May, disqualifies Aung San Suu Kyi, the nation’s most prominent and popular political leader, from running for office and also institutionalizes a continuing political role for the military by reserving seats for it in Parliament. New elections are scheduled for 2010, but the junta is loading the dice so the people won’t have a chance to give the “wrong” verdict again.

This witty and incisive graphic novel draws on the 14 months in 2005-06 when Guy Delisle accompanied his wife on a posting in Burma with Doctors Without Borders. Delisle, who has also published graphic novels about North Korea and China, mines the everyday life and experiences of an expatriate, often shared with his infant Louis. Even from within a relatively comfortable cocoon, Delisle helps readers understand what it means to live under an incompetent but scary dictatorship.

He muses about magazines with missing pages in the land of “censo-rama” and also makes resolutions . . . to get up and give alms to the monks every morning and to keep visiting the sentry post blocking Aung San Suu Kyi’s street until he is allowed to pass . . . but lassitude prevails.

The author also draws our attention to the Buddhist doctrine of earning merit and how Burma’s generals make lavish offerings and build new pagodas. Why do evil men try to earn merit? Delisle writes, “After spending one whole lifetime oppressing a nation, he wanted to avoid coming back as a rat or a frog in the next.” These animals are mischievously rendered in dress uniform replete with medals.

International medical organizations have a difficult time getting access to the areas in Burma where their services are most in need because these are politically sensitive zones where armed conflict persists or is only in abeyance. Delisle has a wonderful graphic depicting the long line of uniformed ministers that need to sign off on travel permits and work permits, a tangle of red tape that constrains humanitarian initiatives and ensures that people’s access to health care remains grossly inadequate.

One of the funnier segments focuses on the official newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar. He writes, “The propaganda is laid on so thick that you wonder whether a single person in the entire country believes it.” We learn that the people’s professed desires include, “Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy,” heady words that are printed everywhere, even at park entrances and on DVDs. With portraits of Kim Jong Il in the background, he notes that this is “the xenophobic, paranoid and hawkish rhetoric that all dictatorships use.” The news is heavily skewed to reporting the glorious contributions of the military while focusing on just how miserable conditions are in other countries.

However, with the advent of the Internet and vernacular radio broadcasts from Thailand, the people know well the grim realities of the gulag they live in.

They might not know so much about Golden Valley, an upscale neighborhood in Yangon for the generals and their cronies where access to electricity and water is steady year-round, an impossible dream for most citizens. Walking past the massive McMansions with their high fences and elaborate security, Delisle comments, “Barbed wire looks a bit nouveau riche, huh?”

In contrast, the troops travel in vintage trucks and rely on antiquated communication systems, causing the author to ask a friend, “With such a dilapidated army, you wonder how the junta holds onto power?” His friend responds, “Maybe it’s the torture and imprisonment that do it?”

Delisle recounts various rumors and conspiracy theories about disappearances, bombings and bizarre government policies. He also ponders the new $50 million U.S. Embassy in Yangon, asking, “Why build a gigantic embassy in a country you don’t recognize and that you’ve put under embargo?” Especially now that the capital has been moved from Yangon to distant Nay Pyi Taw.

Beyond having a laugh at the expat world and detailing the daily drudgery of life in Burma, the author reminds us that there is much to despair in the raging epidemics of AIDS, drug addiction, malaria and TB, a growing public health crisis that the junta has ignored to the peril of a people who have suffered indignities and incompetence for far too long. Deceptively innocent, this illustrated book is a searing indictment, brimming with shrewd insights and inspiring examples of resilience.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian studies at Temple University, Japan campus.