A literary pick A collection of some of the best books on Myanmar
Apart from one exception, each of the books listed was published before Myanmar’s political and economic reforms began in 2011. The country has changed a great deal during the past few years, so I’m looking forward to reading new works that depict the “new” Myanmar (insofar as I know, none yet exist) as well as a flourishing of writers celebrating greater literary freedom. It goes without saying that learning about Myanmar’s turbulent and complicated past is essential to understand the situation today.
The Trouser People, Andrew Marshall (2002)
Due to the country’s dictatorial past, many books on Myanmar are distressing and depressing: this one is too, but there’s also a lot of humour in it. Marshall, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist who works for Reuters, retraces the steps of eccentric British civil servant and adventurer Sir George Scott, who was knocking through Myanmar’s jungles in the 19th century. The historical research is superbly intriguing and is paired well with what has and hadn’t changed in Myanmar during the last hundred years or so. xx
For example, the origin of the incredibly popular lotteries (the modern mobile vendors of which play some great disco tunes) can be traced to the reign of King Thibaw, who was Myanmar’s last monarch until he was deposed by the British.
The Burman – His Life and Notions, Shway Yoe (Sir George Scott), (1882)
Anyone who reads this book will understand Marshall’s fascination with Sir George Scott, who spent three decades of his life in Myanmar and travelled extensively, often for “negotiating” deals with the leaders of ethnic minority groups to acquiesce to the British Empire. Scott was nothing short of obsessed with local customs, geography and history and this book is the product of his copious note-taking skills. As the title suggests, Scott’s approach was simply to record his detailed observations, which makes it more of a book to dip in and out of than to read from start to end. Have a flick through: chapters such as “Ear boring,” “Lucky and unlucky days” and “Wizards, doctors and wise men” certainly piqued my curiosity…
While some of Scott’s commentary strays into the