George Orwell wrote his dystopian novel Nineteen eighty-four in 1949, only a year after the Weazel’s placenta plopped. It was a prescient work that described a nightmarish totalitarian future that has long since come, but has never gone, and probably never will.
In the dark pages of Nineteen eighty-four the “Thought Police” ruled the imaginary country of Oceana with an iron hand . These neocortical cops coined neologisms such as, “Big brother”, “Newspeak”, “Thoughtcrime”, “Doublethink”, “2 + 2 = 5”, “Telescreen”, and “Room 101” for control and propaganda purposes. If you don’t buy the bullshit you’d better hope that the Thought Police don’t take you to Room 101 for interrogation!
How quaint it all seems now that 36 years have passed since poor Winston Smith, the protagonist, finally learned to “love Big brother” in Room 101.
These days the telescreen is omnipresent, fully half the American populace fails to cringe when confronted with “alternative facts“, and ever since poverty forced the Weazel to shop at Walmart, I too have learned to love big brother!
But how and where did Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, acquire such a bleak view of mankind? It was during his time serving as a British imperial police officer in Burma.
In Moulmein he ran a brutal prison. He began his brilliant short essay “Shooting an Elephant” with these words: “In Moulmein, in lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people – the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me.” The prison is still standing and is still full of wretched inmates; so, let’s go for a visit!
(Note: Faithful readers are reminded that the following events took place in February of 2016 while the Weazel, Dr. Ann, and Lucky Dave were traveling in southern Myanmar, better known as Burma.)
Having been driven out of Hpa-An by ceaseless noise and a strictly enforced tourism apartheid system designed to insure that we saw only smiling faces, I headed to the banks of the Salween to buy tickets for a voyage downriver to Moulmein, a former British colonial city now known as Mawlamyine.
Before leaving I had one more encounter with the Secret police. While wolfing down a chapati at a sidewalk café I was joined by a clever looking fellow who spoke excellent English. He professed a great love of America and wanted to know more about the place.
He was full of questions such as, “Are we disobedient toward the authorities? Is that considered acceptable? Is everyone rich? Are Negroes really like monkeys? Is it true that some people are atheists? What kind of drugs do you like?” He was very straightforward, so I answered his question honestly. Perhaps it will help them to set rational policies.
Then it was my turn, so I asked him about the Karen. (Let’s not forget that we were in Kayin state, the homeland of the Karen.) He said, “Oh, you must mean the square jawed people. They all look the same. There are a few around here but they are all Christians, there’s even a church! Everyone else is a Burmese Buddhist like me!” He failed to mention Muslims, or the fact that the town was surrounded by the Karen National Liberation Army.
We packed up, told Pu Pu of our plans (a requirement!), then strolled down to the boat.
Our accommodations were excellent. The seating was comfortable and afforded expansive views of the adjacent mudbanks. As you can see the Burmese thoughtfully added rubbish to help stabilize the shore, and a convenient plank to help elderly tourist board the ship. In the stern you see the Captain’s sleeping quarters.
Shortly after setting out we passed Linno gu, a small mountain with a big cave that disgorges millions of bats every night, a tourist spectacle that Lucky Dave watched but I did not.
Though slow, the diesel motor of our vessel was so loud that the sound waves actually collapsed sand bars in advance of our approach.
There were numerous sand and gravel dredges.
Dredging for anything destroys everything that lives on the bottom of any estuary; but that’s nothing, the real damage comes from sedimentation. Any fish that tries to swim upstream chokes on dirt.
The ultimate threat is the Chinese who own the Tibetan headwaters. Any fish that makes it through the silt will hit a concrete wall. With that as a given, who cares if they remove a billion tons of sand to build skyscrapers in Shenzhen?
Meanwhile the villagers wish for fish.
Moulmein is a gracious old British colonial city beautifully situated on a low ridge overlooking the estuary of the Salween. Verdure cloaks the crumbling remains, and the air is redolent with languor and decay.
We took a civilized room at the government approved Pann Su Wai guesthouse, then strolled down the waterfront to the Daw Yee for dinner, a place famous for traditional Burmese fare. It was traditional all right. All the food was three days old and had been left sitting in the sun in cloth covered fly specked pots. The food was delicious, so despite the fact that I was already sick and growing sicker, I gobbled a large amount.
When the fever came on I blamed it on sunburn exacerbated by sitting in a boat all day while taking Doxycycline for malaria prevention. Maybe it was the Doxy? Anything rather than admit to myself that I was sick and should forego dinner and a gallon of beer, or perhaps even return to Thailand? Muddled thinking of this sort is what enables alcoholics, homeopaths, and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine to keep on quacking.
In the morning, despite feeling like a pot of three day old food with too many maggots, I set out to explore the city.
Our guesthouse was in the old colonial part of town, but I looked in vain for anyone out in the noonday sun wearing a seersucker suit while sipping a gin and tonic. There wasn’t much left of the empire. Here is the First Baptist church.
Imagine that you are a poor peasant from somewhere upcountry, an old fashioned animist, and you go downriver to the big city of Moulmein to find out what the fuss is all about. The First Baptist church is fairly impressive, nothing like that back in the village, so you think, “Maybe I’ll become a Christian?”
Then a swarthy little man with a strange looking dagger tugs at your sleeve and says, “The infidels lie! Come to the Mosque!
But a fortune teller tells you, “Beware! In the future the Moslems will become such assholes that we will drive them into the sea!”
Then you walk a short ways down the street to behold this rather modest Buddhist pagoda.
This sort of golden extravagance is as common in Moulmein as cinderblock Baptist churches are in rural Georgia. Best of all, you don’t even need to wear out your knees or give up alcohol!
The bottom line is that anything beats being a Baptist!
I was looking for the prison, but I found the school instead, not that there is much difference. How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?
There was even a school bus!
Kipling once famously wrote:
“By the old Moulmein pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me”.
But where exactly was she a-settin? If tradition holds true she would have taken the Staircase of Love! A nicely secluded spot for a tryst!
The stairs were littered with smooching couples!
In western cultures becoming a monk means taking a vow of poverty and chastity for life, but in many Buddhist cultures it is just something a young man does until he figures out what else to do. Like this fine fellow who could pass for a Parisian sapeur out for a stroll. You can be sure that when his tour of spiritual duty is over you will find him on the stairs!
But Kipling’s girl wouldn’t settle for some local bumpkin, she would have continued up the stairs to a vantage point overlooking the sea to await a glimpse of the sails of his ship. Someplace like this.
One might suppose that the Brits would have built a fort atop the hill, but that space was already taken starting in the year 875 AD. That was during the Dark ages where we come from, but apparently not in Burma.
I had previously been impressed by the countless mostly fake golden Buddhas of Hpa-An, but they were nothing compared to the magnificence of the Kyaikthanlan Pagoda that completely covered the hilltop and is surrounded by 34 subsidiary temples!
For the Weazel all that glitters is not all that is interesting, so I explored some of the more tarnished temples, many of which were evidently ancient.
While roaming the back alleys of these ancient temples I encountered only one person.
The interiors of these forgotten pagodas were filled with extraordinary artwork intended to help pre-literate Burmese understand the story of the Buddha.
Many of the paintings showed scenes from ordinary life, but when?
Then I found an inscription for dummies. I presume that this plaque dates from the mid 1800s, for it was clearly intended to help the barbaric Brits understand a few simple truths.
Here is the gist of it:
Patience is the highest moral practice
A Bhikkhu (Theravada Buddhist monk) does not harm others
Do no evil
Purify one’s mind
Practice restraint in fundamental precepts
Be moderate in food
Dwell in a secluded place
Be intent on higher thoughts
These are the teachings of the Buddha
How hard is that? Apparently very hard!
Please note that there is no reference whatsoever to anything supernatural. Practitioners are urged to live simple thoughtful lives, and to abjure fanaticism. Most importantly, there is no admonition to pray to the Buddha, for the Buddha is not a god!
How different and more profound this is than the psychotic delusions that passes for wisdom in Islam and Christianity! The poor Buddha must be writhing around in Nirvana knowing that his words of wisdom have been turned into a religion featuring both guilt and gilt, but then the little Jew boy worshipped by so many could say the same.
Before heading down the hill I returned to the main pagoda for a final sublime overlook of the city.
From high atop my pinnacle of enlightenment I could see the sinister ruins of Orwell’s prison far below, the place where he had been so hated. It was time to summon up his ghost!
The Weazel hates to disappoint his readers, but you have fallen victim to the old ‘bait and switch” scam.
The truth is that when I got to the entrance to the old prison I chickened out. It was every bit as forbidding as I had imagined, a crumbling gray pile that reeked of evil. There were guards with guns, and everywhere I looked there were big signs in English saying NO PHOTOGRAPHS! PHOTOGRAPHERS WILL BE PROSECUTED!
The guards were accustomed to foreign devils with cameras so they fixed me with penetrating stares as if daring me to take a snap. Apparently I am not the only person who has been thus intimidated. I have searched the web and not a single photo of the entrance to the old prison can be found!
I was reminded of Orwell’s short story A Hanging, which begins like this:
“It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains. A sickly light, like yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard. We were waiting outside the condemned cells, a row of sheds fronted with double bars, like small animal cages. Each cell measured about ten feet by ten and was quite bare within except for a plank bed and a pot of drinking water. In some of them brown silent men were squatting at the inner bars, with their blankets draped round them. These were the condemned men, due to be hanged within the next week or two.”
I had no wish to emulate those sorry fellows so I reluctantly beat a retreat to the market which occupies one wall of the prison. Foreigners rarely visit the market so everyone’s eyes were on me. What the hell is he doing here?
There was the only one stretch of wall I could find that appeared to be unguarded and without a sign prohibiting photography. That is because this is just the outer wall
While peregrinating around the perimeter I witnessed a jailbreak. Quick, call the cops!
The market was as lively as the prison was gray, but probably not more crowded.
I made my way down the narrow streets.
To the larger market downtown.
Despite roiling guts I had developed a thirst, so I was delighted to find what passed for a bar on a street corner. The patrons were amazed that a foreigner would stop at such a place. When I announced that I was an American this was the reaction.
This fine fellow was cheering, “Hooray Obama” until he noticed that I was taking his picture. He immediately shut up and furtively scanned the area for police. What if they saw him talking to a foreigner? They might think he was a dissident!
Thus chastened he quietly continued the conversation, but asked that I take no more photos. He was very serious about loving America, especially Obama, as did all of his friends. He looked at America as a bastion of freedom and opportunity, nothing like the pseudo democratic dictatorship under which he lived.
Encouraged by beer, good fellowship, and hope for world peace I staggered to the waterfront to watch the sun set over the Salween.
But what of George Orwell and his ghost? It seems that I was looking in the wrong place. His shade had no need to linger in a place where no offence was taken, his business there long since done.
It wasn’t the Burmese who roused his ire, it was his fellow Brits, and the lies that they promulgated on behalf of empire. Though considered primitive and often brutal by Western cultural standards the Burmese were at least honest, and were so portrayed in his earliest works such as “A Hanging” and “Shooting an Elephant”.
Upon return to “civilization” he embraced socialism as a more humane approach to governance.
His convictions even led him to fight in the Spanish civil war. There, while wallowing in the trenches with his fellow partisans, Orwell encountered the full spectrum of leftist thought. He soon came to the conclusion that any political ideology, no matter how well intended, can be twisted into the service of a totalitarian state. From that point on he directed almost all of his vitriol against communism, particularly the excesses of Stalinism.
The quote for which Orwell is best known, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”, comes from the mouth of a talking pig, the boss hog in his book Animal Farm. His imaginary communist world presaged the social justice movements of today, all of which make radical demands for equality. Should any of these movements prevail, it is inevitable that some will become more equal than others.
Having experienced ideologically driven distortions from both sides of the divide, Orwell would surely have agreed with the Buddha about practicing restraint in regard to fundamental precepts.
That conversation with an Obama supporter at a corner bar in Moulmein took place in early 2016. Later that year Donald Trump was elected president. For the following four years no one in the world other than a few fascists in shithole countries like Brazil and Hungary spoke well of America, and I, for one, was ashamed of my country. That changed recently, and now there is hope that our nation will regain its stature in the eyes of the world.
That is not the only good news. As of this writing Aung san Suu Kyi’s party just won the Myanmar elections by a landslide. She will never be a saint by the standards of the “woke” left, and is still under the thumb of the military dictatorship, but their grip is crumbling so there is hope for Burma too!
Perhaps these developments will help to finally put Orwell’s ghost to rest.
Stay tuned for the final installment of our thrilling adventure in which the Weazel falls deathly ill while fleeing south on a train ride through the forbidden zone directly into the flaming pit of Hell!
3 thoughts on “Myanmar, Part 5: In search of Orwell’s ghost”
Well done . Your virtual tourism helps when we are still stuck on the mountain top avoiding maskless wonders and trying to observe the Trump driven social Darwinism experiment our society has become.
Keep your beer stockpiles full…
Bruce did you know President Trump is the only president in many decades who hasn’t started a war anywhere. Also been nominated for the noble peace award. Also has negotiated three peace treaties in the Middle East between Israel and three Moslem Countries.
A great escape from reality. I’m working on a job in Madagascar, haven’t been there yet to lie to the locals.