Myanmar (Burma) is a country located in Southeast Asia that shares borders with China, Thailand, Laos, India and Bangladesh. It is home to over 135 different ethnic groups and around a hundred different languages. It became independent of Great Britain in 1948 and was a military regime from 1962 to 2011. It has been called Myanmar since 1989.
Myanmar or Burma became part of the British colonies in 1862. During its colonial period, a lot of Indians were sent there to work for the British. They enjoyed a better status than the Burmese, who were notoriously disliked among British colonizers and, like in many other colonial territories, experienced physical and psychological abuse on a regular basis.
Burmese Days, by George Orwell
Burmese Days is a book by George Orwell, who was stationed as an imperial official in Burma, nowadays called Myanmar, from 1922 to 1925. It is a work of fiction, but it is very much based on Orwell’s own experiences.
The book starts with U Po Kyin, a Burmese magistrate, plotting to destroy the reputation of an Indian doctor, Dr. Veraswami, who wants to become a member of the European Club to guarantee he will always have prestige. He has not succeeded in doing so because Dr. Veraswami is friends with John Flory, a white English timber merchant with a big birth mark on his face and a small personality. Because of his views of Burmese culture, aka. because he is not an overly racist douche, Flory doesn’t have any European friends. He is well aware of the horrible things that the British are doing in Burma, and he is very critical of the Empire:
“We Anglo-Indians could be almost bearable if we’d only admit that we’re thieves and go on thieving without any humbug.”
But Flory’s dissatisfaction with the British way does not mean he doesn’t participate in it. He is, after all, a European merchant in Burma. He is a member of the European Club, he has hit his Burmese servants (everyone does it, after all. It’s not like he hits them every day.), he has a Burmese mistress that he considers inferior to -or rather not as worthy as- European women and whom he mistreats constantly. Still, he is constantly drunk, isolated, and miserable.
Flory’s life changes when Elizabeth Lackersteen arrives in Burma. She is young, beautiful, and unmarried. To Flory, she is the answer to his problems: a white woman with whom he can share his Burma. They start spending time together and both expect they will marry. Flory sees her as the woman to save him from loneliness and Elizabeth sees him as her only option to avoid being an old spinster without any money.
When it comes to social and political attitudes from the past, especially when discussing popular culture, it is common to hear people justify them by saying that people “simply didn’t know better”. The jokes, the characterizations, the racist depictions of minorities in films and series, are often justified by saying that back then, they didn’t know it was wrong. Even by today’s standards, it is not uncommon that modern film-makers make some… questionable decisions regarding race, gender, or anything like that in a period film, they justify it by saying that “that’s what it was like in those days. People didn’t know it was bad to be racist and violent. They had no concept of racism.”
It is whenever I hear that, that I think of George Orwell. I think of The Road to Wigan Pier and Burmese Days, and I can’t help but think that… maybe they did know. Maybe we always know, deep down, that what we’re doing is wrong. Even if we don’t agree with it, the fact that we are not doing anything about it, is us choosing to be part of the same system because, no matter how unjust it is, “that’s just how things are”. And if we really don’t know, maybe we can wake up to it, like Orwell did. He wrote Burmese Days to truly depict what he saw and what he did during his own Burmese days. He first started writing it around 1929, but was not able to publish it until 1934 and only in the United States. The main reason for this delay was the publishers’ fear of retaliation by members of the British Empire, due to the fact that the characters were a little too similar to actual people and the situations were a little too real. Several publishing houses rejected it and only one house agreed to publish it a year later, after extensive research to prove that the book was actual fiction and that no character was named after a real person in colonial Burma.
Orwell knew that all art is political. But more than that, he firmly believed that literature had to be used for that purpose.
“Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”George Orwell, Why I Write
Through his essays and books, he later wrote in favor of the working class, he defended “low brow” literature, he criticized the colonialist attitude of his contemporaries, and he spoke out against totalitarianism and fascism. His best´known books, Animal Farm and 1984, an allegory and a cautionary tale respectively, truly show the true purpose of his writing.
No big change comes overnight. Sometimes the system is too rigid, too big, or too familiar to be changed quickly, and we are not always in the best position to do so. The fact that we live within the system means that we probably reproduce it in one way or another. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do anything about it. We can use our words and our voices and our art; we do that on a daily basis, after all. It just needs purpose.
“For five years I had been part of an oppressive system, and it had left me with a bad conscience. Innumerable remembered faces – faces of prisoners on the dock, of men waiting in the condemned cells, of subordinates I had bullied and aged peasants I had snubbed, of servant and coolies I had hit with my first moments of rage (nearly everyone does these things in the East, at any rate occasionally: Orientals can be very provoking) haunted me intolerably. I was conscious of an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate. I suppose that sounds exaggerated; but if you do for five years a job that you thoroughly disapprove of, you will probably feel the same. … I felt that I had got to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man.”George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier