Friday, September 28, 2007

Burmese Days

I’ve always liked Orwell, not as a great writer but because of how and why he wrote. Christopher Hitchens, who wrote Why Orwell Matters a few years back, captures this well.

Orwell was born in India and served in the police force in colonial Burma. He wrote Burmese Days about the experience, as well as the famous and wonderful short story Shooting the Elephant, and he inevitably comes to mind with the recent, terrible news from the country.

Hitchens once said that sales of Orwell always rise in times of strife and conflict, because his message in 1984, Animal Farm, and Homage to Catalonia is perpetually relevant. Not so, apparently.

I visited Burma a decade ago, during a brief window when access to the country was opened. At the border they forced westerners to exchange $300 equivalent for FECs, a foreign exchange currency, at a rate fixed by the Junta. FECs could only be redeemed for official Burmese Kyats at state-run banks: On the street you could get about 300 Kyats to a dollar, when the official exchange rate was under fifty. Guilt at entering the country intensified when you saw the constant presence of soldiers and jeeps. Yet I have no regrets about the visit – seeing Rangoon, spending time with the saffron-robed monks, traveling down the Irrawaddy river, visiting the fabulous temples at Pagan, this was unforgettable.

Most western countries have already imposed sanctions, but China, a major trading partner, refuses to take action. Lets hope recent events aren’t a repeat of 1988.

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