(Editorial) - The work of British writer George Orwell still resonates with readers around the world today. When the recent National Security Agency scandal broke in the United States after revelations by fugitive former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, sales of his novels including “1984” and “Animal Farm” shot up the best seller ranks.
It is therefore fitting that a group of Myanmar artists has began a campaign to preserve the house the late British writer is said to have lived in and penned his books in Katha, 150 miles north of Mandalay, as a young colonial police officer, whose real name was Eric Blair. The nondescript wood and brick house has fallen into disrepair and local artists and literature lovers are keen to preserve the house in the memory of one of literature’s strongest critics of dictatorship. Tourists with copies of his novel “Burmese Days” are coming to Katha on a pilgrimage that the local artists believe should be encouraged.
There is some irony in the fact that Myanmar is at least superficially opening up after decades of military dictatorship just as Western critics claim their own governments are growing more intrusive and dictatorial. Under President Thein Sein, Myanmar has opened its doors and is offering the promise of democracy and economic reform. To judge by the often heady stories in the Western mainstream press – bar the unfortunate communal killings and tension - the country is changing for the better and there are a lot of investment opportunities for those willing to work with local companies and those in power.
Many Myanmar literature lovers have a fond spot for the young British writer who was a tough critic of British colonial rule, the poor treatment of the local Burmese, and looked askance at the local Burmese dignitaries who were often corrupt.
Orwell died in 1950 but his work and warnings live on. Few would dispute that life is improving for the average citizen of Myanmar as he or she goes about their business in a political and economic system in the grip of reform. Citizens have more freedom to speak out against injustice and demand more of a say in the running of the country. The media is freer to take to task the government over its perceived failures or weaknesses, with the sense that the censor’s black pen or threat of jail are things of the past.
But if Orwell were alive today, he would recognize the patterns and doublespeak, and likely warn the citizens of Myanmar that they are far from out of the woods. His take on those who reside in the mansions in Naypyitaw might be one of skepticism that the official propaganda belies a desire to hang on to illgotten gains and conveniently wipe clean the bloody slate of the past. He would echo Abraham Lincoln’s statement: You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.
In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act. The Myanmar artists recognize the importance of Orwell’s words and are cognizant of the game being played by the powers that be. And the renewed popularity of Orwell’s novels in North America and Europe hints at a growing public awareness of the curtailing of freedoms and the tighter military and corporate grip on what passes for democracy in the West.
As the brooms, paint brushes and paint are brought out to clean up the former abode of a great writer in this Myanmar backwater, we would do well to recognize how his words are crucially relevant today.
This Editorial first appeared in the September 19 edition of M-ZINE+.