Before visiting Myanmar, it is good to read some more about the history, culture and politics of the country. Below you will find a list of recommended literature about Myanmar and the insights offered within their pages.
The Glass Palace (by Amitav Ghosh): Set in Burma during the British invasion of 1885, this masterly novel by Amitav Ghosh tells the story of Rajkumar, a poor boy lifted on the tides of political and social chaos, who goes on to create an empire in the Burmese teak forest. When soldiers force the royal family out of the Glass Palace and into exile, Rajkumar befriends Dolly, a young woman in the court of the Burmese Queen, whose love will shape his life. He cannot forget her, and years later, as a rich man, he goes in search of her. The struggles that have made Burma, India, and Malaya the places they are today are illuminated in this wonderful novel by the writer Chitra Divakaruni calls “a master storyteller.”
From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey (by Pascal Khoo Thwe): The astonishing story of a young man’s upbringing in a remote tribal village in Burma and his journey from his strife-torn country to the tranquil quads of Cambridge. In lyrical prose, Pascal Khoo Thwe describes his childhood as a member of the Padaung hill tribe, where ancestor worship and communion with spirits blended with the tribe’s recent conversion to Christianity. In the 1930s, Pascal’s grandfather captured an Italian Jesuit, mistaking him for a giant or a wild beast; the Jesuit in turn converted the tribe. (The Padaung are famous for their ‘giraffe women’ — so-called because their necks are ritually elongated with ornamental copper rings. Pascal’s grandmother had been exhibited in a touring circus in England as a ‘freak’.) Pascal developed a love of the English language through listening to the BBC World Service, and it was while working as a waiter in Mandalay to pay for his studies that he met the Cambridge don John Casey, who was to prove his saviour. The brutal military regime of Ne Win cracked down on ‘dissidents’ in the late 1980s. Pascal’s girlfriend was raped and murdered by soldiers, and Pascal took to the jungle with a guerrilla army. How he was eventually rescued with Casey’s help is a dramatic story, which ends with his admission to Cambridge to study his great love, English literature
Burmese Days (by George Orwell): Set in the days of the Empire, with the British ruling in Burma, this book describes corruption and imperial bigotry. Flory, a white timber merchant, befriends Dr Veraswami, a black enthusiast for the Empire, whose downfall can only be prevented by membership at an all-white club.
The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma (by Thant Myint-U): For nearly two decades Western governments and a growing activist community have been frustrated in their attempts to bring about a freer and more democratic Burma–through sanctions and tourist boycotts–only to see an apparent slide toward even harsher dictatorship. But what do we really know about Burma and its history? And what can Burma’s past tell us about the present and even its future?
In “The River of Lost Footsteps,” Thant Myint-U tells the story of modern Burma, in part through a telling of his own family’s history, in an interwoven narrative that is by turns lyrical, dramatic, and appalling. His maternal grandfather, U Thant, rose from being the schoolmaster of a small town in the Irrawaddy Delta to become the UN secretary-general in the 1960s. And on his father’s side, the author is descended from a long line of courtiers who served at Burma’s Court of Ava for nearly two centuries. Through their stories and others, he portrays Burma’s rise and decline in the modern world, from the time of Portuguese pirates and renegade Mughal princes through the decades of British colonialism, the devastation of World War II, and a sixty-year civil war that continues today and is the longest-running war anywhere in the world.
“The River of Lost Footsteps” is a work both personal and global, a distinctive contribution that makes Burma accessible and enthralling. Thant Myint-U, educated at Harvard and Cambridge, has served on three United Nations peacekeeping operations, in Cambodia and in the former Yugoslavia, and was more recently the head of policy planning in the UN’s Department of Political Affairs. He lives in New York City
Land of a Thousand Eyes: The Subtle Pleasures of Everyday Life in Myanmar (by Peter Olszewski): A vivid, insider’s account of one of the most inaccessible and mysterious countries in Asia, this book looks beyond topographical features to discover the psyche of the people of Myanmar. Appointed to train local journalists for 18 months at the English-language weekly The Myanmar Times, and despite a measure of danger in accepting the assignment, Peter Olszewski throws himself into the daily life and culture of Yangon—even finding himself in a real-life, fairy-tale romance. Myanmar has recently been the focus of humanitarian and political outrage in developed countries, and this book gives a surprising, new perspective on the question of democratization.
The Piano Tuner (by Daniel Mason): In 1886 a shy, middle-aged piano tuner named Edgar Drake receives an unusual commission from the British War Office: to travel to the remote jungles of northeast Burma and there repair a rare piano belonging to an eccentric army surgeon who has proven mysteriously indispensable to the imperial design. From this irresistible beginning, The Piano Tuner launches its protagonist into a world of seductive loveliness and nightmarish intrigue. And as he follows Drake’s journey, Mason dazzles readers with his erudition, moves them with his vibrantly rendered characters, and enmeshes them in the unbreakable spell of his storytelling.
Moon Princess (by Sao Sanda): Narrated by the eldest daughter of Sao Shwe Thaike, the Prince of Yawnghwe, The Moon Princess recounts both the story of her early life and at the same time provides a fascinating memoir of her father who, in 1948, became first President of the Union of Burma after the country gained its independence. She describes growing up in the Shan States and records the changes that occurred during the periods of British colonial rule, war and Japanese occupation, the return of the British administration, the troubled years after Burma’s Independence and, finally the military takeover in 1962.” “It is a personal account of a family caught up in political turmoil which led to the loss of a brother and a father, the first during the coup and the latter in military custody. Studying at Cambridge, Sanda, met her English husband, Peter Simms and later they lived in Rangoon against a background of political upheaval until the end of democratic rule forced them to leave their home and their country, never to return.” The Moon Princess is an important record of a tumultuous period in the history of a troubled country. It includes appendices of important political documents relating to the Shan States and tables of the ruling princes and family trees.
Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma (by Emma Larkin): On May 2, 2008, an enormous tropical cyclone made landfall in Burma, wreaking untold havoc and leaving an official toll of 138,300 dead and missing. In the days that followed, the sheer scale of the disaster became apparent as information began to seep out from the hard-hit delta area. But the Burmese regime, in an unfathomable decision of near-genocidal proportions, provided little relief to its suffering population and blocked international aid from entering the country. Hundreds of thousands of Burmese citizens lacked food, drinking water, and basic shelter, but the xenophobic generals who rule the country refused emergency help.
Emma Larkin, who has been traveling to and secretly reporting on Burma for years, managed to arrange for a tourist visa in those frenzied days and arrived hoping to help. It was impossible for anyone to gauge just how much devastation the cyclone had left in its wake; by all accounts, including the regime’s, it was a catastrophe of epic proportions. In Everything Is Broken, Emma Larkin chronicles the chaotic days and months that followed the storm, revealing the secretive politics of Burma’s military dictatorship and the bizarre combination of vicious military force, religion, and mysticism that defined its unthinkable response to this horrific event.
The Burmese regime hid the full extent of the storm’s devastation from the rest of the world, but the terrible consequences for Burma and its citizens continue to play out months after the headlines have faded from newspapers around the world. In Everything Is Broken, Larkin-whose deep knowledge of the Burmese people has afforded her unprecedented access and a rare understanding of life under Burmese oppression-provides a singular portrait of the regime responsible for compounding the tragedy and examines the historical, religious, and superstitious setting that created Burma’s tenacious and brutal dictatorship. Writing under an assumed name, Larkin delivers the heretofore untold story of a disaster that stunned the world, unveiling as she does so the motivations of the impenetrable generals who govern this troubled nation.
Burma Chronicles (by Guy Delisle): ‘The Burma Chronicles’ presents a personal and distinctively humorous glimpse into a political hotspot, putting a popular spin on current affairs.”
The Gentleman in the Parlour (William Somerset-Maugham). One of Britain greatest authors made a trip to South-East Asia in the late twenties. Burma was one of the countries Somerset-Maugham visited.
Burma, Art and Archaeology (edited by Alexandra Green and T. Richard Burton) is a very interesting collection of articles on different subjects from wooden monasteries, bronze sculpture to court dress in Shan State.
The Buddhist Monasteries of Burma (Sylvia Fraser-Lu) Bangkok, 2001. This is a beautiful book about the wooden monasteries in Myanmar. Very detailed and enriched with drawings and pictures.
Ma Thanegi, Nor Iron Bars a Cage (or as she calls it herself “my prison book”) about the 3 years she spent in Insein Jail as a political prisoner.
Myanmar: Burma in Style (Caroline Courtaud). An Illustrated History and Guide. It is a great illustrated account of the history, politics and culture of the people and the country.