There is sometimes a feeling—it may even be a sort of implied ASEAN policy—that Southeast Asia will, or at least should, converge: that the countries of the region will develop economically and differentials in standards of living will lessen, that the military will ease itself out of politics, that civil society will strengthen. This has, if seen with a perspective of decades, been a trend largely born out if far from completed.
Myanmar, or Burma as it once was, has always seemed an outlier: largely closed off to the outside world for several post-World War II decades, it didn’t even become a part of ASEAN until 1997. Some recent development and relative opening up notwithstanding, Burma—as David Eimer insists on calling it in A Savage Dreamland—still seems an odd man out.
It is clear that Myanmar is on some sort of trajectory; the question is which one.
Eimer says he “came to Burma in search of the road less travelled” and that “in early 2010”, when he first visited, “this was a mysterious nation: little-visited, barely mentioned, hardly known.” But the raison-d’être for the book seems to the political transition that began in 2015 with the landslide victory Aung San Suu Kyi’s party in the elections.
A Savage Dreamland is travel-writing—Eimer does a lot of traveling—yet in a sort of politically-targeted way: the book is more about the destination—an attempt to understand contemporary Myanmar—than the journey itself; Eimer, indeed, is a bit vague about the details of the overall itinerary which doesn’t always connect up. There is a great deal of reportage, almost as much historical and political background for context, and only the odd passage or two on the mechanics and quotidien vicissitudes of travel itself. As is common with such books, the people the author interacts with are more often than not the result of serendipity rather than explicit plan: there are “repats” (returning political émigrés), guides and translators, random acquaintances, pastors and policemen. The result is a patchwork of dialogue, vignettes of observation, held together with relatively straightforward research material about peoples, places, politics, religion and history. Eimer writes very well and the pieces are almost seamlessly integrated.
It is clear that Myanmar is on some sort of trajectory. By 2015, when Eimer moved to Burma with a book in mind, the country was a very different place than it had been:
The half-empty roads I had driven down from the airport in 2010 were a distant memory. Now they heaved with new cars, trucks and a fleet of buses with the name of the city of Busan written on their sides, part of an aid package from South Korea. Traffic jams had arrived in Yangon, just another consequence of modern life that Burma had previously avoided, and even the stray dogs had learned to look left and right when crossing the road.
Mobile phones were ubiquitous, whereas only five years earlier, there hadn’t been signal.
The question, however, is what sort of trajectory. It would not appear from Eimer’s account that Myanmar is as yet converging to some sort of ASEAN mean. There are still significant separatist movements, the persecution of the Rohingya has no current parallel in the region, and Aung San Suu Kyi, that personification of Myanmar as a normal country, seems not to be quite the paragon of civil society that foreign observers assumed her to be.
Eimer is at his best in the corners.
Myanmar is not today as unknown as it was: it even has a literary festival. For those that keep up with the news, little of what Eimer relates about the state of the economy, Aung San Suu Kyi’s relative fall from grace (at least in Western eyes), the activities of Chinese commercial interests, etc. will come as much of a surprise. And there is nothing he can say about the treatment of the Rohingya that can compare with what is seen on TV news.
Eimer is at his best in the corners: the Myeik archipelago in the far South, the Christmas he spends in the largely Christian Chin State up against the Indian border or his visits to the semi-autonomous areas bordering China, some of which have been given over to gambling. Mai Ja Yang, however, “is an unlikely higher education centre with two colleges, one based in a former casino.” Some of the discussions he had there echo of those now taking place farther east:
For many who live in Kachin Land, Burma is a foreign state. ‘In my heart I think of Kachin as an independent country. But I know it is not a tangible thing, that it is not realistic. But autonomy within a federal union is a realistic aim,’ Htoi Pan told me over lunch.
A Savage Dreamland’s main strength is Eimer’s prose. Eimer is a meticulous, fair-minded and empathetic observer, he takes interest in people of all kinds and from all walks of life, and is adventurous and curious enough to go off the beaten track. The places are easy to visualize, the voices of his interlocutors clear. One probably cannot understand Myanmar without going there, but Eimer’s book may be one of the best alternatives.