Recently I ran across a Western diplomat, this one from an embassy in Southeast Asia. I dream of having intellectual conversations with such people. After all they hold the levers of governmental power, particularly the big aid budgets in Myanmar, Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, the conversations are usually one sided. Usually, I get an earful of talking points generated by a distant capital (think London, Washington, New York and Geneva) which shows that they are “up to date”—even ahead of The New York Times, which it seems is their main source of news and analysis. Usually they are prophesying something big, like:
(A) Peace around the corner!
(B) War around the corner!
(C) Refugees going home!
(D) Something in-between!
(E) An early ticket out of Myanmar to a new posting!
Then I ask my fictional diplomat how this fits with the authors my graduate students in the PhD program in Peacebuilding in Thailand might read. I usually get a blank look. Then it is my turn for the monologue—this one about the great English-language literature about Myanmar. I ask them if they have read Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s essays about fear, Edmund Leach on the traditional politics of the Kachin and Shan, or perhaps U Thant Myint-U’s histories? Others include James C. Scott’s book on the political ecology of Southeast Asia, Mandy Sadan on the Kachin, Charmaine Craig’s novel Miss Burma, and Ashley South’s books on Burmese and Mon politics.
And then I add, but only to myself, that if the embassy folk spent more time reading books, and less time talking, they might make fewer mistakes, and have time to read even more!
And I imagine they dismiss my monologue, with the bureaucrats’ favorite rejoinder: “That’s all old stuff, and I only have time to read that which is up-to-date.” Followed by, “We’re too busy to read anything longer than a couple of pages, because well, I’m solving stuff! I don’t read anything longer than an op-ed piece in The Irrawaddy, and certainly not a book!”
And thus power speaks truth to academia. And academia speaks truth to power. Really it is just a lot of noise.
This is of course too bad. Besides having intractable problems, Burma/Myanmar has one of the most extensive English literatures—much of which can be found Saturday mornings along Pansodan Street, where cheap knock-offs of most books having to do with Burma are readily available. This is alongside a large selection of Burmese-language books, and not too much further afield, an established literature in Karen, Shan, Kachin and other languages. The street itself is one of the best English-language bookstores I’ve seen in Southeast Asia! This is not surprising, since one of the English language’s greatest writers, George Orwell, himself got his start in colonial Burma, with essays like “Shooting an Elephant” and “A Hanging”, both stories of the morose nature of colonialism. Most infamously, his first novel, Burmese Days, is an indictment of the pitfalls of foreign meddling on the colonizer and colonized alike.
The Problem of the $52,200 Yangon Salary
So what is my fictional embassy worker actually doing all day that keeps them away from books? This was in part answered by an anonymous 25-year-old “program coordinator” from Yangon who sent in her weekly budget to the Refinery 29 website. She let us in on some of the secrets for why a Yangon-based non-profit manager is so busy. Indeed, on a $52,200 annual salary ($48,000 take home) she manages to only save about $4,000. Guess what? It wasn’t because she spent too much on Book Street, or at the airport bookstore. Reading material did not make it into her budget. (Nor was there an item on “Burmese language lessons.”)
Rather, she apparently spent some $48,000 per year in a swirl of expatriate-focused social activity, at the center of which was expensive weekends on Singapore visa runs, accompanied by a constant consumption of food, coffee, theater and alcohol. All this somehow includes Mexican food, but not Burmese food. At least this was the case during the week she reported on. The biggest expense was food and “drink” on the weekend trip to Singapore after a flurry of activity in Yangon which, so far as I can tell, involved little contact with actual Burmese except at a performance of “Vagina Monologues,” while professionally focused on the bureaucratic requirements for accountability, measurable outcomes and transparency as reported to a nameless overseas headquarters. All presumably in the name of the rule of law, good management and civilization.
The John Flory Problem and Yangon’s Modern Program Coordinators
This is actually an old story, told best perhaps by Orwell himself, who wrote about the earlier breed of foreign program coordinator. Orwell’s program coordinator was a colonial police officer for the British Empire. The protagonist of Burmese Days, John Flory, also idealistically sought to bring the rule of law, good management and civilization on behalf of his superiors in Delhi and London. Flory though, like our 25-year-old program coordinator, engages in a flurry of activity with other expatriates—in his case the denizens of the European Club. There he makes friends and enemies, and whiles his days away in bouts of lust and alcoholism. Like Orwell himself, Flory picks up a bit of the local languages, and unlike our more modern program coordinator, ends up in a relationship thoroughly disapproved of by his European friends, and looked at with skepticism by the local Burmese. And of course it ends badly for Flory. The girl betrays him, and he ends up committing suicide. Just another cost of empire.
As for Orwell himself, of course, this was not his personal fate. He actually quit Burma by age 25 and returned to England to pursue his dream of being a writer by wandering the streets of London and Paris. In this task he of course succeeded admirably, after penning Burmese Days which enlightened us with Flory’s tyranny. This was followed by his condemnation of authoritarianism, Animal Farm, and his dystopian novel about the all-seeing totalitarian state, 1984. The joke today of course is that Orwell was describing not only the tyranny of British colonialism, but also the authoritarianism of the Ne Win regime, and the totalitarianism of the 1990s SLORC regime and its successors. This is why Emma Larkin, the author of Finding George Orwell in Burma, could assert plausibly that older Burmese referred to Orwell as “The Prophet.”
All this leads me to wonder what Orwell would write about our non-profit worker? She is not tyrant, authoritarian or totalitarian. But what is she? Does she read anything longer than a memo, or op-ed piece in The Irrawaddy? What would Orwell write?
Reading and the Aid Industry
So why are $52,200 program coordinators too busy to read Orwell? Why don’t they buy the books found on Book Street? Orwell presumably whiled his way reading such books before quitting the colonial enterprise. Perhaps his superiors thought he was a lousy program coordinator for doing so, but I doubt that they even noticed—after all he quit his police career on his own volition. But just like Flory, our Refinery 29 program coordinator wrestles with the alcohol infused world of the modern expatriate clubs, seeking to please a boss who will perhaps send her back to HQ in London, or wherever. She is after all dealing with those problems—urgent problems which their bosses in London, Geneva and New York read about in The New York Times! Think about it: In Yangon in just the last couple of years there was the election victory of the NLD, NCA ceasefire, violations of the NCA ceasefire, ARSA came and went, 700,000 or so Rohingya were expelled, and now there is the emergence of the Arakan Army. Not to mention the accusations against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as the “ignoble Peace Laureate” by The New Yorker. All problems that were urgent and needed to be addressed! With war, peace, refugees, who has time for old books?
But none of these problems were “solved” with ideas from The New York Times, The New Yorker, the expatriate program coordinators whiling away time in Yangon and Singapore bars. The Rohingya still sit in Cox’s Bazaar, the NCA still sputters along, Rakhine is again in revolt, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi regained at least some of her nobility in the eyes of the Western press. Who then is a better prophet—800 word essays in The New York Times, or the 50,000 or 60,000 words in books published in the 1930s and 1940s?
I am biased of course; I prefer books, including my own long and windy books. Still in my professorial academic view, answers to the questions raised and abandoned by powerful embassy workers, op-ed writers, and program coordinators are in fact found between the pages of books, including old ones like those of Orwell, written as a complete academic argument, whether or not it agrees with the policy wishes of your Yangon boss, or in a distant European or American capital consuming op-ed from abroad.
Tony Waters is Director of the Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He has been writing about the nature of refugees and development work in Southeast Asia and Africa for many years. He is also Professor of Sociology (on leave) from California State University, Chico.
Topics: aid industry, George Orwell, INGOs, Literature, Society, Yangon
Reprinted from Irrawaddy, opinion column. April 5, 2019.