It is oddly appropriate that I am writing this during a rare power cut of several hours (and counting) in my apartment complex – appropriate because normally we here in Seattle can count on having electricity and other utilities twenty-four-seven, and if we don’t, we panic. Most of Burma, on the other hand, as described by Eimer in this fascinating memoir/travelogue, is used to going without electricity and other amenities. It exists as a sort of pocket in time, several decades behind the rest of the world. Some of the author’s descriptions even of Yangon (Rangoon), the largest and most westernized city, remind me of India when I visited it back in the 1970s. India at that time forbade western companies from establishing franchises. As a result, there was no Coca Cola or MacDonald’s or any of the other ubiquitous international brands we have come to expect everywhere in the modern era. Eimer explains that Burma is like this now. No foreign businesses such as Starbucks are allowed.
But not being able to grab a fast-food burger or a frappe at every corner is the least of Burma’s problems. The nation has been crippled by a sordid history of oppression: international wars, wars for independence, civil wars, and misguided selfish governance almost nonstop for as long as it has been a nation. First the British came in with the purpose of extracting its jade, opium, and other treasures. Then the Japanese invaded during World War II. Then the British returned. Then soon after independence a military junta took over, enriched themselves, and further impoverished everyone else. Finally (in 2015) there were free elections, but so far (this book was published in 2019) little has changed. The poverty described is all the more shocking to me as I contrast it with the mega-yachts and estates the size of small countries that the world’s richest people waste their money on, oblivious or uncaring about the destitution of so many people in the rest of the world.
Eimer makes a knowledgeable and erudite tour guide to modern Burma. He begins in Yangon, contrasting Golden Valley, the haunt of the country’s millionaires and diplomats, with one of the city’s largest slums. But it is when he travels outside Yangon that his account becomes truly fascinating. The majority Buddhist population mainly lives along the banks of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawady) River, while the vast bulk of Burma’s landmass consists of outlands inhabited by a multitude of persecuted minorities. Eimer travels to as many of these locales as he is able (some are strictly forbidden to foreigners) and describes the land and the people who live there.
For instance, he spends Christmas in Chin, an underdeveloped Christian territory in the far west. Below Chin is Rakhine, a territory along the coast, where the Muslim population is being driven out and exterminated. Eimer explores the Myeik Archipelago in the far south and tells tales of pirate exploits and conquests in the islands. He goes to Shan state and writes of the various militias that are fighting each other; this state is in the heart of the Golden Triangle so they also war over dominance of the lucrative smuggling of heroin and methamphetamines to China and Thailand. To visit some of these areas in Shan state and in Kachin state in the far north, Eimer had to enter Burma illegally at remote crossings from China and Thailand. Few writers would have been able to accomplish this, but Eimer has a lot of experience as a journalist in China and Southeast Asia and plenty of courage to go along with his local knowledge.
This is a fascinating book about a part of the world that has been all but forgotten compared to splashier, more flamboyant events happening in other countries. However, as the world becomes increasingly globalized, in our hubris we should not neglect people like the Burmese, who have so many positive qualities (as we all do) but need assistance in catching up.