Book Review: Burma’s Spring: Real Lives in Turbulent Times
Rosalind Russell’s Burma’s Spring: Real Lives in Turbulent Times is the product of her years living in Burma, ostensibly as a typical “trailing” spouse of an aid worker, but really as an undercover journalist using pseudonyms to evade the scrutiny of Burmese military intelligence. Because of restrictions, she could not openly use her identity as a journalist to be granted interviews with academics, business leaders, or opposition activists. Instead, she resorted to the vox populi, developing her stories based on conversations with locals. This seemingly disadvantageous position actually yielded brilliant insights into the resilience and strength of the Burmese character, allowing the book to depict the human realities behind the headlines of human rights violations and natural disasters that had come to characterize the nation within the international community. The narratives that the book consists of include Mu Mu (her nanny), Darko (a member of the punk band Side Effects), Zayar (a Burmese journalist), Owen (a Buddhist monk with a vision of education as the ultimate agent for change), Taw Paya (the last king of Burma, Thibaw’s grandson), Win Tin (a prominent political activist who was imprisoned for 19 years) and the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself, the country’s most prominent opposition leader. The stories are vivid and wonderfully refreshing, revealing the nuanced nature of Burma’s political climate. Written before the landmark elections held just a month ago, the book is often optimistic, if warily so, as many previous efforts to bring change have been violently crushed. Under military oppression, the Burmese were seething for change. Each of the characters has a vision, some role he or she wishes to play in order to bring about lasting change for the nation.
Zayar, the journalist, hopes simply to tell his nation’s story as it is, without censorship or restrictions. Owen, the monk, imagines change in the form of free education for all, since he believes in the power of education and Burma’s need for it. Darko, a punk rocker, and his wife Emily, a performance artist, anticipate the artistic freedom to show the people that “they can have the same things,” as those in big cities like New York City and Berlin. Win Tin hopes for a nation that isn’t “one big open-air prison,” and his determination to bring this change about through political activity is such that even when the government offered him release from prison on the condition that he refrain from politics, he refused the deal. Each of these characters, and many more, hold different places in the community, but they are all united in the goal of change. In the face of impossibility, each holds on to his or her beliefs.
Mu Mu was the nanny Russell hired for her daughter when she was living in Bangkok. Her story is one of heartbreak and hardship, and it is one that also belongs to thousands of others who, out of desperation, crossed the border between Myanmar and Thailand in search of better opportunities. There was no future for her in Hpa’an, a market town located in Karen state, because a buffalo swerved onto the road just as she was on her way to her matriculation exams, leaving her with a broken arm, in a ditch, and thus unable to complete the necessary exams. In the Burmese education system, these exams determine one’s future: high marks lead to opportunities in medicine, slightly lower marks mean engineering and law, history and zoology are reserved for those with the lowest marks. The book is filled with little stories making up the narratives of each character’s life, exhibiting the very real and harsh conditions that are considered normal life.
I was born and raised in Burma, so upon reading the book’s description on Amazon, I was a little skeptical, thinking that it would be just another weak-kneed account of a foreigner’s pity for the nation’s horror; however, Russell managed to shed light on the very human tales that can be dominated by media focus on massive tragedies and macroscopic trends. I am Burmese, but painfully unaware of what it means to be so, as I was raised in a protective bubble as part of the society’s wealthy elite. This book brought me a step closer to understanding my country’s past and why I have a duty to my nation: I am greatly indebted to those who came before me and stood against injustice, people like Win Tin, who “[are] the undefeated.”