Everything Is Broken

A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma
by Emma Larkin
Penguin, 288 pp., $25.95


Last month Aung San Suu Kyi stood atop a fence in front of her home, to which she has been confined for much of the past 21 years, and reintroduced herself to thousands of Burmese gathered on the street. “We haven’t seen each other for so long,” she told the crowd, “I have so much to tell you.”

Seeing Suu Kyi, at ease with her people and unflinching toward the regime, makes one doubt whether the regime can afford to let her remain free. Unlike the freeing of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Suu Kyi’s release does not signal a decision by the Burmese junta to loosen its grip. Quite the opposite. Pursuing its “Road Map to Discipline-Flourishing Democracy”—which Western public relations firm came up with that?—the regime staged “elections” designed to cement its control and supplant the results of the 1990 election which, to the generals’ chagrin, Suu Kyi’s party won by a large margin. (She was under house arrest at the time.) It has been reported that, this time around, the generals have directed that their margin of “victory” exceed the National League for Democracy’s tally of 1990.

Electoral fraud is one of the more rational things the generals do, and in Everything Is Broken, Emma Larkin, a pseudonym for a Burmese-speaking American, reports clandestinely on a country where surrealism is part of everyday life. A Rangoon analyst makes predictions according to the date of junta leader Than Shwe’s birth; Than Shwe’s wife is spotted circumambulating the bejeweled Shwedagon Pagoda leading a dog and a pig. Larkin visits remote, undeveloped Naypyidaw, to which the regime relocated abruptly in 2005 despite the town’s possession of one single fax machine. The move may have had to do with the generals’ irrational fears of invasion, but its timing—the departure began at exactly 6:37 a.m.—is thought to have been regarded as auspicious. 

Astrology is as good a way as any to understand the regime. In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, Larkin reached areas devastated by the storm. To survive, humans clung to animals and even poisonous snakes for hours in thrashing rain, then walked dazed and naked for days across countryside erased of landmarks. A man whose wife and four daughters perished committed suicide by bashing his head against a tree. Meanwhile, Than Shwe refused to take phone calls from the United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon. American and other naval ships sat in the Indian Ocean hoping to deliver aid. Access was refused—and in most of the country the regime carried out a referendum on a constitution drafted to preserve its power and further marginalize the opposition.

Massive protests led by Burma’s revered Buddhist monks have failed to budge the regime. When an unexpected rise in fuel and food prices led to protests in 2007, monks led the processions of peaceful marchers along Rangoon’s streets chanting the Metta Sutta, the Buddhist discourse of “loving kindness.” After deliberating, senior monks decided to institute the thabeik hmauk, or overturn their alms bowls, a serious sanction which prevented the junta and its families from giving alms, a necessary step toward achieving Nirvana. Undeterred, the regime sent in the army: Several hundred, perhaps even a thousand, were killed—and the population of the monasteries has been cut in half as frightened monks gave up their robes.

In a well-known Burmese fable, a man who sees a respected member of the clergy violating his vows learns to deny what he has seen with his own eyes. It is a form of denial applied even to those with good intentions: “Even people like you,” one Burmese tells Larkin, “who come here and ask us what we need and write things down in your notebook .  .  . I think sometimes that maybe they were never here and that I just imagined them.”

With Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, it is hard not to be hopeful about Burma, but it is also unclear how much latitude the regime will give her, and for how long. The Irrawaddy, a leading exile newspaper, is already reporting that newspapers inside Burma have been shut down for reporting on Suu Kyi’s activities. With luck, Emma Larkin, who is also the author of the excellent Finding George Orwell in Burma (2005), will have better news to report in the future.


Ellen Bork is director of democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative.