Under The Dragon is the story of a quest. The author Rory MacLean and his wife, Katrin, a basket-maker, are searching for a basket: a very particular type made in Burma (now known officially as Myanmar). One which, during the course of their journey, they learned was made in the Shan region, in the north of the country, near where I visited.
Baskets are everywhere in Myanmar, although these days they are usually mass produced.
I did see one that fitted MacLean’s description, woven bamboo with a lid, in the National Museum in Yangon. How the palms of my hands itched for my camera or my cell-phone that day. I’d been required to store them in a locker prior to being granted entry.
Under The Dragon is much more than a travelogue. MacLean weaves history, politics, and geography into stories of people struggling to survive when basic freedoms are denied; about people waiting out, resisting, or actively fighting repression. He describes a government so powerful that it can do anything, from rewriting history to changing the name of the country without consultation; a government which, I was told, overnight capriciously changed from the left hand rule on the roads, to the right. A government which has repeatedly and violently put down any resistance.
Much has changed in Myanmar, especially during the last five years, but much has stayed the same. I knew very little about the country when we decided to visit. Tourism was actively discouraged until recently; the press has been tightly controlled. As MacLean himself points out even the 1988 uprising, during which more than 5000 people were killed, had very litle coverage from the international press. As I travelled through the country during November 2015 Under The Dragon helped me understand something of what I was seeing and experiencing. Sometimes it seemed as if MacLean’s descriptions played out in real time in front of me.
When John and I disembarked from the river boat at Bagan we were greeted by taxi drivers, people selling books, owners of horse drawn carts, who all wanted our business.”Hello, my friend. What country? What your name? Where you go? I take you.” Their words almost exactly the same as those Maclean was greeted with more than fifteen years previously.
“New Zealand,” I told our potential drivers.
“Ah, New Zealand. Rugby,” they said with a grin. (It was World Cup time and New Zealand had taken the prize.) And then, every time, they would add, “New Zealand very good country.” I was unsure whether they were referring to our rugby skills or our politics. Perhaps it was both.
When I saw these baskets for sale in Taungyii I thought of a story MacLean tells; the story of Kwan and May, two sisters who built up a small business importing plastic bags. It didn’t make them a lot of money, enough to feed themselves, enough to encourage hopes and dreams. Their business collapsed when franchises took over the market.
And in Taungoo, I relaxed in the peace and quiet of our guest house. Across the river, to the east, are the hills of the Karen people. I gazed at those hills and thought of the story of Saw Htoo, who loved Nan Si Si, but who after only one night with her left to fight for a free Karen State. He never returned. Known as fierce warriors, the Karen have fought the government for independence since the British left Burma in 1948. Our guest house and neighbouring houses had high fences topped with shards of glass or barbed wire, suggesting that any peace was uncertain.
Near the end of our trip, on a warm afternoon only a few weeks after the first democratic election for fifty years in Myanmar, John and I wandered around Yangon’s Inya Lake. It was an idyllic scene. While we joined those promenading along the shore, rowers trained on the waters and visitors dined at lake-side restaurants. MacLean describes a different Lake Inya; a place where during the uprising of 1988, peacecful protesters were beaten and driven into the lake to drown.
MacLean took me on his quest for the basket. And he also revealed a country with a rich culture and a long and complex and often brutal history. Although when MacLean wrote Under The Dragon the situation was dire, he was hopeful. Near the end of the book he says:
I felt the injustice, and wanted to help. But not with platitudes. or sympathy or by donating money. Such gestures seemed only to draw attention to our material comfort and their distress. It seemed to me that maybe the only way to redress the balance was by listening and seeing, by trying to understand the betrayal, by accepting responsibility for preserving their memory, and stitching the past to the present to find a new way forward.
Hope was palpable in November, especially after the election results were announced. There was a lot of talk about a new way forward. The first tentative negotiations aimed at transferring power to the NLD (the winning party) have begun. Maybe, just maybe, the time is now.