Animal Farm in Burma

Animal Farm was unpopular in Burma when it was first published there in the 1950s. Many of the leading intellectuals at the time had leftist leanings and read it as a criticism of the socialism they admired. When the US Embassy printed excerpts as anti-Communist propaganda, the book’s fate was sealed. The society which had sponsored the translation had to give away remaindered copies. But years later, when people began to reread it, they saw similarities to their own history. I met one university lecturer who told me she had tried to put Animal Farm on the syllabus for English-literature students, but the authorities had warned her off: the text was just too similar to what was going on in Burma. A few years ago Animal Farm was serialized on the BBC’s Burmese radio service. For weeks afterwards, Tun Lin told me, Mandalay tea shops were abuzz with attempts to match the animal characters to Burma’s own leaders. Could you compare ‘the Lady’, as democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi is known, to the exiled porcine revolutionary Snowball? And which pig was General Ne Win? Was he Major, the imperious old pig with a vision who died so suddenly? (Hopefully.) Or was he Napoleon, the grotesque ruler who grew stronger and more deranged each day? (Probably.)

Ne Win was perhaps a bit of both. He was a famously reclusive leader, known for his foul mouth, many marriages and obsessive superstition. It was his dabblings with numerology that had the most dramatic consequences for Burma. In 1987 Ne Win demonetized certain banknotes, replacing them with new notes with denominations of 45 kyat and 90 kyat – each value neatly divisible by nine (an astrologically auspicious number, and the general’s favourite). People’s already paltry savings were wiped out overnight and, with little to lose, a year later they took to the streets in the 1988 uprising.

SOURCE: Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, by Emma Larkin (John Murray, 2005), pp. 89-90

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