In spring 2008, recently hired CIA analyst Erin Murphy was tasked with a one-month assignment to cover Myanmar in the lead-up to the country’s first vote since 1990. One month soon turned into a career: over the past fourteen years, Murphy has moved between the public and private sectors, keeping Myanmar at the center of her work. Now, Murphy shares her observations and analysis of Myanmar over the past decade-plus with readers as author of Burmese Haze: US Policy and Myanmar’s Opening—And Closing, the newest title in the AAS Publications Asia Shorts series.
In Burmese Haze (its title a play on George Orwell’s Burmese Days), Murphy tackles a number of topics—democratization, international relations, ethnic conflict, and more—that have permeated Myanmar’s politics and society as the country moved from rule by a military junta to an elected leader and back. Drawing on her own experiences and interviews with others, she considers the roller coaster of relations between the United States and Myanmar, touching on the moments of opportunity and those of crisis. Burmese Haze is the ideal book to pick up for anyone seeking a succinct but thorough overview of 21st-century Myanmar. Erin Murphy offers readers a clear-eyed perspective and in-depth understanding of the country—developed not in one month of analysis, but through years of personal engagement.
Prologue: The End of the Beginning
Burma, also known as Myanmar, is not a country that lacks whimsy or the eccentric. It is a place that trades in rumors and astrological predictions but also remains rooted in a deeply complex and sobering history. Tired of its bustling capital of Yangon (also known as Rangoon), the despotic and secretive generals that had ruled the country for more than five decades would uproot and move the capital overnight—a decision rumored to be informed by an astrologer specializing in auspiciousness and in line with past kings and rulers who did similar things in centuries past—to a location in the middle of nowhere, naming it Nay Pyi Taw, or “Abode of Kings.” One journalist described the place “like a David Lynch film on location in North Korea.”
It is a wealthy country in every sense of the word: history, people, natural resources, and culture. But it is mired in poverty. It was the scene of decisive World War II battles and home to one of the most powerful Asian empires, whose rule extended from Cambodia to Yunnan to Manipur. The country produced a UN Secretary-General and a Nobel laureate. It also produced some of the world’s most notorious drug kingpins.
Myanmar is home to the world’s most precious natural resources. Its gem and mineral belts are embedded with rubies, sapphires, topaz, quartz, spinel, moonstone, amethyst, peridot, garnet, imperial jadeite, gold, silver, tin, tungsten, lead, and copper. The northernmost area of the country sits atop a wealth of amber, most of it infused with well-preserved fossils, including a tail of a ninety-nine-million-year-old dinosaur that proved dinosaurs had feathers. These riches have also brought death and destruction in the form of landslides, environmental catastrophe, and exploitation.
Its farmlands produce rice, beans, pulses, fruits, vegetables, spices, tea, and coffee. Myanmar has potentially significant deposits of gas, its countryside is filled with teak forests, and it sits between China and India, connecting South, Southwest, Southeast, and Northeast Asia. Airlines such as Pan-Am, Air France, and KLM once used Rangoon as their Asia hub. In the 1950s and 1960s, Burma was the bright spot of Asia, with one of the region’s most distinguished universities, an erudite population, the best health care, and a booming film scene. Now the country ranks among the least developed countries and has one of the worst health and education systems in the world.
The country is rich with diversity, counting dozens of ethnicities, each with their own languages, customs, and culture, including the majority Bamar people, long-necked Padaung women, the facial-tattooed Chin women, the linguistically diverse Naga people, the Shan princelings and princesses, and the wild Wa, the once-renowned headhunters (they gave up ritual beheadings in 1976) whose armed group is now one of the world’s largest narco-armies. But decades of civil wars and broken promises on autonomy and peace threaten to tear the fragile nation apart.
The country’s successive military regimes, beginning after General Ne Win’s bloody second coup in 1962, committed gross human rights abuses and drove a wealthy nation into the ground, transforming it into a least developed country under a pile of global sanctions. Once leading the United Nations, by 2008, it could only find diplomatic and economic shelter with Belarus, Russia, China, and North Korea.
It is also a country that grips people and never lets go. It seeps into the imagination, terrorizes immune systems, challenges assumptions, influences views, and makes one question one’s role in the world. Myanmar has had this effect on an untold number of people from all walks of life, including actors and musicians, US presidents, US congresspersons, global leaders, donors, philanthropists, Nobel laureates, authors, poets, white saviors, and misguided fantasists.
Without even knowing it, Myanmar may have seeped into your own life, through crisp garlic or citrusy splashes from a Burmese kitchen, travelogues, references in your favorite shows or movies, Rudyard Kipling or Pablo Neruda’s poetry, Bono’s lyrics, or Eric Blair’s dystopian visions. Eric Blair, who is better known by his pseudonym, George Orwell, was born in British India and later spent five years in Burma as a policeman during the colonial era and was deeply influenced by his time in the country. In Emma Larkin’s book, Finding George Orwell in Burma, she traces his experiences working in the most violent corner of Britain’s Indian empire, gathering intelligence on roving dacoits while getting to know ethnic communities and growing ever critical about the colonial yoke under which Burma had to live. His experiences would go on to inform his novel Burmese Days and his essay “Shooting an Elephant,” though those that Larkin met would argue that the “prophet” Orwell would predict Burma’s future miseries under successive juntas that sought to install ethnic Bamar supremacy, censor news, and insist that war was peace and ignorance was strength in his Animal Farm and 1984. Even after returning to the UK, Burma never left Orwell. His experiences informed his writing and his views on governance and global engagement.
I would soon get swept up in Myanmar as well. I began to study the country at what would become a pivotal time, when one of the worst natural disasters in the region, Cyclone Nargis, struck the country. The cyclone would test the junta and its relationship with the United States, putting cracks in the walls that had been built between the two for decades.
Burma/Myanmar is unique in a myriad of ways. As someone who has spent more than a decade working in and around Burma, it is difficult for me to believe that the country is not at the center of everyone’s universe. I’m here to tell you it should be at the center of yours, as its story would appeal to history buffs, foreign policy and national security wonks, conflict and military analysts, drama and intrigue lovers, and astrology and gossip fans. In a sense, it is so damn interesting. But above all, it’s an important story because its inherent struggles on race, ethnicity, and democracy mirror American, and now global, struggles.
© 2022 by the Association for Asian Studies, Inc.