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A Savage Dreamland, review: a multi-voiced account of life in fractured Burma

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Rohingya Muslims on their way to a refugee camp in 2017
Rohingya Muslims on their way to a refugee camp in 2017 Credit: Dar Yasin/AP

Halfway through A Savage Dreamland, his account of his travels in Burma, David Eimer reports a conversation with a local journalist, who tells him that “the foreign media write only about the Rohingya”. Not Eimer: he listens to as many factions as he can in a disunited nation. These voices coalesce in a book that explains wonderfully well why Burma today is both compelling and combustible.

The Rohingya have been in the news for good reason. Since August 2017, some 730,000 members of this Muslim minority have been driven into refugee camps in Bangladesh, their villages in Rakhine State razed by the Burmese military, and thousands of civilians killed or raped, in operations the United Nations says were executed with genocidal intent. Two Reuters journalists who helped expose those atrocities were released in May, having been jailed for more than 500 days for breaking the colonial-era Official Secrets Act.

Eimer does, of course, write about the Rohingya. But he also spends time in the Buddhist heartland of the Bamar, the majority ethnic group, commonly known as the Burmese, and with representatives of many of the other ethnic groups fighting for autonomy. In the travel brochures, Burma (or Myanmar, as the military renamed it) is a country of “temple-strewn landscapes” and “enduring tribal traditions”, where tourist numbers reached 3.44 million in 2017, compared with 21,000 in 1990. But it is also one with more than 30 ethnic armies and militias, whose battles with the Tatmadaw (the Burmese military) are “the longest-running civil wars in modern history”.

The people – or peoples – of Burma are often let down. In 1947 Aung San, who led the drive for independence from Britain, persuaded minority communities to join the future Union of Burma by acknowledging their right to self-determination. By the time independence came, in January 1948, he had been assassinated, and autonomy was denied. Within months, fighters for the Karen minority had risen against the Tatmadaw.

Four years ago, the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, won the first free elections held in the country since 1960. Suu Kyi had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while under house arrest; she was seen, at least in the West, as Burma’s great hope. But she and her government, with the generals still as back-seat drivers, have been a huge disappointment. Burma remains undeveloped, unstable and – Eimer’s book will help in this regard – little understood.

Eimer, a former Telegraph correspondent in China and south-east Asia, is drawn to the fringes. His eye-opening first book, The Emperor Far Away, took him to the most contentious borderlands of China. Now, having secured a visa by declaring that he is a “tourism consultant”, he travels in Burma not just into areas that have only recently opened, but also into some that are still off-limits to foreigners, riding pillion on motorbikes or taking buses on which – because of the rough and dangerous roads – every journey starts with a prayer.

His book is a good primer on history, culture and modern-day politics, and on the power wielded by the Buddhist hierarchy. But it's the realities of daily life that really interest him: Yangon residents in liftless buildings hoisting shopping to top-floor apartments with ropes and bulldog clips; sea-gipsies on the southernmost islands who swam before they walked, but can’t tell him how old they are because they have never been to school; the young Rohingya man who couldn’t collect his degree because he had been denied an ID card – which his mother acquired by “donating” a £5,000 Jeep to an official.

George Orwell, who served as a police officer in Burma during the Twenties, was withering in Burmese Days (1934) about the British Empire’s role there; Eimer is equally forthright about its legacy. For administrative convenience, the British governed the borderlands separately from the rest of the country. One result was that these areas were denied the economic and political developments occurring elsewhere. The British, he says, “failed to foresee that the result would be to make ethnicity the key political issue in the future independent Burma”. If Orwell could read A Savage Dreamland, he would be impressed, surely, by this choral-voiced account of a country where so many, for so long, have been silenced.

A Savage Dreamland is published by Bloomsbury at £20. To order your copy for £16.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop