Book Review: The Female Voice of Myanmar by Nilanjana Sengupta

By Hnin Wathan 30 November 2015

Burma is seen by many as being on the road to democracy after the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide victory in the Nov. 8 general election. Burmese people see a glimmer of hope after having suffered decades of deterioration in various sectors, including education and public health, under a series of military or military-related governments. Many consider Burma as being at a major crossroad—their special interest in how the NLD will transform Burma under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Female Voice of Myanmar: Khin Myo Chit to Aung San Suu Kyi by Nilanjana Sengupta seems to have come at the right time. It attempts to present Burma through the literary works of four women—Khin Myo Chit, Ludu Daw Amar, Ma Thida and Aung San Suu Kyi. What makes Sengupta’s book unique is that she has not only studied their English literary works but also those in Burmese—with the help of translators.

Of the many books written about Aung San Suu Kyi, they have mainly focused on either her biography or her life related to Burma—never from the perspective of her writings. Most people seem to have come to see her as the daughter of General Aung San, a Nobel Laureate, and an opposition leader fighting for the democratic cause of Burmese people; but rarely as a writer or scholar, though she spent an earlier part of her life writing about Burma and General Aung San.

Of personal interest is Sengupta’s interpretation of Suu Kyi’s thoughts on Burmese nationalism and the place of the individual in Burmese society through her three essays: Literature and Nationalism in Burma, Intellectual Life in Burma and India under Colonialism and My country and People. The author also attempts to understand Suu Kyi’s philosophy in those two areas by analyzing her later writings including the well-received, award-winning book, Freedom from Fear, and articles from D-Hlaing Journal. She also includes recent events such as Letpadaung copper mine, activities by NLD Education Network and much publicized issue of the Rohingya.

As Burma is not short of prominent female writers—who write both fiction and non-fiction reflecting Burmese society including Journal Gyaw Ma Ma Lay, Juu, Khin Hnin Yu, Kyi Aye and San San Nwe (Thararwaddy)—one might wonder why Sengupta chose these four women.  In an interview with Zafar Anjum, a writer based in Singapore, Sengupta said that the choices on these four women were purely “instinctual” and she was drawn by their “extent of preoccupation” with Burma. She quoted Suu Kyi’s famous line to her husband, Michael Aris, “I only ask one thing, that should my people need me, you would help me to do my duty by them”—in Sengupta’s opinion, an unusual topic to be included when writing to a prospective husband in a personal letter.

Sengupta describes Burma in post-colonial times by referring to literary works of Khin Myo Chit and Ludu Daw Amar. Both born in the same year, they had similar experiences in Burma and got involved in the anti-British movement during their student days in Rangoon University and yet, ended up with diverse focused topics in writings—gender issues for Khin Myo Chit, mainly in the form of fiction or non-fiction books, and more political issues for Ludu Daw Amar, mainly in the form of articles in Ludu journal.

Ma Thida, the youngest among the four women, grew up during former General Ne Win’s socialist regime—a time when people had to queue at “people’s co-operatives” to purchase everyday staples. Sengupta describes Ma Thida—who has a Shan-Mon-Chinese background and has grappled with issues of identity throughout her life—after the Sino-Burmese riots forced her family to abandon all ancestry related to the Chinese, and had lost touch with her Shan and Mon ethnic roots after growing up in Rangoon.

Experiences of all four women came to merge in 1988, though they were at very different stages in life; both Khin Myo Chit and Ludu Daw Amar were then prolific writers in their seventies, Ma Thida was an up-and-coming writer, on her road to becoming a medical doctor as well, and Suu Kyi had just come back to Burma to nurse her ailing mother. The section about Ma Thida is perhaps the most personal of all—mainly focusing on analyzing her literary works and her experiences as a student activist and a record keeper along campaign trails with Suu Kyi.

Though Sengupta attempts to provide a sound analysis on Burma, Burmese readers—as well as those well-versed in Burma’s issues—may find some of her conclusions questionable.

Firstly, her characterization of Suu Kyi as being “Westernized” may sound like what the military regime has been saying in their propaganda. In their attempt to undermine her image, they referred to her as the wife of “kalar”—derogatory term for Westerners and Indian—in state-run newspapers, especially while she was under house arrest. In reality, Suu Kyi is very Burmese, not only in her appearance but also in her knowledge of Burmese traditions, customs and literature. Most people of Burma certainly do not see her as “Westernized”.

Secondly, asserting that Suu Kyi tries to over-compensate for her “Englishness” by adopting a fighting peacock as NLD’s party symbol and thus, “inadvertently marginalizing ethnic interest” may seem illogical to Burmese readers. The symbol has represented Burma’s struggle for independence since the colonial times—first in the early 20th century and again during the 1988 students’ uprising. In fact, it was adopted from the flag of the Burmese Student Union which has been at the forefront of the uprising for independence since colonial times.

In fact, Suu Kyi termed the 1988 students’ uprising as “Burma’s second struggle for independence” in her first speech to the public in 1988.  She also wrote in her book, Letters from Burma, that the symbol represents “a national movement that culminated triumphantly with the independence of the country.”

The majority of ethnic people voted for NLD in the country’s general elections in 1990 and 2015—in fact, many just voted for the NLD party without even knowing its constituent’s candidates—and the NLD won landslide victories throughout the country. It shows that people of Burma have trust in Suu Kyi as one of them and her party, the NLD.

Another questionable element is Sengupta’s apparent inability to differentiate between the army (Tatmadaw) founded by Aung San and the current Tatmadaw. The Tatmadaw founded by Aung San fought for the independence of all Burmese people, including the ethnic groups, whereas the current Tatmadaw was shaped by Ne Win, an infamous dictator, who used it as a tool to suppress everyone in Burma regardless of their ethnic background and who warned peaceful demonstrators in a public speech in 1988, “when the army shoots, it shoots to kill.”

In fact, Bertil Lintner, a veteran journalist who has written several books on Burma, wrote in his article, “Whose Army”, published by The Irrawaddy, that the current army is no longer Aung San’s army but Ne Win’s—comprising members of his old regiment, the 4th Burma Rifles, not from the Burma Independence Army (BIA) that Aung San founded. It follows the ideology of not only involvement in the country’s defense, as every army is supposed to, but also in the country’s social and political development.

Nevertheless, Sengupta’s coverage of content is highly commendable, obviously a tremendous effort of scholarly work with extensive references and analysis. Her book touches on events in Burma, the personalities of her protagonists in relation to their experiences, and interesting comparisons of not only their writings but also sometimes of their contemporaries.

Especially for those interested about women in Burma from colonial to recent times, Sengupta’s book will provide a unique and interesting perspective in a similar manner that Refiguring Women, Colonialism, & Modernity in Burma, by Chie Ikeya, provides about women in the colonial era.