Bordered by India, China, Thailand and Bangladesh, Burma remains “a mysterious nation”. For half a century, it was ruled by a “paranoid” military dictatorship – to use David Eimer’s term – cut off from outside influences. When Eimer first visited in 2010, little had changed since the junta had seized power in 1962. General Ne Win, the leader of that coup, amassed a personal fortune of £2.8bn, reputedly bathed in dolphin’s blood and ruled with the advice of astrologers and numerologists. In 1970 he decided everyone should drive on the right after an astrologer suggested Burma was drifting to the left politically.
By the end of 2015, when Eimer moved to Yangon to live, he found once empty roads choked with cars and – thanks to the first free election since 1960 – a nominally civilian government. Aung San Suu Kyi had emerged from 15 years of house arrest to win 43 of the 45 parliamentary seats. But the military – the feared Tatmadaw, founded by Suu Kyi’s father, who spearheaded the drive for independence in the 1930s – remains powerful, retaining a quarter of the seats in both houses of parliament. One person tells him Suu Kyi is like a kite: “She is flying in the air and that’s what the countries in the west see. But who is holding the strings? The army.”
Called Rangoon by the British because of a translating error, the name of the city was changed back to Yangon in 1989 and the country was renamed Myanmar. Eimer prefers Burma because he is not willing “to abide by a unilateral decision made by a group of generals eager to rewrite history for their own purposes”.
Burma is “one of the most religious countries in the world”. The population is mostly Buddhist – the focal point of Yangon, visible from across the city, is the golden Shwedagon Pagoda. But Burma is also “a fractured nation”. The majority ethnic group is the Bamar, but a third of its 55 million people belong to the 30 or so other ethnicities who mostly live in the borderlands. Burma – “the true melting pot of south-east Asia” – is riven by ethnic tensions. There are more than 30 ethnic militias fighting the Burmese army: “the longest running civil wars in modern history”.
‘Green gold’ … some communities depend on the trade in jade. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images
Eimer visits a shanty town where girls as young as 13 work 60-hour weeks in garment factories for £40 a month. He celebrates Christmas at a Baptist church in the largely Christian Chin state in the west, where roads are so dangerous that bus journeys begin with a prayer for safe passage. He explores the communities that depend on the illegal trade in drugs and “green gold” (jade), Burma’s most profitable industry, worth £20bn annually, but which has devastated lives and landscapes. He travels through the “Buddha belt” of the Ayeyarwady valley, where the ancestors of the Bamar majority first settled, calling themselves Myanma, or the “strong and swift”. And in Rakhine State, where since 2016 the army (drawn from the Bamar majority) has driven 700,000 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh, he hears shocking accounts of the prejudice and persecution that have caused “a humanitarian tragedy on an enormous scale”.
Eimer’s powerful account reveals a country plundered and brutalised during the colonial era and decades of autocratic rule, while struggling to come to terms with the reality of its present ethnic and religious diversity.
• A Savage Dreamland: Journeys in Burma is published by Bloomsbury (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.