A reading of Burma Chronicles


Burma Chronicles reads off like a journal with various entries to encapsulate singular episodes that developed during Guy Delisle’s visit to this small nation in Southeast Asia. In one of his previous non-fiction graphic novels, he wrote about his travels to the sheltered North Korea. In comparison, Burma had a not so gloomy quality where he goes around pushing his baby in a stroller down the street and interacting with Burmese neighbors, learning about their customs, and finding a group of young animators eager to learn from him. Delisle reveals his curiosity and humor when dealing with elements that are outside his comfort zone or when things stray from the normalcy of western democracies. He travels with a sense of curiosity and inquiry that lead him to peculiar, but enlightening places.

In Pyongyang –A Journey in North Korea, we see that a severely strict society makes it hard for the common people to interact with tourists unless they have official roles, and for the tourists there is always a sense of being under surveillance, especially since the government orchestrates travel itineraries, so workers fear saying anything that might get them in trouble. Still, Delisle always seems to find subtle ways of resisting. Albeit, when Burma Chronicles was published, the country was under strict military rule that clamped down on the press and locked the opposition. (It’s not so different today, even though Aung San Suu Kyi is a government official. She’s a winner of the novel peace prize and a former political prison) The Burmese are aware of the political fights between the generals in government, and they’re not afraid to express their feelings about military rule, of course with the right people, since they still cannot freely march on the streets. Despite poverty in many areas, the common people have a variety of jobs and roles. There are street vendors, plenty of markets, music emanating in different corners, black market goods like American movies, celebrations, funeral parades, and the strong presence of Buddhism and international NGOs.

Powerful panels in Pyongyang –A Journey in North Korea, by Guy Delisle.

Delisle’s wife is on Doctor’s Without Borders mission (MSF) and mostly spends time in a secluded village, so Delisle stays home to take care of their son with the help of a Burmese nanny. When Delisle takes the baby out for a stroll, the ladies of the neighborhood are enthralled with some wanting to carry him, leaving Delisle on the side, as people call out the baby’s name from far away. In another section, after walking around the neighborhood and seeing all the barbed wires and security guards, Guy begins asking himself: why military officers and other rich Burmese need so much protection in a country almost devoid of thieves? The generals are fearful of opposition and squash any rebellion even from other military generals. They fear a coup. Upon speaking to Maung Aye, the friendly guard of the house, he learns that Burmese have started to lose hope; when a dictator dies and everyone thinks the country will change, it simply falls in the hands of another ruthless general.

There are quiet and sometimes melancholy moments like when Delisle meets an old woman who tells him about the 1988 government shut down of the universities. She tells Guy how horrible the country has become. “In my state I got no one to fear, I can speak my mind,” she says. When he visits a Buddhist monastery, he is left alone with his thoughts as he follows the routine of the day of getting up at 3am, taking notice of his steps as he lines up before the last meal of the day at 11 am, and goes to meditate and quiet his thoughts once again. After three days, he feels like he has been there for a month. In the appropriately titled, “The rainy season began suddenly,” there’s a quiet scene of him drawing as he notices rain coming down outside his window. “It looks…like it’s… going to…” The last panel has a drawing of a downpour.

In the “First field visit,” he travels to a secluded zone that lacks medical care with his girlfriend on behalf of MSF. After traveling for hours from the city on different buses, they finally arrive in Mudon, a small village. While his girlfriend is on duty, he goes on bike to explore and finds small cottages with gardens. He notices the system the Burmese have for rain proofing their roofs by attaching dry leaves to the wooden frames. Some of my favorite panels include observations and dialogue that give you a sense of substance and meaning as he makes these small discoveries. In another one, Delisle and his friend get stranded in the rain, and a Burmese family offers them shelter. “We’re served tea and, after some polite chitchat, silence settles in. We all listen to the rain fall.” In another scene, his students take him to an old animator’s house, one who inspired them to draw when they were younger, and he realizes how far away he is, but so close to people who share his passion for drawing.

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Today, Burma is now referred to as Myanmar; the name was previously changed by a military-led government, which was not recognized by international countries. Recently, Burma has been seeing an uptake in democratic reforms since 2008, and switched to a more liberal democracy after Aung San Suu Kyi was released. Though her party won the majority of seats in parliament in 2015, people have expressed disappointment with the lack of transformative reforms. The government, despite having a democratically elected president, still has strong ties to the military, and has not changed its old ways. Reporting laws have relaxed, but it still remains restrictive. The new laws are an attempt for Journalists to follow a set of guidelines and practice “self-censorship.” In 2014, five journalists were given a 10-year sentence after reporting on a new chemical weapons plant. Political prisoners have not been freed and human rights abuses continue, for example, against ethic minorities like the Rohingya Muslim people, who the Burmese government refuses to recognize as citizens even though they have lived there for generations.

I should be staying way from graphic novels about dictatorships in Asia, but I can’t help spot the familiar tactics (the lies!) that are present in this white house administration. Albeit, right now it seems foolish to compare the two, seeing as how we are still a democracy; we vote for our elected officials and there are checks and balances, but even within these bounds there is plenty of “democratic sliding,” meaning there are elected official who are undermining democratic institutions either in speech or action. Some of it might go unnoticed such as small legal changes, while other ones are blatantly deteriorating longstanding democratic values of the free press and rule of law. As of late we have been seeing a rampant criminalizing of immigrants. The scapegoating of one particular group allows the government to conduct unjust raids and on minors and families living in this country. Most recent the white house administration has demanded the voting records of the 50 states as a ploy to fix “voter fraud.” This information is private and should not be shared with the white house. Many experts fear this is being done to purge records or to intimidate and suppress voters. While we wait for the big one, these seemingly benign, yet not so benign actions, will add up.

Dictatorships have always sought to control the message in order to suppress negative stories from the press, which undoubtedly spreads if government policies hurt the public. It’s not that these corrupt governments have a communication problem of relaying what their goals and successes are, but they have political and policy issues, which the media must portray accurately.

Burma Chronicles, by Guy Delisle.

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