The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
An Eye in the Storm
MAY, 2010 - VOLUME 18 NO.5

An American journalist recaptures the turmoil in the Irrawaddy delta following Cyclone Nargis.

All too often, fact in Burma is stranger than fiction.

Everything is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma, by Emma Larkin. Penguin Press, 2010. P 288.

Emma Larkin, a pseudonym for an American journalist based in Bangkok, knows this all too well. Her first book, “Finding George Orwell in Burma,” compares modern Burmese political history to Orwell’s dystopian novels. Burma’s rulers consistently outperformed Orwell’s fictional characters in terms of sheer brutality and oppression.

However, not even Orwell could have envisioned the incompetence and callousness of the Burmese military government’s initial response to Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. While Burmese villagers struggled to survive, the military blocked foreign aid and held a constitutional referendum.

For her new book, “Everything is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma,” Larkin relies upon interviews and field research in order to narrate the story of Burma’s worst natural disaster.

The book begins with the shock and confusion in the weeks after the storm, from the teashops in downtown Rangoon to the “cluster group” meetings among the international aid community. Too often, NGO staff seemed at a complete loss on how to deal with the situation. In one meeting, agro-ecologists debated how much time they had before farmers in the Irrawaddy delta had to plant their second crop. Larkin scornfully points out that nobody had bothered to ask Burmese farmers.

Larkin has an incredible eye for detail and a knack for describing scenes. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but Larkin’s words come close to forming a complete portrait of post-Nargis Burma. When a Burmese businessman shares his photos from the delta with Larkin, she allows readers to see the images for themselves. Her descriptions of the bloated corpses and fallen trees in the Irrawaddy delta convey the horrific intensity of the disaster.

The second part of the book summarizes recent Burmese history, from the governmental move to Naypyidaw to the Saffron Revolution. Burma watchers can probably skim over this section.

Larkin’s real gift is finding and retelling heartrending anecdotes. Many readers know that the official death toll stands at 138,000, but that statistic does not convey the full scale of the tragedy. In the third part of the book, Larkin recounts her interviews with survivors in the Irrawaddy delta. All too often, the people she met had lost their entire families and houses in the storm.

“Everything is Broken” also includes some hopeful anecdotes. In my favorite, a Burmese boy stuck in floodwater grabbed onto a log and floated on it all night. When he awoke the next morning, safe on a riverbank, he noticed that the log had four legs and walked. Only then did he realize it was a crocodile. Other survivors claim to have been saved by pythons and geese.

While Larkin’s effortless writing style makes this book a captivating read, I had hoped to find more insights into Burmese politics. One of the greatest joys of “Finding George Orwell in Burma” was its originality. The book changed or challenged the way we view Burmese history. After reading it, I’ll forever associate Burma’s colonial, socialist and military regimes with Orwell’s “Burmese Days,” “Animal Farm” and “1984.”

By contrast, “Everything is Broken” contains dozens of fascinating anecdotes, but no major revelations. I would have been particularly interested in learning more about any internal debates within the military regime. For example, which government ministers argued in favor of accepting foreign aid? Did Than Shwe’s lackluster performance affect his legitimacy within the Burmese armed forces? But the book barely discusses these issues.

Over the past two years, there have been dozens of reports and news articles assessing the damage from Cyclone Nargis. However, none comes nearly as close as “Everything is Broken” to recapturing the emotional turmoil and human suffering that pervaded the Irrawaddy delta. For those of us in Burma after the storm, reading Larkin’s prose will bring back painful memories.

Dominic J. Nardi, Jr. is a visiting research fellow at the Governance Institute in Washington, D.C. He holds a masters in Southeast Asian Studies from Johns Hopkins University.

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