Title: Everything is Broken
Author: Emma Larkin
Publisher: The Penguin Press, 2010
Reviewed by: Joseph Ball
The waiting lounge for the Rangoon-bound flight at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport had a distinctly different feel to it than on previous trips. Almost exclusively, middle-aged foreigners sat individually in silence, bulging duffle bags and backpacks closely guarded. On the television screen a picture of a forlorn man pushing an IV unit through the destitute Rangoon streets played repeatedly – one of the only visual hints of the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis to find its way to an international audience at that early date. The storm would eventually be blamed for an estimated 140,000 deaths and impact millions more.
This is the backdrop to American Emma Larkin’s latest book dealing with Burma. In Everything is Broken, Nargis, and principally the government’s response to the crisis, is taken as a lens through which the reader is invited to view a broader expanse of recent Burmese history. The subtitle of the book, ‘A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma,’ is a thinly veiled reference to the gamut of events that have stricken Burma’s citizens under decades of military dictatorship.
In the politically charged post-Nargis atmosphere, Larkin observes, “Images of people killed by natural disaster became atrocity pictures used as evidence to portray the callous neglect of an already vilified regime.” As such, advocacy in support of humanitarian intervention for the sake of helping people was often quickly dispensed with in favor of a politically laden human rights discourse. The author ruminates of working pacts made between international NGOs and the military government, “It seemed to me that righteous moral indignation had been traded in for a shoddy compromise with the regime.” Tellingly, she later finds aid workers in the delta uninterested in discussing perceived moral ramifications associated with their work.
A theme running throughout the course of the narrative concerns Burma’s rampant rumor mill, an industry greatly abetted by the lack of reliable information available to its citizens. “What becomes important,” she writes, “is not whether they [the rumors] are true but whether people believe them to be true.” An apt observation, though largely leaving it up to the reader (who more often than not will have little else to go on other than the author’s words) to discern just how much weight to assign to the myriad of rumors and superstitions. Was Rangoon really on the verge of running out of water in the wake of the cyclone? Did the regime really deploy snipers to pick off demonstration leaders in September 2007?
Insinuations of ulterior motivation, buttressed by rumor, permeate the pages of the book. Of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s May 2008 meeting with Senior General Than Shwe in the Burmese capital of Naypyitaw to discuss the logistics of cyclone relief: “It hardly seemed like a setting conducive to honest negotiation and compromise.” Meanwhile, the notion of American John Yettaw, who gained illegal access to the estate of Aung San Suu Kyi in the spring of 2009, as being a “crazy man,” is curtly discarded as a probable ruse to conceal some more sinister plot.
An intriguing side story within the chronicling of recent Burmese events is the vein of economic hardship that runs throughout. As one acquaintance of the author’s, Ko Ye, explains in the aftermath of the 2007 protests and ensuing crackdown, “the protests would continue sooner or later, because they were not predominately about democracy or religious ideals; they were about desperation. This will happen again and again until the underlying economic problem is properly addressed.”
Further evidence of the economic underpinnings to the ongoing crisis are found in the 88 Generation ‘Open Heart Letter Campaign’, a majority of letters said to be asking the question, “How am I going to feed my family?” Nonetheless, financial hardship as the self-professed motivation of an attempted suicide of a monk at Shwedagon Pagoda is again subjected to the speculation of some unknown truth concealed in the shadows and rumor mills of Burma’s crumbling landscape.
In the context of this pervading financial catastrophe and specifically concerning the events surrounding the ill-fated 2007 uprising, I was left with several unanswered questions regarding the relationship between the political and more mundane economic situation: Was the infusion of a more overt political agenda into the canvas of demonstrations counter-productive, ultimately ensuring total defeat? Could the demonstrations have ceased (short of regime overthrow) with the accrual of economic benefits for the wider population while simultaneously prying open precious space within civil society for popular agendas going forward?
The strength of Everything is Broken undoubtedly comes in its final third section, when the author spends considerable time visiting the devastated communities in the path of Nargis three months after the disaster. It is in this final section that the reader can feel Larkin wrestling with just what to believe and what it all means. Unfortunately, a revealing weakness of the book is the author’s inability to travel to the Irrawaddy Delta in the days and weeks immediately after the cyclone or personally experience the Saffron Revolution the previous September (she arrives on the scene at the very end).
As a result, while rich in secondhand anecdotes, an approach not without merit, the early chapters of the book lack a critical analytical edge, too often reading as a regurgitation of Burmese news sources and sympathetic social voices – outlets that can themselves lack the same critical edge.
Everything is Broken is a well-constructed book, rich with the voices and images of those who remain behind in Burma’s storm stricken regions desperately trying to eke out a living, and certain to broaden general knowledge of recent events and ongoing hardship in Burma. However, the volume unfortunately does not provide significant analytical depth surrounding the primary and associated events chronicled. To take but one example, after cataloging the regime’s military spending, the vast military modernization drive of the past two decades is too simply dismissed as “making little sense in military terms.”
From a wider developmental perspective, everything is, was and will be broken in Burma if the present socio-political stalemate is not overcome. And while Larkin is clearly, and not without justification, highly critical and dubious of all regime intentions, I could not help but wonder while reading through Everything is Broken if elites and politically charged organizations on all sides of the battle lines have largely fallen out of touch with the general population – pawns upon the grand chessboard, left exposed to continue to weather nature’s wrath.