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Reading Myanmar—‘Miss Burma’ and the Liberal Conscience

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Miss Burma (2017) by Charmaine Craig is a historical novel that tells the story of Burma from the perspective of a Karen family that was part of Rangoon’s elite after World War II. The book describes the Karen perspective on mid-20th-century wars in Burma, beginning with the Japanese invasion in 1942 and continuing today.  Resonating particularly well is the focus on the betrayals that underlay ceasefire and peace negotiations conducted in the name of liberal democracy starting in the 1940s. This is a reminder that the post-2015 peace industry is not really new to Yangon. As with the various militaries involved in the conflict, the peace negotiators have failures going back to World War II.

Miss Burma describes the backdrop to the violence and peace negotiations in a Burma continually buffeted by foreign influence from Britain, the Japanese invaders and, after World War II, the manipulations of CIA agents. And behind it all is the eerie presence of Burmese strongman Ne Win, who in the course of the novel appears as a brutal interrogator in Insein Prison, a military commander, a manipulator of Rangoon’s high life, and ultimately the powerful cruel dictator.

In such contexts, the novel’s protagonists maneuver, are imprisoned, flee, and negotiate peace agreements and ceasefires. They do this knowing that at any moment they can be shot, their body weighted down with chains, and tossed out of a helicopter into the sea. The promises of liberal democracy, seemingly embraced by Karen and Burmese leaders and manipulated by foreigners, are in strange tension with torture, high society, Insein Prison, Miss Burma pageants, movie stardom and exile to remote Karen command posts.

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On its surface, Miss Burma is a straightforward story of a prominent Karen family from Rangoon. The family begins as a marriage between a Rangoon Jew, Saw Benson, and a Karen bride, Naw Khin. A daughter, Louisa Benson, is born in 1941. Louisa will go on to win the first “Miss Burma” pageant in 1956, and in the mid-1960s marries Karen rebel leader Saw Lin Htin (fictionalized as “General Lynton” in Miss Burma).   

Miss Burma really begins in 1938 with the Rangoon romance and marriage of Louisa’s parents.  After betrayal during World War II to pro-Japanese forces, the family escapes to the countryside, and is saved by sympathetic Karen villagers who adopt the Jewish father, and even dramatically rescue him after capture and torture by Japanese soldiers. Following the war, Saw Benson does well in business by mobilizing his Karen family and comrades into a trading and manufacturing company. They become prominent in Rangoon’s elite Karen circles, at the same time as the Karen become focused on the British betrayal of promises to establish an independent Karenistan.

This leads to the near disintegration of the Union of Burma during the Civil War of 1949-1950 in which the Burmese Communist Party captures the north, the Mujahadin take Arakan, and Karen forces capture Mandalay and advance as far south as Insein. The government under Prime Minister U Nu and army commander Ne Win beat back the invasion at the Battle of Insein, an event still central to the memory of Burmese and Karen alike (though peculiarly missing from the English Wikipedia). Saw Benson ends up imprisoned in Insein Prison as a result.

In the process, readers learn about the elite world of post-independence Rangoon and more betrayals, death, and the ever-present specter of its jailor, General Ne Win. Meanwhile, the Americans play both sides, just as the British did. The CIA is represented by a fictionalized William Young (code-named Hatchet) who supplies the Karen rebels with logistical support, even as the US State Department represented by Ambassador William Sebald supplies the Burmese government with weapons to defeat the Karen and communist insurgencies.

As for Louisa, despite the kidnapping, torture and imprisonment of her parents, she competes in the first Miss Burma pageants, winning as a 15-year-old in 1956 and a 17-year-old in 1958.  In the small incestuous world of elite Rangoon, she begins a glamorous but “imbecilic” film career, and becomes a favorite of Katie Ne Win. Indeed it is rumored that she is a mistress to the dictator himself!

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At the height of Louisa’s movie career, General Ne Win leads his coup of 1962, and Louisa is called on to make propaganda films. In an improbable turn of events, she falls in love with General Lynton of the Karen National Army, a force also sponsored by the CIA. In this context, Western governments entice him into engaging in yet another Rangoon-based peace process with Prime Minister Ne Win in 1962-1963. This is a dangerous game for the Karen military leaders, who are required to go deep into enemy territory to negotiate.

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Charmaine Craig

Louisa and Gen. Lynton marry in 1964 and slip into the underground Karen maquis. Lynton is betrayed at a follow-up meeting during the peace process by Ne Win’s negotiators. He is ambushed, killed, and his body dumped from a helicopter into the sea. Louisa returns to the maquis to lead his brigade in Karen State for a short time. There she negotiates a truce with other Karen groups. For her trouble her troops are (again) betrayed, and she leaves for the United States to join her father, who has already resettled there through his CIA connections. And that is the anti-climatic end to the novel.

But it is not the end of the story, as we learn from interviews given and articles written by the author Charmaine Craig when Miss Burma was published. Louisa herself receives a marriage proposal from an American and becomes the mother of Miss Burma’s author. For indeed, the characters in the novel, while fictionalized, are very much based on historical figures, including the main protagonists, the dictator Ne Win, William Young, Ambassador Sebald, and General Lin Htin/Lynton. Most intriguingly, the Battle of Insein is a real event too—one which is so important in Myanmar history that Aung Zaw in 2009 called it The Battle that Never Ended because it still underpins the ongoing conflict between Naypitaw and the Karen National Union.

And this ongoing “Battle of Insein” is the real reason expats working in Yangon’s peace industry today should read Miss Burma. Because indeed, the war with the Karen in eastern Myanmar continues to vex the country. And if the reader revisits the very first page of the novel, there is a quote from an older novel, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955). Greene’s book explains why the underlying thesis of Miss Burma is not only about Myanmar, but also about the West. While The Quiet American is specifically about the failure of French policy in its Indochina colony, writing in the early 1950s Greene points to Britain’s retreat from Burma as the best lesson for not only the French, but the Americans as well.

Look at the history of Burma. We go and invade the country: the local tribes support us: we are victorious: but like you Americans we weren’t colonialists in those days. Oh no, we made peace with the king [Ne Win] and we handed him back his province and left our [Karen] allies to be crucified and sawn in two. They were innocent. They thought we’d stay. But we were liberals and we didn’t want a bad conscience.

The  Americans, British and other Westerners generating policy for Myanmar today are of course still liberals like Greene described, seeking to project their ideas about democracy and free market capitalism into Myanmar. The World Bank, Joint Peace Fund, International Monetary Fund and Western bankers still seek to salve liberal consciences marred by British colonialism and America’s wars in Southeast Asia. The message of Miss Burma, of course, is that the liberal ceasefires, peace negotiations and development projects designed in the West have been tried before, with the only result that peace was again made with the new King Ne Win and his successors from the military and maybe the NLD. And while the West may well blame the current King’s corruption for the failure of their liberal experiments, the costs are ultimately borne by those betrayed.