Everything Is Broken

A journalist’s coverage of the May 2008 tropical cyclone that killed more than 100,000 Burmese offers the best available picture of contemporary life in Burma.

Everything Is Broken: A Tale of Catastrophe in Burma By Emma Larkin Penguin 288 pp., $25.95

For those who want to know what it’s like to be a Burmese inside today’s Burma (Myanmar), Emma Larkin’s book, Everything Is Broken, provides the fullest picture currently available.

Larkin writes with unequalled depth about the tropical cyclone of May 2008 that left a toll of more than 100,000 dead.

But her book is about much more than the devastation caused by cyclone Nargis to Burma’s rice-and-fish-rich Irrawaddy Delta. By returning time and again to Burma for nearly 15 years, Larkin has been able to provide an intimate picture of how today’s Burmese cope with life under a military dictatorship.

And she even manages to shed new light on the psychology, superstitions, and internal maneuvers of Burma’s secretive ruling Army generals.

Despite near-total censorship imposed by the junta, those who have followed developments in Burma over the years know a great deal about the country’s distressing poverty, relentless repression, and, of course, the travails of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 15 of the past 21 years under house arrest in Rangoon.

What they might have missed are the heroic struggles carried on by ordinary Burmese, who maintain their dignity even as they fight merely to survive. Larkin captures this beautifully through her descriptions of individuals at all levels of Burmese society who volunteered to provide the basics – food, water, medicine, and shelter – to their countrymen in the cyclone-devastated delta.

In the immediate aftermath of the cyclone, Burma’s generals provided little relief, refused the international emergency aid that was offered to them, and began blocking the efforts of individual Burmese to get aid to the delta.

Larkin herself volunteered to help as part of an international aid team that was eventually allowed access to the delta. Unlike some Western journalists, who had entered the country illegally and faced possible deportation, she was able to visit disparate parts of the entire cyclone zone.

Emma Larkin is the pen name of an American who grew up in Asia and studied the Burmese language. She is obviously a good listener and tenacious reporter with a real feel for the rhythms of Burmese life.

Larkin does not offer any startlingly new information about the scale of the cyclone disaster but delves deeper than anyone I know into the human dimension, the cyclone’s ongoing impact, and the Burmese generals’ mystifying response to the tragedy.

On the human side, the author explores the lasting psychological impact of the cyclone. Traditional methods of alleviating trauma were in many cases unavailable. Buddhist monasteries and churches were destroyed or heavily damaged. When a Burmese aid worker arrived in one village, a teenage girl threw her arms around her, thinking it was her missing sister. When the aid worker prepared to leave, the girl clung to her.

In one part of her book, Larkin profiles a key trading town, Pyinzaluu, where cyclone Nargis crushed buildings and killed a staggering 90 percent of the population.

In a housing project built by one of the Burmese generals’ crony companies, Larkin met a fisherman and his wife who had lost all four of their children. “People here have changed,” the fisherman told her. “We are all different now. Look at my wife, she used to talk all day long and now she hardly says a word.”

But amidst the stories of horrendous loss, Larkin also began to hear fable-like animal tales that allowed her to write “brief moments of redemption” into her notebooks.

Those tales included the story of a boy who had been saved by a crocodile. There were also a girl who, it was said, had survived the storm by holding on to a goose and a woman who had managed to cling to a benevolent python. “People spoke with awe of how poisonous snakes entwined around their necks in the rising water but had not bitten them.”

Larkin struggles to understand the military regime’s “cruel negligence” after the cyclone struck. The most convincing explanation that she heard: The regime was driven by fear and a need for self-protection.

“The thought of hordes of western aid workers with their airy fairy ideals of democracy and equality pouring into the country ... must have been anathema” to the generals, she writes.

A Burmese friend told Larkin that he’d learned from the son of a top-ranking general that the generals had been “deeply concerned” by the fact that Western governments sent naval ships carrying food and relief supplies. They feared, apparently, that troops and foreign aid workers would use aid deliveries as a cover to invade Burma and overthrow the regime.

Dan Southerland, executive editor of Radio Free Asia which broadcasts five hours a day to Burma, is a former Asia correspondent for the Monitor and former Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post.

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