Burma has long been the crazy uncle in the attic of Southeast Asia. Reports these days are more mixed, but when there are two names for your country, it’s not a good sign. Which is it? Burma or Myanmar? David Eimer’s A Savage Dreamland comes squarely down in the “Burma” camp, viewing the re-christening to “Myanmar” as just another overreach by the military cartel that essentially still runs the country, and one that he sees running it into the ground. That’s the central theme of this haunting, perfectly titled book. It’s a chilling travelogue through modern Burma intertwined with helpful historical context.
At less than a third the size of its neighbor, India, but with only four percent of India’s population, Burma was one of the richest nations in Southeast Asia in the 1950s. A stunningly beautiful country, it achieved independence in 1948; after a military coup in 1962, it went into almost total isolation for the next 50 years. The junta set out on what they called the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” but it wound up at a dead end. While much of Asia exploded economically, Burma became the continent’s heart of darkness; a savage, paranoid, corrupt terror state cut off from the world, a North Korea without nuclear weapons.