Interestingly enough, the most recent issues of both The Atlantic and The New Yorker feature articles about Burma. Both are good reading and they complement each other, with very little cross-over.
The Atlantic piece, “Lifting the Bamboo Curtain” by Robert Kaplan, examines the country’s present and recent past primarily via the diverse ethinic composition of the country, looking at the long-term struggles of these ethnic groups for independence or even viability (as the military government has worked to obliterate them). Kaplan speaks to four Americans active in the country in various capacities, two of whom are the sons of missionary families, long-dedicated to the Burmese people.

In his bunker in the jungle capital of Naypyidaw, Than Shwe sits atop an unsteady and restless cadre of mid-level officers and lower ranks. He may represent the last truly centralized regime in Burma’s postcolonial history. Whether through a peaceful, well-managed transition or through a tumultuous or even anarchic one, the Karens and Shans in the east and the Chins and Arakanese in the west will likely see their power increased in a post-junta Burma. The various natural-gas pipeline agreements will have to be negotiated or renegotiated with the ethnic peoples living in the territories through which the pipelines would pass. The struggle over the Indian Ocean, or at least the eastern part of it, may, alas, come down to who deals more adroitly with the Burmese hill tribes. It is the kind of situation that the American Christian missionaries of yore knew how to handle.

On the website they’ve also re”printed” a 70-page – 70-page! – supplement on Burma that was published in the magazine in 1958.
George Packer’s “Drowning” in The New Yorker looks at things from the slightly different perspective of several activists in Rangoon and, I want to say, is superbly written, examining the lives and work of the activists as individuals at first and then pulling them all into the picture as he describes the ongoing, so frustrating and outrageous aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. Packer also goes into more detail about the regime itself and its tactics of repression and devastation of the country’s infrastructure. The piece explores the question of how, in essence, a society and culture can create and empower itself under such a shadow.
The piece concludes with the author accompanying writer and activist Hnin Se to the Irrawaday Delta where the Cyclone hit.

Hnin Se led the way along a path to the monastery, a collapsed ruin of century-and-a-half-old timber. The abbot received us in his pagoda. This was how the supplies were distributed—not through the local authorities, whom no one trusted, but through the monks. The government’s contribution to the village thus far consisted of thirty-five blankets, fifteen bags of rice, and five tarps. Here and throughout the delta, the private effort was keeping people fed.
We sat on the floor of the monks’ quarters and were given a lunch that seemed, in these circumstances, much too grand. One of the women who served us was a thirty-year-old whose house had been out in the fields, and so she and her family had been mercilessly exposed when the wall of water came. She had clung to a tree for a day and a night while, one after another, her husband and four of her children were carried away. A two-year-old daughter who had been staying with the woman’s sister was all that was left of her family. “We didn’t suffer alone,” she said. “All of us, together, suffered. That’s how we can survive.”
By the time we returned to the pagoda, the rain was coming down in torrents. The world beyond the village had disappeared. Hnin Se had told me that, through her relief work in the delta, she had learned how few of her countrymen knew that they had any rights, even the right to complain. The Burmese people were even further from being free than she had imagined. But at least one thing was achieved. Beyond Rangoon, the violence of the September events had been only a rumor among the vast numbers of poor people; the criminal aftermath of the cyclone was something that they saw for themselves. “When I was younger, I hoped and waited for outside help to come to our country and liberate it,” she said. “Now I realize that we have to rely on ourselves.”

A crowd of women and children had gathered outside the pagoda, clutching plastic bags. Two men in Hnin Se’s group opened the sacks of rice and poured their contents onto a sheltered walkway outside the pagoda, making a great white mound. A young monk stood with a megaphone and called out the name of each of the three hundred and eighty-five surviving families. There were far too many people to take cover beneath the shelter, and the villagers stood in the rain, shivering under umbrellas, pieces of plastic, and straw hats, waiting for their turn to step forward and receive three scoops of rice and a piece of clothing from Hnin Se.

Hate to end on the old broken-record note, but the role of religion is both stories is inescapable. And not as a Force of Darkness, either. Sorry about that, Brights.

More from Beliefnet and our partners