photo & text by nacrowe
BURMA CHRONICLES (DRAWN & QUARTERLY, 2008) is an autobiographical memoir by FRENCH cartoonist GUY DELISLE that depicts his yearlong tenure in MYANMAR while his wife was stationed there as part of her work with the international NGO DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS. to state the obvious, this era in the history of MYANMAR predated the military junta's experimental flirtation with democracy and the release, political rise and swift downfall of AUNG SAN SUU KYI. it also predates the genocide currently taking place against the MUSLIM ROHINGYA population in the southwest of the country.
what makes this book interesting, much like his other works cataloguing similar stints in NORTH KOREA, CHINA and ISRAEL, is deft manner in which DELISLE presents a culture through his personal experiences as an expatriate with everyday people. given his status as his wife's "plus one," he essentially uses this unique opportunity to critical examine his daily mundane interactions. this manifests in a narrative that is made up of intimate vignettes about dealing with issues ranging from the systematic (MEDIA CENSORSHIP, GOVERNMENT CORRUPTION, FOOD INSECURITY, INTERMTTENT ELECTRICITY and UNRELIABLE INTERNET CONNECTIONS) to the personal (LOCAL CUSTOMS/FASHION/CUSINE, RELIGIOUS HOLIDAYS, GENDER ROLES and FILIAL PIETY). sure there are times when his observations come off a bit PATRONIZING and even PATERNALISTIC, but in my experience that is part of the process of acclimating to new surroundings and normative culture that differs from your own. so i dont fault him too much for that, in fact i think its a testament to his honesty to include such and gives this graphic novel a sense of authenticity.
as ive mentioned in this forum before, i formerly worked in MYANMAR in the northern city of MANDALAY, which is far from the metropolis that is YANGON where DELISLE resided more than a decade before. there were things i learned from BURMA CHRONICLES about my area, specifically KACHIN STATE which was to my north. i taught children of their military during my tenure and i really had no idea about the jade mines located there and the dismal, sub-human conditions endured there by local workers at the behest of foreign companies (mostly CHINESE). i did not know about the narcotics problem there and how it worked within a broader GEOPOLITICAL STRATEGY by the military junta. of cause looking back, who would have told me? i was literally surrounded by AMERICANS, some of the CHRISTIAN MISSIONARY persuasion so at the very least they were highly unreliable on most any subject.
having been a PEACE CORPS volunteer in ALBANIA i worked in concert with some foreign NGOs so i found it interesting learning about the politics regarding the mission of DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS and the decision matrix they utilize to deem a situation beyond salvageable. in BURMA CHRONICLES DELISLE and his family leave because the organization determined that they were rendering services that should be provided by the government. in essence they were aiding in the lack of development and progress by the military junta. i find that sort of thing incredibly interesting. too often in ALBANIA i felt that PEACE CORPS was more interested in what we got our counterparts to produce rather than having them self-determine and work towards mutual goals. that over time all we provided was a crutch for the locals to rely upon instead of becoming more self-sufficient. it is nice to know in this instance that responsible NGOs take their mission seriously and are willing to depart if the conditions do not present themselves. of course, i admit that an NGO is different than PEACE CORPS, which is an extension of the STATE DEPARTMENT, so maybe those missions and their ethos dont match exactly, but all the same it is not in the AMERICAN interest to have developing countries rely on us for expertise. or maybe it is?
i thought DELISLE did a stellar job of elucidating the experience of adjusting to living in a developing by a WESTERN expatriate, worts and all. i highly recommend this graphic novel to anyone interested in learning about that experience or even a pre-"democratic" MYANMAR for that matter. cant wait to seek out his other publications.