SINGAPORE, 10 August 2021: A deep dive into the enigma of modern Myanmar, up to recently the hottest new travel destination in Asia, is offered by an outsider who gets inside the mind and workings of the emerging nation.
“Our Home in Myanmar – Four years in Yangon” by Jessica Mudditt (Hembury Press, ASIN B08X41RNY6, 2021) is a thought-provoking memoir about a foreigner’s experience as a journalist in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma.
Australian Jessica Mudditt arrives in the former Burmese capital of Yangon in 2012 with her Bangladeshi husband Sherpa, just as the nation is moving towards greater democracy and opening up to the world after decades of oppression, dictatorships, civil wars, and economic sanctions. Around this time, the country was opening up also to tourism, with new areas, some riddled with ethnic tensions, easing travel restrictions.
Newly arrived, Mudditt discerns a fresh optimism and hope for transformation in Yangon as she negotiates the culture shocks and cultural quirks of mysterious Myanmar. Yet there are few happy endings in ‘Our Home in Myanmar’, just some sobering realities. First off, she gets a frosty reception from the old-hand ex-pat editors at the major English language newspaper co-owned by an Australian maverick media mogul.
While her outward quest is to find a place to call home (and secure visas to legally work), the inner journey is about trying to understand the complexities and contradictions of a largely Buddhist country where monks are among the most vocal protestors – and the daughter of the independence leader and founder of the armed forces had been under house arrest for 15 years.
Covering a speech by Aung San Suu Kyi is just one of the assignments she undertakes; her role as a journalist for various publications and organisations gives her access to the newsmakers as well as those seldom featured in the media. But for every door that opens, another one slams shut. Nevertheless, the reader gets a window into the machinations, superstitions and craziness of the military regime in what appeared to be its decline. Spoiler alert: In light of present-day events, it turned out to be a false spring.
One of the most emotional high points comes in 2015 when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy gets a landslide victory while Mudditt worked as the first foreign editor at the newspaper considered the propaganda mouthpiece of the junta. She also gets to travel around the country, to Bagan, Inle Lake, Mandalay, Mawlamyine, and the new surreal capital Nay Pyi Taw.
This underlying theme contrasting expectations and realities give the book momentum, as does the challenges and hurdles for a naïve foreign journalist struggling to comprehend the strange yet fascinating aspects of Burmese life and governance during this turbulent time. While many visiting media have fawned over Aung San Suu Kyi, she finds the NLD leader lacking charisma.
The book weaves personal narratives with political backstories and cultural backgrounders. With a clear empathetic voice, attention to detail, and well-crafted chapters, Mudditt, who has written for The Telegraph, Marie Claire, GQ, and CNN, reveals she is not just a good storyteller but has something to say.
She is a social butterfly with the cool ex-pats who have arrived in Yangon, but her work for the UN and the British Embassy shatters the dream that Myanmar has broken free of its backwardness and nastiness. Amid the moments of despair and farce, thankfully, there are dashes of absurdity and humour.
The author left Myanmar in 2016 amid a rise in Buddhist nationalism, but an Epilogue has been added to highlight the unexpected but not unsurprising military coup earlier this year. The book concludes with a ‘where are they now’ update on some of the key people depicted in its pages.
Perhaps without realising it, Mudditt has chronicled a significant period in Myanmar’s modern history. Our Home in Myanmar is a good introduction to Myanmar, as it sheds light on the intriguing former British colony, its rocky road towards freedom and democracy. The author was fortunate to be in Myanmar during a small window of opportunity.
With Myanmar’s military leader Min Aung Hlaing declaring himself prime minister 1 February 2021 while promising to hold elections by 2023, Myanmar remains out-of-bounds for any outsiders. By the middle of August 2021, as much as half of Myanmar’s 55 million population could have Covid-19, experts reckon.
Burma-watchers will find it nostalgic and insightful. Intrepid travellers to the Land of Golden Pagodas will find the book provides a fresh perspective on modern Myanmar, a troubled country facing a difficult, uncertain future. Anyone interested in Southeast Asia should read this perceptive and illuminating book.