‘Under the Dragon: A Journey through Burma’

In 1988 the Burmese people rose up against their military government. The unarmed demonstrators were cut down, leaving more than 5,000 people dead. ‘Under the Dragon’ recounts my journey through Burma some ten years later, meeting the victims – and the perpetrators – of that uprising. At its heart are the stories of four remarkable women, and it’s around them that the book revolves: a girl named Ni Ni, born with remarkably sensitive hands who – after her father vanished – was trapped into prostitution; Ma Swe, a reluctant government censor; Nan Si Si, the lover of a Karen fighter and mother of a thuggish hill-tribe warlord; and Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace laureate and elected leader, held under virtual house arrest for almost a decade.

Twenty years ago when I first met Daw Suu Kyi she told me that, as a visitor, I would not have seen the fear in her country. ‘I have sensed it,’ I replied. ‘I’ve seen a great deal of personal courage. In a light voice, controlled by thoughtful directed speech, Suu Kyi said, ‘That is what we must do; maximise courage, minimise fear.’ Behind her an NLD – National League for Democracy – supporter wore a T-shirt which read ‘Fear is a habit, I am not afraid’. I didn’t ask Aung San Suu Kyi any probing questions. I didn’t ask about her clarity or her faith. I didn’t quiz her on years of imprisonment, into the aching isolation from her sons and her husband, who was then still alive. The questions had all been asked before. Instead I told her what I had seen; that the people needed her, that they felt her love protected them, even if she might not be able to free them, that she was the embodiment of their hope. She knew all this of course, though was too courteous to say, but it was all that I had to offer.

‘Concepts such as truth, justice, compassion are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power,’ she once wrote. Today, more than 15 years after the book’s first publication, Myanmar is making cautious moves toward an open society. Elections have been held, political prisoners released and censorship eased. Yet even as democracy becomes entrenched, Suu Kyi’s words ring as true as ever.

‘Under the Dragon’ went to six editions in hardback, won an Arts Council Writers’ Award and, like ‘Stalin’s Nose’, was short listed for the Thomas Cook/Daily Telegraph Travel Book Prize.

‘Under the Dragon’ is now republished with a new preface by William Dalrymple.

‘I cannot imagine a better book on the beauty and terror of Burma. Read it. Read it. Read it.’ – Fergal Keane

‘Shines with an almost unbearable poignancy…a beautiful insight into this unhappy land.’ – Colin Thubron, The Times

‘It will make you cry and it will give you hope. It travels through modern decayed Rangoon, into the hills with warlords of their tribes, to the heart of government at its most sinister, and to the place where the best books go – inside you. It is astonishingly good.’ – Jeanette Winterson

‘a work of great political commitment, powered above all by the author’s outrage at the injustices, brutalisation and mass violation of human rights that he witnessed in Burma’ – William Dalrymple

See below to view Tony Birtley’s shocking and graphic Al Jazeera report on the October 2007 protests and crackdown in Rangoon (twelve minutes duration).

‘Under the Dragon’ is republished by Tauris Parke in 2008. It was first published in 1998 by HarperCollins UK and Canada and Alba Editorial Spain in 2002.