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A lesson in courage 
Far Eastern Economic Review; Hong Kong; Feb 4, 1999; Charles Foran; 

Under the Dragon: Travels in a Betrayed Land by Rory MacLean. HarperCollins,

At one point in Under the Dragon, Rory MacLean and his wife find themselves
near-hostages to
a Burmese drug warlord. The couple are in a Golden Triangle village
accessible only by jeep,
and then only in a jeep owned by the thug. The man, called Phahte, is prone
to boozy tirades and
shooting birds. Phahte summons the couple to a banquet at his "palace,"
where he waves his
pistol in the air and fires. "God follows me!" he shouts, as shards of roof
clatter down on his

The scene is wild, typical of contemporary travel writing's penchant for
misadventures. Redmond
O'Hanlon, a master of the form, even titled one of his books In Trouble
Again, and the Canadian
MacLean's acclaimed earlier works, Stalin's Nose and The Oatmeal Ark,
definitely favour the
surreal and comedic. 

What makes Under the Dragon such an extraordinary book, however, is the lack
of emphasis on
this thrill-is-a-thrill sensibility. The author calls himself "very, very
stupid" for having got mixed up
with Phahte, who is otherwise absent from the narrative for long periods. In
his place is a clear
travel quest-the search for a hand-woven basket, the match of one spotted in
the British
Museum archive-- and a commitment to telling the stories of Burmese women. 

MacLean opens with a stunner. Ni Ni has grown up in a poor part of Rangoon.
When her father
disappears during the army massacre of protesters in 1988, the girl is left
to fend for herself. She
rejects an employer's sexual blackmail, but then believes the promises of a
British architect that
she meets. The Westerner, in Burma to build a hotel, first seduces and then
abandons the
14-year-old. Ni Ni, now tarnished, winds up a prostitute in Bangkok. She is
expelled from
Thailand at age 21 and returns home, HIV-positive, her life doomed. 

Were it not so deeply felt, the moral outrage implicit in the portrait of Ni
Ni might strike some as
overwrought. The opening certainly establishes the strident argument of
Under the Dragon: that
the Burmese have been betrayed by not only their own leaders but rapacious
outsiders, both
from China and the West. 

Worse, MacLean concludes it is the very endearing qualities of the national
character-a code of

generosity, a deep optimism and absence of desire for revenge-that creates
so many
opportunities for abuse. 

The book weaves an engrossing narrative. The author travels with his wife
into the heart of the
country in search of the basket. Their experiences in a backward
authoritarian country are
predictably gruelling and frustrating, and a scene where the couple get
trapped in a karaoke
nightmare will ring true to many travellers in Asia. Counterpoint to this
story are the studies of
individual Burmese lives. Though MacLean makes it clear that the portraits
are composites, the
loving detail of the sketches lends them the authenticity of
autobiography-or good fiction. 

Ma Swe, for instance, is an aspiring journalist from a village near the
ancient temple city of
Pagan. On graduating from college, she is forced into a job as a government
censor. Her first
day at work, Ma Swe is sent, unknowingly, to entrap a young intellectual
hoping to start a
magazine during a perceived thaw in the political climate. 

They fall in love and marry. Her husband is soon arrested (and executed,
presumably), and she
endures a year in prison, most of it in solitary confinement for the crime
of inquiring if she was
going to be charged with a crime. Retreating to her village for solace, Ma
Swe discovers it has
been levelled to build tourist hotels. 

MacLean, meanwhile, armed with only a photo of the basket, winds up in the
remote mountains
near the border with China, where he encounters the warlord Phahte. This new
allows the author to tell the tale of two ethnic-- Chinese women, the twin
sisters Kwan and May,
and of Nan Si Si, a member of the Palaung hill nation. All these lives have
been buffeted by
injustice and terror; as one kindly monk puts it, Burmese have "retreated
into smaller worlds" for

The basket is finally found, and MacLean, in equal parts astonished by the
decency of the
Burmese and appalled by what goes on in their country, returns to Rangoon.
There he meets the
woman that ordinary people revere, even if they are too afraid to speak her
name aloud. "At
least the Lady is devoted to healing our country," one man claims. 

The "Lady," of course, is dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In conversation
with Suu Kyi,
MacLean scrambles for hopeful things to say. His wife finally offers that
they witnessed a great
deal of personal courage in Burma. Suu Kyi is pleased with this finding.
"That is what we must
do," she tells the departing visitors. "Maximize courage, minimize fear." 

Charles Foran 

[Author note]
Charles Foran is the author of five books, including two on China.