The last words of The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner’s tale of aristocratic family disintegration and underclass survival, kept running through my mind as I flew home last week. “They endured,” he wrote of Dilsey, the matriarch of the black family that had served the Comptons for generations and witnessed the white family’s self-destruction. I was trying to make sense of my short visit to Burma (officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar), and those two words seemed to offer a clue. The Burmese have endured half a century of one of the world’s most repressive military governments, one that brutally crushed any dissent and created an Orwellian surveillance network that kept its aptly named Insein Prison overflowing. Actually, life hadn’t been that great before: Burma was ravaged by Japanese and Allied fighting in World War II, which followed a century of British rule, when the “white man’s burden” was carried on the brown man’s shoulders.
Last year, “the generals” shifted gears. Without explanation, they loosened their harsh rein and opened up the country to the outside world. The speculation is they need both hard currency and a counterweight to China. People in Burma talked more freely than I had expected, but their answer to any question about the future was a fatalistic, “We don’t know.” As a tourist I went where I was told and saw what I was meant to see, but still I carried away a deep respect for the resilience of a people who endure.