Monday, 18 November 2019

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Exploring Burmese society and culture

(Interview) – Jak Bazino, a French citizen who lived and traveled extensively in Burma from 2001 to 2005, recently published a first novel, Zawgyi, l’alchimiste de Birmanie, which was inspired by his time spent in Burma. Bazino spoke with Mizzima about his novel and his observations and analysis of Burmese culture and the present political transition. He recounts the changes he witnessed in Burmese society, including an alarming growth between the rich and the poor, as well as highlighting the beauty and fragility of Burmese culture and the importance maintaining Burma’s unique character during a volatile period of transition.   

Question: What is your novel, Zawgyi, about?

Zawgyi-l-alchimiste-de-Birmanie-front-coverAnswer: Zawgyi, l’alchimiste de Birmanie is an adventure novel taking place during the Saffron Revolution of 2007. The story actually begins in 1885, when Maung Aung, a royal palace guard and the last of the Ah Ye Gyi, a secret tantric society charged with protecting the philosopher stone, flees Mandalay before it falls into British hands in order to save the stone and find the Zawgyi, the immortal alchemist who will elicit the coming of a messianic king and the future Buddha Maitreya.

Then, in September 2007, a young French tourist arrives in Burma right at the beginning of the Saffron Revolution. He is unwillingly thrown into the political turmoil after witnessing a murder and goes out in search for the meaning of a tattoo he found on the victim. This quest will lead him to Maung Aung’s footsteps, while pursued by the Burmese military and foreign agents, all seeking to benefit from the philosopher stone and political unrest to assume power. His adventure will take him across Burma in the middle of a revolution, on the path to love, suffering, death and finally enlightenment.

Q: Were there specific persons, events or scenes that provided the inspiration for your novel?

A: French expatriates provided me with a lot of the material I used to describe the expatriate community in Rangoon. I won’t give names of course, since the portraits I drew of them are not always flattering, but those who know these people will certainly identify from whom I got my inspiration. Moreover, during the four years I spent in Burma, I regularly documented impressions, events and news. I wanted my book to be as realistic and plausible as possible, which is why I used material from my notebooks and spent years researching Burmese alchemy, esotericism and history.

I constructed an environment as close to reality as possible for two reasons: to introduce the country in detail to readers not familiar with Burma, and to make people who know the country relive this specific period of time as if they were again there. For that, I used articles from media like Mizzima to retrace and relate events as they happened, such as the demonstrations of 2007 and the repression that followed. Finally, I am also fond of photography. The pictures, impressions and memories I brought back accompany me everyday. I did my best to depict these unforgettable landscapes, faces and scenes in my novel, to share my love for Burma with my readers.

Q: You obviously hold deep respect for Burmese culture. What are some aspects of Burmese culture to which you are especially drawn and that may not be known to those who have not spent considerable time in Burma?

A: I think it would be its lack of rationality, which is sometimes confusing for Westerners, who feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland. Burmese culture has not been influenced by rationalism, positivism or scientism. As such, foreigners often lack references to understand what seems to us illogical, upside down or simply bewildering.

But, I really like the fact that legends and supernaturalism are still alive in Burmese beliefs, which makes everyday life somewhat fantastic, as in a fairytale. I enjoy the fact that Burmese people never tried to domesticate nature as we did in Europe: wilderness, animals and plants all have their place in Burmese society, even in a huge city like Rangoon, which feels like a village and not like a sanitized European city. In a way, this aspect of Burmese culture is very advanced compared to what is commonly called sustainable development. Finally, Burmese culture, as exemplified by hospitality and generosity, speaks directly to senses and behaviors and is therefore often from the heart and not calculated.

On a historical front, the country sits at a crossroad of influences from India, China and Southeast Asia. This really shows in Burma’s esoteric and supernatural beliefs, which are a mix of animism, tantrism, buddhism, taoism and so forth. This provides great variety and creativity in local spiritual movements. In my novel, I focus in particular on the origins and the expressions of Burmese alchemy and millenarism, as well as on the eschatology related to the waiting of the messianic king and the future Buddha. These underground esoteric beliefs cast a new light on Burmese history and assist in the comprehension of many events. This includes making sense of power struggles throughout Burmese history, as well as how the minds of Burmese kings, political leaders and dictators function.

Q: You lived in Burma from 2001-2005, how did you experience the impact of Depayin and the subsequent removal of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt?

A: Strangely enough, I don’t really have strong memories of these events. I became gradually aware of their impact and their intensity after reading articles days later. When the information reached me, my daily life in Rangoon went on as usual. At that time it was easier to get information about what happened in Burma if you lived abroad. Restrictions on the Internet and the media made it difficult to keep in touch. And foreign media made their headlines with these events one day and then went back to the war in Iraq. Yet, I remember a few things. There were mixed sentiments from the expatriate community. We understood that a door had once again been closed, since the hardliners were the ones staying in power. I felt similarly after Depayin, as if believing any change in Burma was impossible after being disappointed so many times. When you live in Burma, time has a different rhythm. It feels like it stands still and events such as Depayin or the removal of Khin Nyunt are small waves on the surface of a deep, still lake.

Q: During your time living in Rangoon, what changes did you perceive in the city and the lives of the people?
A: While living in Rangoon, I observed the gap between rich and poor widening. I saw the middle class disappear, especially the one represented by civil servants and small entrepreneurs. This was because of economic sanctions, nepotism and corruption. I witnessed a poor but educated population, where everyone could make a living, change into an unequal one, where only a few can maintain a proper way of life. Many shopping centers and supermarkets opened, making the lives of expatriates and rich people easier. International schools and new neoclassic houses popped out of nowhere like mushrooms. SUVs were everywhere, as well as shops for golf equipment, guarded compounds and expensive clothing shops.

Yet, at the same time inflation became a real issue for the great majority. I started to see children beg in the street instead of going to school, which had become too expensive partly because of corruption. After the sanctions of 2003, I heard stories of thousands of women becoming prostitutes after losing their jobs in garment factories, of young girls offering themselves to truck drivers on the side of roads. Beer stations, as locals call gogo bars, started to open. I visited halfway houses where street kids learned a craft. They had never been that crowded before.

Some families had to abandon their elders, lacking means to take care of them. Many people said the situation was worse than during socialism, at least for common people. When rich kids flew to Bangkok for the weekend and passed their SATs in international schools to study abroad, poor people could not get enough money to get a passport and had to buy their way through local high schools and universities to get bogus diplomas.

Q: Are you surprised at what is now transpiring in Burma? What’s your opinion on the future political and economic direction for the country?

A: I am more than surprised. Astonished would be the word. One year ago, as I was working on the last details of my novel, I would never have thought that these changes would be possible, or at least happen so soon and so fast. I thought I was writing a novel about today’s Burma and instead ended up with a historical novel.

Not everything is perfect, of course, and it would be a mistake to rejoice too soon. Strangely, my fear now is that the country opens too quickly, on an economic level especially, before the democratization process is mature enough to control and digest these changes. The Burmese population is still very fragile and the system is still corrupted. That makes Burma a new El Dorado for entrepreneurs and international groups with low moral standards. The government has to make sure that economic development does not proceed at the expense of social progress, protection of the environment, improvement of the education system and political maturation.

We have seen what happened in China, India or Indonesia, for example, where economic growth took priority on all of the above without any regard for sustainable development. Look at what sex and mass tourism did to Thailand. We have to preserve Burma’s nature, we have to make sure ethnic minorities can protect their cultures, we have to make sure that Burmese workers won’t be enslaved in sweatshops to provide Westerners with low cost products. The Burmese government has a responsibility in this matter, as do foreign governments, consumers, tourists and international groups.

Q: You have traveled extensively throughout Burma and also been involved in the production of travel guides for Burma. What are some of the little known destinations you have enjoyed most?

A: I would say I keep vivid memories of my trip to Kachin State. I was lucky enough to see Myitsone before the dam project. It was a magical place, just knowing it was the beginning of the Irrawaddy River. I went to Indawgyi Lake just after that, and the road makes the trip itself a wonderful adventure. There, I went into the jungle to visit an elephant camp and a village of gold diggers. It was like traveling into the past, an experience like the ones you can read in old explorers’ books. But, at the same time, it made me better appreciate the environmental, social and economic issues that Burma now faces. Watching poor workers going to the Hpa Kant mines, others leading elephants to cut teak trees or others searching for gold using chemicals in such an untouched and beautiful place, made me aware of the fragility of the resources, of the traditional cultures and of the natural landscapes which make Burma an amazing country.

I witnessed the same kind of contrast when I went to the Mergui islands on a small fishing boat and spent several days in a Moken village. There again, I was in a place of such beauty that it is hard to imagine, among people struggling to live and to maintain their culture against pressures from outside. If I had to recommend something to potential visitors, it would be just that: try to visit out-of-the-way destinations, but in such a manner that it helps local populations protect their cultures, livelihoods, environments and resources. Burma is a land of contrast and diversity, and the easy path of tourism only leads to homogeneity. Burma is such a place that you have to renounce a part of yourself if you want to get everything you look for.

Q: Do you have plans to more on Burma, or to eturn to Burma?

A: I have several projects in mind. One would be to publish a book of tales and legends of Burma illustrated by pictures I took all around the country. I have also started to work on a tale for adults taking place after Nargis, mixing supernaturalism and reality, like in some of Haruki Murakami’s novels. But my first wish is to be able to publish Zawgyi in English. Other than that, I usually travel to Burma every two years, but if the situation continues to improve I hope to settle there in the near future.

Jak Bazino can be reached at
The Kachin’s last stand
Since October this year, Burma has been in a state of civil war, with fighting between Burmese military and armed ethnic rebels. The ruling junta started a crackdown on these armed groups.

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