“Miss Burma”— A Look at Modern Burma

Craig, Charmaine. “Miss Burma”, Grove Press, 2017.

A Look at Modern Burma

Amos Lassen

We get a look at modern Burma through the eyes of married couple, Benny and Kihn and their daughter Louisa. Benny settled in Rangoon after having gone to Calcutta for school. At that time Rangoon was sill part of the British Empire and after being there a while, he met Khin and fall in love with her.

Members of Khin’s family were members of long-persecuted ethnic minority group, the Karen. When World War II came to Southeast Asia, Benny and Khin went into hiding in the eastern part of the country during the Japanese Occupation and from this point on, we take a journey with them and it is a journey that will change the country’s history. After the war, the British authorities make a deal with Burmese nationalists, who were led by Aung San. The group gained control of the country. Then when Aung San was assassinated, his successor ignored the pleas for self-government of the Karen people and other ethnic groups, and this set off the longest-running civil war in recorded history. Benny and Khin’s eldest child, Louisa, lived through a world filled with danger yet; Louise became Burma’s first beauty queen right before Burma became a dictatorship. As Louisa deals with her newfound fame, she is forced to reckon with her family’s past, the covert dealings of the West in her country, and her own loyalty to the cause of the Karen people.

The story is based upon author Charmaine Craig’s mother and grandparents. Strong bonds are tested and fractured by the weight of constant war, ethnic conflict, and revolution. It’s also a nod to another Louisa, during the course of the novel, will become both a renowned warrior and a complicated symbol of national unity as the winner of the Miss Burma beauty pageant.) At the center of the novel is the marriage between Benny, who is Jewish and Khin, a Karen, one of Burma’s long-persecuted ethnic minorities. The lives of her characters are part of the larger story of Burma’s history.

While the novel only spans the years from 1926 to 1965, it seems to cover so much more. The characters experience the major events in Burmese history as well as their own personal experiences of torture, arrest, deaths and disappearances of loved ones. “They live and struggle and fight for themselves and for their country in an atmosphere of ever-changing alliances, personal breakdowns, and deepening suspicions” The description here is amazing and difficult yet our characters persevere.

This is a different kind of history here in that it looks at the roles of ethnicity and non-Burmese points of view and puts them at the center of the story. We see the emergence of modern Burma as it moves through British colonialism, wartime occupation by the Japanese, and independence. I believe the message of the book to be that “we are all actors in our histories and the histories of our nations” and this changes how we look at the past and how we think about the future. This is a powerful novel of love and war, colonialism and ethnicity, and blood ties.