From George Orwell to Aung San Suu Kyi, author Rory MacLean looks at 10 books that chart the country's tumultuous history
Burma is three lands for the British reader. First, it's the old colony of temple bells, flying fishes and dynastic despots (home-grown as well as imported). Second, it's the betrayed golden land enslaved by be-medalled generals who enrich themselves through drug deals and gun down unarmed protesters. Third, it is modern Myanmar, a deeply wounded and fractured multi-ethnic society that is working through – in a phrase favoured by optimistic citizens – its "democratic transition".
For the past two decades western writers and readers have focused their minds on the brutality and cronyism of the dictatorship. Military men may still gift each other gold-plated pistols and compare their Singapore property portfolios, and doubts remain about the sincerity of the reforms, but the changes of the past two years – soldiers withdrawn from cities, political prisoners released and censorship ended – are truly remarkable. Now the country's poets, authors and journalists are writing with unprecedented freedom: touching hearts, steeling courage, showing that life need never go back to the bad, old ways.
1. 'A Hanging' by George Orwell
No surprise that George Orwell, author of the two defining parables of the 20th century, should be top of the list, especially as his five years in Burma atuned him to the suffering of the oppressed. More moving than 'Burmese Days' is his short story "A Hanging", in which he watches a condemned criminal walk towards the gallows … and sidestep a puddle. In that fleeting moment, Orwell marks the preciousness of human life and the heartlessness of power.
2. The Burman: His Life and Notions by Sir George Scott
Should a Sunday-born man marry a lady born on Wednesday? To bring luck, should a house be built on male, female or neuter foundation posts? George Scott served as frontier officer for three decades at the end of the 19th century, but his enduring legacy is as collector and sympathetic chronicler of the old ways in a country "where people are small and ghosts are big".
3. The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh
The finest novel written on the English in Burma. It is set during the British invasion of 1885, when a poor boy is lifted up on the tides of political and social chaos that shaped Burma and India.
4. Golden Earth: Travels in Burma by Norman Lewis
Among the 20th century's finest travel writers, Norman Lewis visited Burma in the early 1950s. Golden Earth is a bittersweet portrait of the then-optimistic, now-lost land – before communist incursions and tribal insurrection shattered the dream.
5. From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe
"Nearly every night I dream of the Shan State, of Mandalay, of the jungle. The landscapes of my dreams resemble real ones, yet they shift like images on silver screens …" Pascal Khoo Thwe's mesmerising biography stretches from his grandmother's creation stories to civil war and a chance conversation about James Joyce that leads to a new life in Britain. A minor masterpiece.
6. Burmese Chronicles by Guy Delisle
How can a comic book convey the cruelty, injustice and absurdity of the SLORC years? Québécois Guy Delisle's enlightening and insightful graphic travelogue succeeds by disarming the reader, as we learn with him the truth about the struggle for survival under the generals.
7. Freedom from Fear and Other Writings by Aung San Suu Kyi
Few women in public life have suffered more for their beliefs than Aung San Suu Kyi, and inspired so many people by their example. "Concepts such as truth, justice, compassion are often the only bulwarks which stand against ruthless power," she once wrote. Like the country itself, she too is working through a "democratic transition", from prisoner to parliamentarian, to (probably) president in 2015. In this collection of writings, which includes her Nobel peace prize speech, she shares the vision, hopes, principles and humanity that have sustained and continue to sustain her.
8. The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U
For 200 years, Thant Myint-U's forefathers served Burma's royalty. His grandfather rose to become UN secretary-general. This remarkable family story is woven into Burma's history in a work that is moving, lyrical, shocking – and essential for anyone wishing to understand the country emerging today.
Zargana hasn't written a book – yet. The most popular comedian and satirist in Myanmar, Zargana (whose name translates as "tweezers") picked at the junta with his wicked puns for more than 20 years, many of which were spent in prison. His courageous performances bridged the gap between the three Burmas, not least in reviving the popularity of anyeint, the traditional vaudeville-like theatre.
10. Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets, edited by James Byrne
"Poetry is not by the language, not via the language from the language, not with the language without the language. It is written, made, composed, constructed, read and felt in the language. Of course, sometimes it is not," teases Zeyar Lynn, one of Myanmar's most influential living bards. His work – along with that of 14 other uncensored writers – has just been published in Bones Will Crow, the first anthology of Burmese poetry in the west, edited by James Byrne, poet-in-residence at Clare Hall, Cambridge.
• Rory MacLean's UK top 10 Under the Dragon: A Journey Through Burma, published by IB Tauris, will be re-released next month as an ebook with a new introduction from William Dalrymple. He will be speaking at Burma Day at Asia House on Monday 20 May.