'THERE WAS A man across the road painting the wall of his house,' says Emma Larkin of her first visit to Myanmar in 1995, and a trip to dissident Aung San Suu Kyi's house to hear her speak. 'A small group of people was also standing there, like they were waiting for a bus. 'Suddenly, there were these whistles and this truck comes barrelling out of University Avenue. They beat this small gathering of people and push them into the truck and drive off. Then it's all silence again and there's just this man painting the wall of his house. I couldn't help wondering whether what I had just seen actually happened.' After a brief pause, Larkin's voice over the telephone from London continues. 'Burma [Myanmar] is like that. Everywhere you go,' she says. Larkin, now in her mid-30s, has been back to Myanmar many times since that first visit, trying to sift reality from the illusion conjured by one of the oldest existing military dictatorships. Most recently, she spent a year travelling the country, visiting places where George Orwell had lived, while serving as a policeman in the 1920s in what was then British Burma. The result is Secret Histories - Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop (John Murray). The book draws on the experiences and observations of the Myanmese, and in the interests of protecting their safety, Larkin asks that certain details about her life be withheld. 'I hope you don't think I'm being overly paranoid,' she says. It can be safely said that Larkin's life has been unusual. Her parents made Asia their home many decades ago. Her father worked in finance, her mother in academia. She was born in Asia, grew up in Bangkok, went to boarding school in England, and studied Myanmese at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She was fascinated by the swirls and circles of its writing, and entranced by Rudyard Kipling's depictions of the exotic east. Larkin's base for much of the time is Bangkok. She's fluent in Thai, and works as a journalist, most recently writing a piece about the Karen refugees from 55 years of civil war. She has a good ear for a quote and a manner that instils trust in the people she interviews. 'The number of people you trust in Burma is so small,' she says. 'Maybe immediate family, and one or two good friends. To talk politics you have to be very careful.' However, the youth of Myanmar are probably the most politically aware of any such age group in the region, she says. 'Just by virtue of their history, they have to know things and understand things if their family encourages them to. But I guess the flip side of that is maybe some families don't want their children involved at all.' The regime is succeeding in forcing people to forget the past, as more and more choose to live a life of silence. Larkin commends anthropologist Christina Fink's Living Silence (Zed Books) as the best examination of the psychological war being waged in Myanmar: The silence, and the way the regime makes everyone an accomplice to its crimes. 'People are complicit on all levels by not resisting,' Larkin says. 'By going along with it, by getting a degree and going through the system, you're part of it, and it's quite sinister. There's no space to resist. Almost everybody has been co-opted to one degree or another.' Some have even come to fear the fall of the regime, though not out of guilt. 'People have struggled hard to survive and build what lives they can, and I sometimes got the sense among people my age that they almost don't want to change. They've worked so hard to maintain a sense of normality within the system that the disruption of it is too frightening. They are afraid of what will come next.' Some say the Myanmese want democracy, but that's a big concept, and it takes time to build and a lot of care to maintain. What the Myanmese most want, Larkin says, is 'some sense of accountability'. 'In Burma, there's none,' she says. 'It's the kind of place where anything can happen to you, and you have no recourse. You can just disappear down a hole and never be heard of again.' People joke about the rubber band law, which stretches to encompass whatever the regime wants it to. The individual has no idea he's broken it until he's arrested. 'Imagine living under that,' she says. 'Simply terrifying.' There was a brief renaissance in the 1950s, after Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948 and before Ne Win seized power in 1962. 'All the writers and journalists hark back to that time ... as a high point of the literary scene,' says Larkin. Ne Win came to power initially at the head of a caretaker government. 'Some of the older people I spoke to express a sense of relief that someone strong had come in and taken control,' she says, 'because Burma really was a mess at that time.' There was ethnic separatist warfare, and the Communist Party was growing considerably in strength. But rather than open the country, Ne Win took Myanmar into isolation under military rule that wrecked a once-prosperous economy. In 1988, Ne Win stepped down and huge demonstrations demanding multi-party elections followed. The military turned its guns on demonstrators, killing at least 3,000. Elections were eventually allowed in May 1990, with the National League for Democracy winning 392 of the 485 seats contested in the People's Assembly. The army ignored the result. Larkin says that what impresses the Myanmese most about Suu Kyi, who's been almost continuously under house arrest since 1989, is 'the intense amount of personal sacrifice she has made for her country. Her tenacity on that level is something for the Burmese people to hold on to. There's a real sense that she's someone who won't ever give up. 'There are people leaving all the time. You have ethnic insurgencies signing ceasefires. You have dissidents who go to America and become stockbrokers. But she's this one solid point of focus that never wavers.' Larkin quotes Orwell's view that it's impossible for literature to survive under totalitarianism: 'The imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.' But at one of the tea parties she held while researching her book, Larkin is told that Orwell's argument is 'rubbish'. A young Myanmese writer says the creativity now lies in writing between the lines, and allowing the imagination to give meaning to apparently harmless tales. The Lion King, for instance, can be seen as an allegory for Myanmar. And Simba the young lion forced to flee his homeland is Suu Kyi. 'In Burma, we're free to write whatever we want,' says Larkin. 'We're just not free to have it published.' Censors warn poets not to write about life, although verses about love, loss and loneliness are apparently OK. 'Either you leave and you write what you want to write, or you stay and you keep within you the things you want to write and you wait,' says Larkin. 'It's a real toss up for writers. If you leave, you lose your audience, particularly if you're writing in the Burmese language. Lots of people opt to stay. But they can't write what they want to write. 'I think there's a huge hidden archive in Burma that would be wonderful to plunder, full of fantastic stories and tragedies and comedies that can't be published now, but hopefully one day they will.' Myanmar has a high literacy rate and reading is a passion, but that's not to say the people are well educated. The Ministry of Information says school enrolment is 93.07 per cent. What is doesn't say is that teachers are poorly trained, the schools lack basic equipment, and that students do homework with slates and chalk. Many schools have computers, but lack the expertise to use them and the electricity to run them. There are plenty of universities, but they are mostly closed to prevent political agitation. Larkin quotes a psychologist friend: ''Quantitatively we have progress. Qualitatively, we're going down the drain.''