The Books Interview: Emma Larkin

You've been writing about Burma for many years. What first attracted you to the country?
I've lived in Thailand all my life, and have been interested in what was happening across the border. Burma is a land filled with stories that aren't being written down, because of the regime.

For a writer, that is endlessly compelling. I think any of us could go back again and again and again and hear stories that we hadn't heard before, and have an urge to record them.

Why did the junta delay international aid in 2008, during Cyclone Nargis? And was the international response adequate?
The most likely explanation is the severe paranoia among the leading generals. They are simply fearful of the outside world. They are nervous of international governments meddling, and of aid workers coming in and seeing what conditions are like in Burma.

You write about the way rumours in Rangoon take on the currency of facts. Does that make it difficult to report from Burma?
Yes, and there are naturally ethical dilemmas. You always have to ask: "Is it true, and how do you assess that?" I used a system whereby if I'd heard something from at least three or more different, unconnected people, then I would think it was something worth pursuing and try to find out more about it. There is a way to take rumours and build on them - and not just take every story that you hear, but to use intelligent speculation to assess whether it's worth writing or not.

What effects does censorship have on Burmese society?
These huge, life-changing events happen and there's no record of them. We can't talk openly about the monks' protests in 2007, for instance. People can't discuss it, it's not remembered. That's really damaging for society in the long term. For individuals - how do you process your life, or the marking points of your life? There are things which happened to you that you felt very powerfully about, but you have no way to acknowledge them.

Would it make a difference if the international press reported more consistently on Burma?
Yes, but it's really hard to do. It's hard to get into Burma if you're a known journalist. It's also hard to operate in the country if you don't have good contacts there. And it's hard for Burmese people to operate there safely. You can't just parachute into Burma. You have to be careful to keep your sources safe and keep the people you talk to safe.

How have you managed to stay under the radar?
Using a pen name helps [Emma Larkin is not her real name]. But I've been followed and have felt like my cover was about to be blown.Interestingly, the intelligence networks are not very cohesive. So, say I'm in Mandalay, in the north, and someone from the intelligence service has been following me and appears to have some suspicion about me. This may not necessarily be communicated to Rangoon, so I've kind of got away with that.

The Buddhist monks' protests were crushed. Can peaceful protest still be effective in Burma?
If you have peaceful protest and the government's response is to shoot the people who protest, then I can't imagine it effecting change. But I am in awe of peaceful protesters, for their moral stance. Against all the odds, these people walk up to city hall and say, "Free Aung San Suu Kyi."
It's just one person and they know they'll get arrested. The motivation to do that is incredible, but some people are driven to it. I can't criticise peaceful protest; I think it's very important.

Do you see Burma breaking free from its leaders any time soon?
The people I speak to in Burma are friends, so I feel I have a duty to remain hopeful. When I go there, I feel quite put to shame. In developed countries, we have so many resources - and then you go to Burma and you see these people who have nothing, and they just make so much out of what little they have. There are lessons to be learned from that tenacity and drive.

Emma Larkin's "Everything Is Broken: the Untold Story of Disaster Under Burma's Military Regime" is published by Granta Books (£12.99).

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party