Watching the Orwellian ‘Big Mother’ on Burma’s state-owned TV

HSIPAW, Myanmar — One of the more entertaining ways to take the cultural pulse of a society is check out, and sometimes struggle to understand, its sources of entertainment. In Myanmar, a video shop in the Shan State town of Hsipaw and a state-owned television station each offer their own glimpse.

In the market at Hsipaw, Korean soap operas are all the rage these days.

Tin Nilar Htwe, an 18-year-old attendant at the video shop, counts herself among the fans of the Korean soaps. She says she enjoys them because the actors are attractive.

And as the United States prepares to compete with Chinese influence in the country, the shop offers one indicator of each power’s cultural cache. Hollywood action flicks edge out their Chinese counterparts in popularity, Tin Nilar Htwe says.

Both come on discs that sell for less than a dollar and each contain six low-quality bootlegs. On one disc, you can get three installments of The Mummy franchise and three installments of The Scorpion King. The discs come down the Burma Road from China to Mandalay, where they’re loaded with pirated content before traveling back up the road to this shop in Hsipaw.

American action flicks are popular with the Burmese because they’re entertaining even when the dialogue is incomprehensible. On the flip side, Burma’s homegrown entertainment proves intriguing to a foreigner even without the benefit of understanding the language. One show in particular, on the state-owned MY-4, proves delightfully bewildering.

It’s a game show, whose title very roughly translates to “Child Stars.” In a country George Orwell once called home, and where the government until recently was frequently described as “Orwellian,” The producers of “Child Stars” seem to subconsciously take that connection to heart.

The contestants on the show, children about three or four years old, are placed alone in an upscale playroom with shining hardwood floors and a table. The room houses big shelves filled with oversized stuffed animals and other objects. Also in the room is a flatscreen television, on which the mother’s face appears as she barks out commands to the child. She’s instructing the child to perform specific tasks, like grabbing a toy and placing it in a basket, or moving a stuffed animal from one part of the room to the other, while racing against a clock.

Prizes are awarded for success, but the child rarely understands the arbitrary tasks she’s asked to perform, and the show is sure to mock her at every wrong turn with a “boing” sound effect. At moments of apparent confusion, the show adds in a cartoon thought bubble with a question mark above the child’s head, which never fails to trigger the laugh track.

To a reader of Orwell, the image of the mother’s face giving orders on the television immediately evokes 1984’s ubiquitous telescreens, which are seen everywhere, see everything, and carry the face of Big Brother. Couple that with the mother’s commands for her beleaguered child to perform arbitrary tasks, and the show begins to look a lot like a metaphor for bad governance.

Maybe the people at Myanmar’s Ministry of Information, which operates MY-4, have been channeling their fictional colleagues at Oceania’s Ministry of Truth. Either way, it’s clear why so many Burmese opt for Korean soaps.