The Southeast Asian nation of Burmaalso known as Myanmarlies in the heart of the worlds most dynamic region, in which 500 million people have been lifted out of poverty in recent decades, and one dictatorship after another has fallen. Thanks in part to the Buddhist commitment to education, over 80 percent of the Burmese people are literate. And in recent years a charismatic advocate for Burmese democracy has attained widespread popular support.

And yet, here are the sorry facts about Burma, a country I have visited numerous times, despairing more and more on each trip: The State Department puts its per capita income at less than $2000. Hunger and crime are persistent problems, and disabled beggars crowd downtown Rangoon, Burmas largest city. In 2000, the World Health Organization ranked Burmas health-care system as the second-worst in the world, ahead of only Sierra Leone.

Since 1962, Burma has been run by the military. Despite brief glimmerings of hope for the pro-democracy opposition, the ruling junta remains as firmly entrenched as ever. Convinced, as authoritarian governments often are, that it was genuinely popular, the regime allowed a relatively free parliamentary election in 1990, the first in three decades. But when the pro-democracy party swept the polls, the regime annulled the results. Since then, the partys leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been repeatedly put under house arrest. In 2003, pro-regime thugs attacked her convoy, killing members of her entourage, and she was placed under house arrest, where she remains. Today, her party lies in shambles, many of its leaders jailed. The State Departments most recent annual report on human rightswhich rarely uses such unequivocal languageasserted, The government continued to rule by decree and was not bound by any constitutional provisions.

How did this educated country move from post-World War II independence to authoritarianism? And how has the regime endured for almost a half century, even as other Asian nations have moved toward openness and democracy? Two new books, Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin, a pseudonym for a veteran Southeast-Asia journalist; and The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma by Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian, use different methods to suggest an answer. Larkin tries to explain Burma by traveling the country in the footsteps of the young George Orwell, who served there in the 1920s as a member of the British imperial police force. Thant, meanwhile, leads the reader through centuries of Burmese history with the goal of discovering what the past might say about the present.

Larkin clearly knows and loves Burma, and she concentrates on how the post-1990 stasis has affected ordinary Burmese. One benefit of following Orwells colonial career is that it gets Larkin out of Rangoon and leads her to delve deeply into peoples lives. In small Burmese towns, Larkin masterfully exhumes the grotesque, evoking the horror of everyday life through small details: a hungry priest who, out of obligation to a visitor, offers Larkin a rare slice of cake, then quickly wraps it up after she declines, so that she cannot change her mind. A Rangoon teashop where, at night, servers sleep in a tangled pile of arms, legs, and longyi, the Burmese sarong. Schools so poor that chemistry students must watch as a teacher draws a picture of a test tube.

In Mandalay, Burmas second city, Larkin joins an informal book club, whose members practice a kind of resistance through literature. Today, despite official censorship, the pavement on Booksellers Lane in Rangoon is crowded with people thumbing through weathered second-hand novels. Indeed, on my own trips to Burma I have been startled by the number of people who want to discuss Faulkner or Dickens.

Larkin also uses her travels to examine the foundations of Orwells writing and politics. In 1925, Orwell served as a low-level imperial policeman in Insein (pronounced insane), an area near Rangoon famed for its brutal prison, which could drive inmates literally mad. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he described the wretched prisoners squatting in the reeking cages of the lock-ups … the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos. At Insein, Larkin suggests, Orwell turned away from the romanticism of Kipling, who had supported the often ruthless mechanisms of state control as a vital part of imperialism. Unlike Kipling, Orwell spent considerable time working in the guts of the British Burmese colonial machine, and he understood that scenes like those he witnessed at Insein were all too common. Today, Insein prison is more crowded than everit reportedly houses more than 10,000 political prisoners and other enemies of the stateand inmates are tortured in ways even the harshest British sahibs probably never imagined.

How the mighty have fallen

Thant Myint-U spends less time on the ground in Burma today, and instead traces the arc of the countrys history. He goes back thousands of years, but focuses mainly on the last days of the Burmese kings, and the period of British rule from the late 19th century until World War II. Thant Myint-Us narrative is full of rich details and colorful characters like Bayinnaung, a 16th-century king who led a mighty elephant corps into battle, defeating neighboring Siam (modern-day Thailand). At times, the reader struggles under the weight of all the names and anecdotes, but Thant Myint-U makes a strong case that Burma once rivaled China and India as a cultural and political power. When, in the 12th century, the Burmese kingdom dealt with the haughty Chinese imperial court, he notes, it was treated with the respect offered the worlds other great dynasties. If it could somehow be set on a different course, Thant Myint-U suggests, Burma could once again become an important player in Asia.

That day appears far off, though. Burma is home to the worlds longest-running civil war, an ethnic conflict in the eastern part of the country between minorities like the Karen, and the armywhich is dominated by Burmans, the countrys ethnic majority. Fighting began just after the World War II and continues to this day. In addition, the years of British rule had weakened many of the countrys traditional institutions of authority, even before invasions during the warby the Japanese, the Americans, and the Chinese Communist forcesproduced further instability. The result was lawlessness: In 1940, Rangoon had a murder rate comparable to a typical American city in the 1990s. This power vacuum would ultimately be filled by the Burmese military.

Public acquiescence has also played a role. Since the end of colonial rule, Thant Myint-U suggests, freedom has produced only chaos and turbulence. In 1988, massive street protests in Burma toppled one military government and set the stage for the election in 1990. But those protests came at a violent cost: The military gunned down hundreds, even thousands, of demonstrators, some of whom, in turn, hacked suspected government agents to death. By the end of the protests, he writes, the country was at once outraged and exhausted. The revolutionary moment was over.

Bad neighbors

Ultimately, neither book provides a satisfying answer to this central question: How do the Burmese generals, a thuggish and largely uneducated bunch, resist the spread of democracy, even though their population reads books, follows world events on the radio, and has been willing to protest in the past?

History, as seen through George Orwell or ancient Burmese kings, provides some guidance, but only some. Perhaps, as Thant Myint-U suggests, Burmas history of foreign invasion has created a widespread xenophobia that leaders can manipulate. The regime has certainly proven skillful at manufacturing enemies, constantly reminding the public of the (now fatally weakened) ethnic insurgents in Burmas hinterlands. And perhaps, as both authors note, Britains imperial rulewhich tore apart traditional institutions, and helped accustom the population to misruleset the stage for dictatorship.

But other Asian countries had similar birth pangs. Many are conglomerations of numerous pre-modern kingdomsIndia itself contains so many civilizations that crossing the borders between some Indian states feels like entering different countries. And British rule in Malaysia, Singapore, and India was no less cruel than it was in Burma, but those nations have gone on to build relatively liberal societies. Other Asian dictatorshipsIndonesia under Suharto, for examplehave manufactured enemies as a justification for military repression. Still, that was not enough to stop an Indonesian democracy movement that gathered force in the late 1990s. And citizens of other countries in the region also witnessed firsthand the chaos that can result from freedomin both the 1970s and early 1990s, the Thai military killed protesters in the streetsbut continued to push for democratization, often successfully.

There are two additional factors that neither author adequately explores. First, the Burmese junta has been uniquely effective at co-opting the population into its crimes. Since the late 1980s, the regime has more than doubled the size of the military, building a parallel social-welfare system for servicemen and their dependents. In this way, the government has forced a high percentage of the population to rely on the army. Through their brothers, sons, and fathers they can gain access to a level of medical care, schooling, and even food that most ordinary Burmese cannot. But in return, they must sell themselvesby informing on neighbors, sending their sons to military indoctrination, and committing thousands of other small crimes against their own conscience.

The regime also has tolerant neighbors. Thant Myint-U, along with some other scholars, argues that the modern sanctions-based approach towards Burma, favored by Western democracies, has been misguided. Sanctions, he contends, only further impoverish an already poor country, and play into Burmese xenophobia. Perhaps, but at least the United States, Britain, and their allies have a clearly defined Burma policy. By comparison, Burmas near neighbors, the most important outside actors in this tragedy, have none at all. Japan has at times joined the American call for pressure on Burma, and at other times has offered it virtually unconditional aid. In Indonesia and Thailand, some liberal politicians have expressed sympathy for Burmese democrats, but in recent years the Thai government has launched what it calls a good neighbor policy toward the generals, defending Burmas abysmal record on human rights. India, the worlds largest democracy, has offered Burma soft loans and infrastructure aid, even rolling out the red carpet for a state visit by Burmese leader Than Shwe. China, meanwhile, has also provided soft loans, and has sold Burma a range of new military hardware.

Indeed, Burma is now exporting its pathologiesdrugs, HIV, economic migrantsacross international frontiers. But, though democracy has swept through Asia in recent years, the countrys neighbors have not yet recognized that a democratic Burma would offer more stability, and a better business climate, than the current regime. Burmas leaders know they dont need to worry about American sanctions because of Burmas growing links to other nations. We have good relations with all our neighbors and that is what is important, Burmas foreign minister told reporters earlier this year. If only other Asian countries would understand this.