Set in Burma, Daniel Gawthrop’s Double Karma could have been a work of non-fiction. His previous titles treat a broad range of subjects, including AIDS activism, environmentalism, and conservative Catholicism, but this time the author from British Columbia took a stab at novel writing. The result is a fast-paced, compelling narrative of mistaken identity, travel, and love, one that is deeply entwined with a long history of cultural and political conflict in the country that was officially renamed Myanmar in 1989. The adventure begins around that time and ends in 2013 (the year Gawthrop and his spouse, who was born in Burma, lived in the country’s largest city, Yangon). As the plot develops, readers come to see the lingering impact of the 1962 and 1988 coups by the military, often called the Tatmadaw.
Min Lin, the protagonist, is an aspiring photographer and a refugee raised in Los Angeles. In 1988, he decides to travel to the land of his birth to document the evolving revolution and to discover something of the culture that his father, Ko Lin Tun, kept from him. Soon after his arrival, Min falls in love with Thandar Aye, a leader of the democratic movement, and plans to marry her. Early in their relationship, however, she is captured and imprisoned. Despite his sympathy for the cause, Min tries to stay out of the fray, citing his “feelings about guns” and lack of experience in armed conflict. His non-involvement doesn’t last long, though. After a few months working with NGOs and witnessing the slaughter committed by the State Law and Order Restoration Council and the Ne Win regime, he declares, “I made my peace with war. Abandoning the pacifist, non-violent political stance I had once thought inviolable, I signed up for basic training.”
Min’s decision to engage sets in motion a story of mistaken identity. While separated from his comrades on the battlefield, he encounters a man in a Tatmadaw uniform to whom he bears an uncanny resemblance. Without speaking, the doppelgänger makes it clear he intends to kill his enemy. Min describes the stranger taking “one more step toward me . . . and then the explosion.” Having set off an anti-personnel land mine, the mysterious look-alike dies before he can fire his gun. Shells soon start to fall, and when Min wakes up in a military hospital, he discovers he’s been misidentified as Aung Win, the captain who tried to shoot him.
The plot becomes increasingly convoluted. Impersonating the Burmese officer, Min stays in the country and realizes he’s actually gay when a Rohingya man kisses him (perhaps a nod to changing cultural attitudes to gender and sexuality). Eventually, Min is reunited with his father in the United States, where he marries a white man and settles down. The final third of the book takes place decades later, in 2013, when Min returns to Myanmar to document the Rohingya people’s struggles. While there, he locates his ex-fiancée, is apprehended by the police, and learns the truth about his double.
Although the action occasionally feels contrived or rushed, it provides a robust, well-researched starting point for considering the Southeast Asian country’s troubles. For instance, while describing Min’s incarceration, Gawthrop alludes to various torture techniques employed in Insein Prison, near Yangon. Built as a panopticon in 1887 by British authorities, the institution is notorious for its inhumane treatment of prisoners, many of whom were or are dissidents. In the novel, Min describes the so‑called helicopter method of interrogation: as he hangs upside down with his feet tied to a meathook, a young investigator grips the elbow of Min’s left arm and “yanks it like a propeller blade,” so that his body turns into “a spinning rotor.” Other acts of violence have similarly innocuous designations, like the motorcycle and “walking on the beach.” The protagonist reflects, in an oddly detached manner, that “there must be a manual on torture for this place, they have so many methods for breaking our spirits.”
Such realistic details and allusions abound, but Gawthrop captures the Burmese story most successfully in a brief exchange between Thandar and Ko Lin Tun, who has come to Myanmar to pressure the government to release his son from prison. Min eavesdrops from across the room as they become “quite animated in Burmese, discussing the thorny topic of social justice and the Tatmadaw.” Their conversation addresses a major contemporary debate: Should the senior officers, who orchestrated the coups and stoked the civil war, “receive total immunity from prosecution for human rights abuses,” as Ko Lin Tun suggests? They would have to make concessions, of course. In exchange, “all the ethnic minority leaders would be invited to Naypyidaw to witness the historic re-signing of the Panglong Agreement of 1947 — but under revised terms.” These would allow the ethnic minority states to “secede from the Union and become independent republics.” Thandar is surprisingly sympathetic to the idea — she’s beginning to look past her own prejudices about some of the other groups — but dismisses Ko Lin Tun’s “nice fantasy,” as if to reject the possibility of a happy ending.
Gawthrop’s novel does make the occasional faux pas. When referring to the Karen National Liberation Army — one of the over twenty ethnic armed organizations that are active in Myanmar — the author uses the term “rebels.” That might sound romantic to fans of Star Wars, but scholars and members of the heterogeneous group avoid the word. Similarly, in a passage detailing the KNLA’s arsenal, Gawthrop includes “flame-throwers, surface-to-air missiles, and rocket launchers,” but it’s highly unlikely they could have acquired such weapons. It’s also worth noting that though the story touches on the oppression of the Rohingya people, it tends to overlook other minority groups in Myanmar, many of whom have differing and sometimes conflicting political agendas. (Admittedly, to do justice to that kind of complexity within the confines of a single novel might be too tall an order.)
In February 2021, the Tatmadaw seized power for the third time since the country achieved its independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, deposing the democratically elected civilian government. Double Karma does not address this latest crisis, but it does offer historical context. Along the way, readers gain an appreciation of the country’s shifting cultural values, even as it struggles through one of the longest ongoing civil wars on the planet.
Bryan Dickie published Little Pieces, a collection of photographs from Myanmar’s Karen State, in 2014.