The promise and Enigma of Burma
Contemporary Myanmar’s best known historian Thant Myint-U’s latest book brings his series of books on Myanmar, beginning with his thesis on The Making of Modern Burma, up to date to the present. In the process he provides as complete a guide to understanding this captivating yet enigmatic country as possible.
It is a complex story with a resonance well beyond Myanmar, told with a historian’s sense of perspective and analysis and a writer’s gift for storytelling. It begins with the early history of the Arakanwhere Mughal India, the Burmese Konbaung, the Arakan rulers of Mrak-U and seafarers from the Arabian Sea to the early Europeans met and sometimes collidedand on to the 1988 student-led uprising and the emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi as an icon of democracy. It traces major events like the rise of Senior General Than Shwe and the seven-step roadmap to democracy; the fateful cyclone Nargis and its savage intimation of climate change; the politics of the reformist period led by President Thein Sein, perhaps the most hopeful period in Myanmar’s recent history; and the hopes raised by the 2012-15 peace process and its dissipation under Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (and the role of the Chinese in it). It notes the profound failure of the military, reformists and democrats to deal with the economy and the needs of the poor; the explosion of intolerance and violence conflating race, religion, nativism, indigeneity and nation, drawing oxygen from political freedoms and aggravated by social media, that are at the base of right-wing religious nationalism in Myanmar and anti-Rohingya sentiment today; and the handling and implications of the rise of China for Myanmar.
Thant Myint-U traces the roots of Myanmar’s current failures first to Burma’s abrupt break from the past after the defeat of the Konbaung dynasty and the disruption of the traditional authority in the countryside around the turn of the 19th century by the British; second, the superimposition of British census classifications with Stalinist conceptions of nationality on traditional notions of the other’ that resulted in a rigid definition of nationality limited to those recognised as indigenous’ races at the time of the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1824, a definition that holds even today; third, to a virulent strain of predatory capitalism starting with British exploitation of Burma’s natural resources, followed by their aggravation as part of a complex ceasefire with ethnic armed insurgents in which ethnic militias, the Burmese Army and Chinese business interests across the border profited from timber, jade, drugs, sports gambling, illegal trafficking and organised crime; and finally a cosy relationship between business cronies and the Burmese military regime that came about with the end of the Burmese experiment with socialism in the 1980s.
To all this, Thant Myint-U brings a human and personal perspective, with portraits of key players in the dramatis personae and snapshots of individuals caught in the throes of forces beyond their control. Three individuals deserve special notice: Peace Minister’ U Aung Min, a charismatic former general and railway minister who took personal risks and adopted unconventional methods to build trust with ethnic insurgent leaders to all but achieve a nationwide ceasefire agreement in 2015; U Soe Thane, the former navy chief, a jovial, diplomatic and economic architect of Myanmar’s opening to the West; and Nay Win Aung, tireless advocate of reform and founder of Myanmar Egress’, an NGO that played a profound role in educating the reformists with an agenda for a new Myanmar.
The author’s own contribution to reform, ranging from advocating for engagement by the West with Myanmar to playing the role of a political and cultural interpreter’ between the two when it was needed, to an advisor on the peace process and the founder of the Yangon Heritage Trust, was by no means small. He remains till now a passionate if lonely advocate for an enlightened Myanmar, in which the poor, the impact of climate change and a more fluid definition of identity have a more central place.
The writer is a former ambassador to Myanmar and a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.