History of Burma, But Which One?

I am back to reading non-fiction now, as you can tell. My father bought The Hidden History of Burma early this year and I thought it’s time I read it. Thant Myint-U, the author, being the grandson of U Thant, former UN Secretary General, was an important draw, of course.

It’s a country I first heard about from my grandmother on my father’s side. She had lived many years of her childhood in Mandalay and Pegu, during the days of the British empire when her father was sent there as a postmaster from south India. Since then I have only read and heard about Burma in the news and in books by George Orwell, Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling. For most of my working life, I know it as a country behind an iron-curtain of sorts, ruled as it was by the military junta. I had read a lot about Aung San Su Kyi and her indefatigable efforts at securing democracy in Burma.

When Burma allowed a democratic government to be formed, the world watched in rapt attention and so did I. Unfortunately, many of the promises that the country held have not borne out and instead Burma has plunged into violent civil strife, especially with the Rohingya population.

What can The Hidden History of Burma offer readers like me? Especially, since the author says in his introduction, “… it is a book mainly about the last 15 years, from the height of dictatorship, around the turn of the millennium, to the present day.” I expected it to be an account of the contemporary history of Burma, dealing mostly with the failure of the democratic government to govern the way it should have. And I would have been very keen to know where the experiment went wrong and what policy prescriptions the author has, since Thant Myint-U runs his own think-tank, or discussion centre, U Thant House, according to the book’s jacket.

For the author himself says again in the introduction:

“Burma, was for the United Nations and the West, the signature democracy project of the 1990s and 2000s. The question of whether democracy (in the sense most in the West would recognize, with competing political parties, a free media and free elections) was ever really fit for the purpose was never asked, in part because democracy was what “the people” in Burma were demanding and in part because it was the obvious exit from a tyranny that no one could reasonably defend. In the early 2010s, the more the forms of democracy seemed to be taking shape, the more an assumption of progress took hold.”

What does the author mean by “hidden history”? If he is referring to the little-known or little-reported history, that is probably buried somewhere in the middle of the book, as I write later. If he means hidden from the world, since Burma has been the cynosure of international attention in recent decades, he doesn’t spend enough time dwelling on the concealed aspects.

I saw little that is “hidden”, frankly, in this book of Burma’s history. In fact, it deals with all the facets of the country’s history that any avid follower of international news will already be familiar with, especially from its contemporary history. That Burma is racked by internal conflict is well-known and to understand that, we have to go back to understanding Burma’s ethnic tribes, the years of monarchic rule, followed by British annexation, military rule and now democracy.

It is precisely these subjects that Thant Myint-U attempts to tackle in his opening three chapters: New World, Drifting in Dystopia and Fighting Chance. Even then, he doesn’t manage to do justice to the subject of ethnic divisions and the influence of Burma’s own monarchy as well as British rule on these racial divides. Instead, In Thant Myint-U’s telling, Burma’s ethnic tribes is one of the country’s many troubles, besides rapacious businesses (especially in mining of natural resources) and illicit drug trading that has emasculated the country.

Which is why his treatment of the ethnic divisions are sketchy at best. Including the Rohingya crisis that has been simmering in the Rakhine region for years. There is no mention of the UN calling it a genocide, asking for a return of the Rohingya people to their homes in Burma, nor of Aung San Su Kyi’s silence on the subject. This, when he writes a lot about her and her fight for democracy in Burma, even mentioning an oped article that she wrote for The New York Times in 1997, appealing to the rest of the world for support. I hope you can read her article, because I couldn’t read it, despite having a free account with NYT!

Displaced Rohingya people in Rakhine; Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office OGL on Wikimedia Commons

The subtitle of his book reads: Race, Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century. But the book is not focused on any of the above, because he has not chosen to anchor it in any of these dimensions, when it should have concentrated on just “the democracy project” in Burma and what went wrong with it.

There is one very important political facet though, that the author does talk about in the sixth chapter of the book, titled Alignment. However, because he buries it in so much other information, it loses its importance and primacy. And that is the political divide set in motion by general Than Shwe when he appointed Thein Shein as President in 2011 and Shwe Mann had to accept the consolation job of Speaker of the lower house of Parliament.

By then, Burma was the object of so much international attention that the only Western-trained military official, Soe Thane, also became popular and powerful. He is largely credited with opening Burma to the world, during the early days of democracy. Where this becomes a changed political alignment is when Aung San Su Kyi begins to grow closer to Shwe Mann who, by 2013, was quite estranged from Thein Sein. Things were coming to a head on the Mitsone dam, a mega infrastructure project that was to be developed by China in the north of the country, which was already the subject of much controversy and public protests. Eventually the Burmese government had two camps, as a changed political equation.

To my mind, this chapter and this changed political alignment should have been the main fulcrum of the book, around which all else hinged. Instead, even in this chapter, Alignment, Thant Myint-U spends so much time talking about the comings and goings of international personalities, including celebrities, that it’s easy to lose oneself amid the glitterati! He wastes entire paragraphs talking about how star-struck Bono was by Aung San Su Kyi, and Bono’s three-hour concerts. He also tells us about Aung San Su Kyi receiving an honorary degree from Oxford (the same one, the University has revoked recently, in light of the Rohingya crisis) on the same day as John Le Carré, who is said to have quipped, “It was magic.”

US Deputy Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, meeting with Aung San Su Kyi in Naypyitaw in 2016; Image: US Department of State on Wikimedia Commons

In fact, so much of the book is sprinkled with international personalities, from statesmen to rock and film stars, that you wonder if Thant Myint-U himself didn’t see this as an international PR exercise gone wrong. In fact, in chapter 8 titled Virtual Transitions, he actually talks of a PR agency that created a campaign called “Myanmar, let the journey begin!”:

“By then global capitalists were expecting only the best. Burma was being rebranded. A public relations company produced an ad for international television with the theme “Myanmar: Let the Journey Begin.” And in June 2013, Naypyitaw hosted the annual East Asia Summit of the World Economic Forum. The Davos crowd came in droves, nine hundred in all from fifty-five countries, dark pinstripes and stilettos mingling with slippers and silk sarongs.”

What is missing in the book is history. Or a serious political account of even the past 15 years. And when Thant Myint-U talks of corrupt businesses operating in the mining of Myanmar’s natural resources, whether it’s oil and gas, or jade and rubies, he offers no facts to illustrate the extent of the economic plundering. The same is true when he writes about China’s investments in the country, or of the country’s own economy.

He writes about the head of the UN’s regional economic commission, Noeleen Heyzer’s observations to the generals after touring the country in 2009:

“You really have a big problem. Kids are not in schools. People don’t have enough to eat. You say you are building dams, but there is not enough water in most villages. Do you really want to have an economy that is only about exporting cheap labour and raw materials? Or do you want something different? We can bring the best minds here to work with you.”

Thant Myint-U says that Joseph Stiglitz visited Burma to speak at a conference on her invitation, and he laid out certain economic priorities that the country needed to focus on. But the author doesn’t take the cue from here, to tell us more about the country’s economy. This recent article from The Economist sheds more light on Burma’s economy, than the entire Hidden History does. The section where he deals with Myanmar’s illegal drug trade and the Golden Triangle suffers from the same lack of substantiation.

And here is the most unfortunate part. It is clear that Thant Myint-U intends to communicate his own personal commitment to restoring democracy in Myanmar in the book. But his involvement in the proceedings leading up to the formation of a democratic government come across as incidental. Sadly, the meetings with political leaders and negotiations on planning the transition to democracy seem nothing more than a PR lobbying exercise. Because as a reader you don’t even sense the regret that the author might have felt, at seeing the project doomed before it even had a real chance.

In the ultimate analysis, race, capitalism and democracy are each, a distinct dimension of a country’s political and economic history. In Burma’s case, the problem seems to lie in its ethnic identities and in its politics. I would have thought that with a democratic government in place at the centre, the time would have come to seriously consider devolution of powers to the ethnic regions. It appears that that is not even up for discussion in Burma. At least not in Thant Myint-U’s account of the country that was until recently being hailed as a possible new frontier economy.

The featured image at the start of this post of a fisherman on Lake Inle in Myanmar is by Philippe Bourhis on Unsplash.

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