Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma by Richard Cockett
One of the highlights of my early career in tech was the development in the mid-1980s of (perhaps) the first Burmese-language word processor. The immediate request came from the US State Department, but because my firm had a VP of Burmese-Chinese extraction, the Burmese government was also contacted. A visit to Rangoon ensued.
The objectives were banal—to study keyboards and type—but the short visit quickly became surreal: lessons from the then Science Minister in the Burmese script which I by then already knew, manual typewriters and an ancient Mergenthaler typesetting machine that clanked and clanged like a steam engine and for which type was no longer manufactured, forcing writers to forswear words containing elements which had physically worn out.
The country itself and its people were, however, welcoming and uniquely fascinating. Richard Cockett, in Blood, Dreams and Gold, his new history of Burma, quotes Rudyard Kipling on Rangoon’s Shwedagon pagoda:
A golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon—a beautiful winking in wonder that blazed in the sun.
So it still was.
I returned a few times until the 1988 killings and their aftermath meant I no longer felt comfortable visiting. Although that year might have in some ways been the nadir—political oppression aside, what can be said about a country whose banknotes only came in denominations of 45 and 90?—perhaps that was also when Burma began its slow climb out of an “isolation” that Cockett calls “more pitiful than splendid.”
Cockett has produced a clear, readable and well-structured—and timely—book on what must remain one of Asia and the world’s most enigmatic and complex countries. Before the Second World War, “Burma was the wealthiest country in the region” and Rangoon
was one of the most modern and exciting cities in the East, “a world at its zenith”, as the poet Pablo Neruda described it in 1927 when he was Chilean consul there ...
by the end of the first decade of this millennium... amongst neighbours the country bore comparison only with North Korea, for its benighted people and its vicious regime.
Blood, Dreams and Gold is story of this decline and, just perhaps, a roadmap to different future. The first 60% of the book provides historical and thematic background for a second section which dives deep into Burma’s more recent reform process: its “apparent volte-face”, as Cockett puts it.
Somewhat uncomfortably for chronology, Cockett—former South-East Asia bureau chief for The Economist—has arranged his book thematically. Thus an outline of the economic and political history is followed by a chapter on “Burmanisation” and then several on selected ethnic groups. This structure means that one is continually hopping back and forth in time, even within the same chapter, which can be disconcerting at first, but turns out to be an excellent and perhaps the only way of organizing material for which there are too many strands for a simple historical narrative.
There are several enlightening take-aways. The first is that the final colonial subjugation of Burma happened only in the late 19th century: Burma’s last King, Thibaw, died in exile in India in 1916. These events, therefore, were still in living memory as modern independence movements began to arise between the Wars, and
left such a legacy of hatred and bitterness among the Burmese that it evoked extremely visceral anti-British feelings even among the first generation of Burmese independence leaders about forty years later.
Further, during the Second World War, ethnic Burmese hoped the Japanese would succeed in throwing the colonizers out, while several of the other ethnic groups, such as the Kachin and Karen, were solid allies of the British, for which the former expected and arguably were promised autonomy if not outright independence. It is not hard, therefore, to draw a line from colonialism to the decades-long ethnic wars that ensued and which still roil the country. Even Aung Sang Suu Kyi has been trapped by the equating of Burmese ethnicity with nationalism. Cockett quotes a political observer that as regards the plight of the Muslim-minority Rohingya in Rakhine State:
It forces her into a corner. If she sticks up for the ethnic minorities, she will lose popularity, as the Government will accuse her of being pro-Muslim. If she says something against the Rakhine community, then she will be accused of racism. So, she must insist on the rule of law.
Cockett also discusses the concept of the “plural society”, introduced by colonial civil servant turned academic JS Furvinall. This doesn’t mean “pluralistic” as we would mean it today. Cockett quotes Furvinall’s 1948 book Colonial Policy and Practice:
There is a plural society, with different sections of the community living side-by-side, but separately, within the same political unit. Even in the economic sphere there is a division of labour along racial lines. Natives, Indians, Chinese and Europeans all have different functions ...
While this structure, very much the result of colonialism, has caused much strife, Cockett sees in it some virtue:
Today’s downtown Yangon, hidden away from the world, somehow survives as a remarkable example of inter-faith harmony. Nowadays it is rivalled only, perhaps, by New York for its intoxicating variety of cultures and faiths, and is probably unequalled in its atmosphere of religious toleration and mutual respect.
Whatever the ills of colonialism, it can sometimes result in a cosmopolitan society that would not been achieved otherwise, as Hong Kong can attest.
And what of Burma’s much-heralded, recent opening and reforms? Cockett is unsure, for
although Burma has certainly progressed since 2011, when President Thein Sein took over, in important respects little has changed... the country, it seems, still has to come to terms with its difficult and bitterly contested history...
What is needed, he concludes, is “enormous political courage”.