In Burmese Haze (a reference to George Orwell’s classic novel), former US official Erin Murphy gives a personalized history of the past fifteen years of Myanmar history, with particular focus on, if not always from the perspective of, US policy towards this often opaque Southeast Asian country. Murphy was herself in the thick of it, either supporting US policymakers or, for the last decade, in the private sector working to assist US-Myanmar trade and investment relations.
In 2007, straight off a Masters from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Murphy joined the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 2007 as a political analyst covering Asia issues. Despite being a Japan specialist, she was assigned to cover Myanmar.
I would soon get swept up in Myanmar as well. I began to study the country at what would become a pivotal time, when one of the worst natural disasters in the region, Cyclone Nargis, struck the country. The cyclone would test the junta and its relationship with the United States, putting cracks in the walls that had been built between the two for decades.
These were heady times in the country: it was preparing for the 2008 election; Aung San Suu Kyi was back in Yangon. The devastation of Cyclone Nargis was forcing the ruling junta to open up more than they had wanted to.
This short book, just some 180 pages, is part memoir, part history, part policy analysis. Murphy details the gradual opening up and the feedback between American policy—in particular, the sanctions—and developments in Myanmar. She covers then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s trip, Aung San Suu Kyi’s trip to the US and President Barack Obama’s whistle-stop visit to the country. In late 2012, she left the CIA to start a consulting firm. She writes with deliberate irony that
my great leap forward was met with derision. Some of my former colleagues considered me a sellout and thought I was cashing in on my knowledge of the region.
This move to the private sector gave Murphy a front-row seat on Myanmar’s opening, and provides a segue to the Rohingya crisis: bright new buildings aside, it was clear that all was not well.
Burmese Haze is a story of hope and, of course, disillusionment. But even in the shadow of the most recent coup and the resulting violence, she never quite descends to despair:
Myanmar has challenged and enlightened me in ways I never expected. It’s broken my heart over and over, but there have been moments and experiences that have had such a positive impact on me and have made me grow in ways I am forever grateful for. The good story of Myanmar is not over yet, and I hope I will one day have another chance to go there and leave something good behind.
For those who kept up with newspaper reporting , Murphy’s book doesn’t contain any great surprises, but she brings to the story a sense of narrative, a personal touch and an eye for anecdote—from Clinton’s wardrobe choices to Aung San Suu Kyi’s prickliness—which illuminate the various players better, in some ways, than might full biographies. Although the bureaucracy is central to the account—Murphy is a dab hand with the acronyms—her retelling is well-paced and readable. She brings clarity to such issues as the Burma vs Myanmar debate and the ins, out and unintended consequences of the sanctions regime. She is a clear-eyed, sometimes sharp-tongued, yet empathetic observer. Murphy has structured her book thematically—”Geostrategy”, “Democratization”, “Engagement”, “Sanctions”, etc.—rather than chronologically, which makes the sometimes complicated and inter-related issues easier to follow but which results in some repetition.
There is a danger in America-centric accounts, which this unapologetically is, to interpret everything that happens in foreign countries as due to or in reaction to the United States or something it does. Burmese Haze does not discuss ASEAN to any great extent nor Singaporean and Thai commercial operations in the country. Insofar as a third-country’s activities in Myanmar are discussed in detail, it’s China’s, mirroring America’s policy priorities. Murphy’s account, therefore, is not definitive—but neither does she make any pretense that it is; she eschews grand pronouncements and is refreshingly aware of America’s own limitations:
Ultimately, the best way the US government can lead in Myanmar is to be an example of democracy… The US has been severely tested on these merits and should hardly receive a passing grade… It was unclear which country was headed more quickly toward Orwell’s dystopian vision—the US or Myanmar.
Murphy has a thing for Myanmar:
As someone who has spent more than a decade working in and around Burma, it is difficult for me to believe that the country is not at the center of everyone’s universe.
She goes on to say that “it should be at the center of yours”, which is perhaps pushing the point: there are many countries in the world. More immediately, however, it is impossible to read Murphy’s discussion of the US sanctions regime regarding Myanmar and the difficulties in modulating it as conditions evolved, without thinking about the new Russia sanctions being rolled out now.