“Tragic Nation Burma: Why and How Democracy Failed” by Amitav Acharya

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Since the coup on 1 February 2021, Burma (the author’s term) has seen a humanitarian crisis in all regions of the country, with mass displacement and a myriad of human rights abuses. What happened in Burma and how the situation deteriorated to this point is the topic of Amitav Acharya’s new book Tragic Nation Burma: Why and How Democracy Failed.  The book is a mixture of analysis and opinion, liberally layered with numerous quotations and interviews with members of Burma’s Civil Disobedience Movement, which Acharya dubs “thought warriors”. 

The book starts out with a background to Burma’s recent political developments with a good number  of comparisons with the development of neighboring nations.

Then the second chapter outlines some missed opportunities in Burma’s recent political history and talks about what might have been, had events taken a different result. Acharya claims that had Aung San not been assassinated soon after Burma had become independent “Burma would have experienced a robust period of nation building like that of its neighbor, India.” Acharya states that Burma’s foreign policy isolationism “limited the exposure of an authoritarian regime to ideas of human rights and democracy that were promoted by the West.”

He also states the breakdown of Burma’s political democracy was influenced by colonial legacies of division which created a political culture split between majority and minority ethnic groups. Acharya details the first few years of Burma’s first Prime Minister U Nu, the role of Burma in the Non-Aligned Movement and then the coup by Ne Win and Burma’s subsequent military dictatorship. During this period, Acharya states, Burma’s early post-independence leaders placed “unity over liberal democracy and diversity” and an isolationist foreign policy and socialist economic policy that “distrusted foreign investment and stayed away from regional and international economic co-operation projects.”

 

Tragic Nation Burma: Why and How Democracy Failed, Amitav Acharya (Penguin Southeast Asia, December 2022)
Tragic Nation Burma: Why and How Democracy Failed, Amitav Acharya (Penguin Southeast Asia, December 2022)

Acharya then moves on to discuss the development and promulgation of the 2008 constitution, which granted an effective continuation of military rule. There is also a brief explanation of major recent political events including the 2015 elections, the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement, the Rohingya genocide and other key issues such as an explanation of Burma’s economic performance and potential.

Moving onto the coup, there’s an overview of the 2020 elections, the baseless allegations of election fraud by the military, and the subsequent coup. Acharya details the formation of the resistance, the National Unity Government (NUG) and their declaration of a people’s war. Then Acharya provides a chapter on the role of ASEAN and a brief history of Burma’s engagement with ASEAN, followed by a chapter on foreign policy of several countries such as the US, Australia, EU, India and China in relation to Burma, finishing with an analysis of the UN’s Burma policy.

The final chapter, “Despair and Hope”, details reasons to be pessimistic about Burma and then contrasts them with reasons to be optimistic. The end of the book includes a collection of facts and figures compiled by human rights groups and an overview of Burma’s armed forces.

 

The book in its own words “is not meant for a specialist audience of Southeast Asian studies scholars. Rather, it is written for a wider international audience who may have little previous knowledge of the country”. The book succeeds in this aim to provide an overview to those who are not well-versed in Burma. However the book is not without its flaws. Throughout the book, Acharya tends to rely heavily on quotations of other scholars. At best, this information provides useful context, but the extensive quotations can break up the flow of the text and at times makes the book feel more like a collection of quotes or a briefing paper. Moreover some of the facts and figures quoted are outdated such as the 2019 figure used for refugees in Thailand, when more recent figures are readily available.

The book nevertheless offers a traditional interpretation of Burma’s political history and a broad overview of major thematic issues. It also provides a key regional voice on the debate on Burma from an author with extensive experience in the foreign policy field. As Acharya himself points out, those well versed in Burma’s political development, will find little new of note. However, those new to Burma will find a lot of useful information here.


Maximillian Morch is a researcher and author, formerly based in Yangon and Kathmandu, focused on regional refugee and migratory issues.