“The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century” by Thant Myint-U

Yangon

Myanmar or Burma? Thant Myint-U begins this timely and important book unraveling the basic question of what to call this country. Thant settles on Burma, “out of habit … and because of the nativist underpinnings of the name change” to Myanmar by the military government in 1989.

The story of Burma has until recently  been told in the simplest of terms. It was too often portrayed as a mist-shrouded land of saffron monks and gleaming pagodas, a would-be Shangri-La whose innocent people were oppressed by military dictators. Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, with a jasmine flower in her hair and an unyielding commitment to democracy during years of house arrest, rounded out this storybook image of a fairytale land ruled by an evil military.

The opening of the country in the past decade suggested a happy ending. From George W Bush to George Soros, everyone cheered the opening of the country and its embrace of democracy.

Then came the killings of thousands of Rohingya Muslims in 2017 and 2018 and Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to condemn atrocities that a member of the United Nations investigation mission termed “both war crimes and crimes against humanity.” Burma went from Fodor’s list of the world’s hottest destinations in 2016 to its list of places to avoid just two years later.

There is a danger that the world gives up on the country.

The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century, Thant Myint-U (WW Norton, November 2019; Atlantic Books, January 2020)
The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century, Thant Myint-U (WW Norton, November 2019; Atlantic Books, January 2020)

The Rohingya crisis is but the ugliest glimpse of a complex reality, the hidden history that is Thant’s subject. Burma is not a country that simply needed reconciliation and political reform. Burma is a country that has been flawed from its founding, riven by issues of race and identity, a state that has not yet become a nation.

Thant paints a troubled portrait of Burma, a place whose sense of national identity remains dangerously fractured. It is a land that has been poisoned by its colonial legacy and the insular half-century of military rule that followed, producing a “peculiar nationalism”.  The country’s surprisingly quick transition from dictatorship to something like democracy exacerbated unresolved racial and religious fractures. Burma remains riven by a number of discrete armed conflicts that dot the country from the Chinese border in the north to the tropical jungles along the Thai isthmus in the south. Another fissure is the long-standing tension between Muslims in Rakhine state along the western coast and the country’s conservative Buddhist rulers. Adding to the complexity is opposition by Arakan Buddhists in Rakhine state, comprising most of what was historically the kingdom of Arakan, both to Rohingya Muslims and to the country’s Burmese rulers.

 

Thant is both a leading historian on contemporary Burma and a player in the unfolding political drama. A grandson of United Nations Secretary General U Thant, he grew up in suburban New York. His first trip to Burma was as an eight-year-old for his grandfather’s 1974 funeral. The funeral was a politically charged event in which U Thant’s body was fought over by an insular military government and those who harked back to the more open and cosmopolitan world represented by the former Secretary General.

This is a book written by an engaged participant who is trying to explain his complex country to a foreign audience even as he is grappling with the essential questions that need to be asked about race and national identity. In Thant Myint-U’s telling, neither foreign governments nor domestic political leaders are grappling with the issues of racial identity or economic development that constitute key challenges in a resource-rich country with a twisted economy that is also confronted by climate change.

Most of the book concentrates on the decade since Cyclone Nargis killed some 138,000 people in May 2008. The storm catalyzed change. The cyclone and its aftermath exposed the government’s inability to help its people meet the basic challenge of survival. The state—the military, really—could crack down on dissent but it could not a nation. Prime Minister Thein Sein, who grew up in the Irrawaddy Delta and still had relatives living in the storm-ravaged area, pushed for foreign assistance in the face of opposition from those who feared that help was a prelude to a military invasion.

Thant skillfully weaves events that have occurred in the past decade into the tapestry of a history that stretches back centuries. His discussion of the origins of the Rohingya crisis are insightful. Today’s crisis is an outgrowth of Muslim migration from what is now Bangladesh after the British capture of Arakan, comprising most of today’s Rakhine state, in 1824. Thant excels in his analysis of the intense nationalism displayed by the country’s rulers, an outgrowth of the British colonial destruction of  an earlier kingdom. What emerges is a portrait of a country whose borders were somewhat randomly drawn during colonialism and the continuing importance of racially based policies that underpinned British colonial rule. Within modern Burma are the remnants of once-great civilizations, the vanquished Arakan (defeated by the Myanma in 1785) and the dominant Myanma, who exercised regional influence. Within the same nation are upland tribes, each with their own languages and cultures, small places that have never truly been ruled by outsiders. The parallel with these disparate groups is to the Balkans or the Caucasus, small splintered places. Add a resurgent resource-hungry China and profits from opium and methamphetamine to the mix and the result in Burma is a toxic political brew.

 

Burma has accomplished a great deal. But there is a danger that the world gives up on the country, whether because of the atrocities in Rakhine state or fatigue with a political process that has not produced what was hoped.

Thant’s compelling and timely book is a plea to the world not to forget Burma, not to give up on a country that is a key geostrategic node in Asia.


Mark Clifford is Executive Director of the ‎Asia Business Council.