An Opening in Burma? On Thant Myint-U
Burma has been, for many outsiders, a forgotten place, a land where little ever changes. Western guidebooks enthuse about the fact that, alone in East Asia, Burmese still wear traditional dress—longyi sarongs—and women wear thanaka, a chalky paste made from bark and applied to the face as a natural sunscreen. Visitors from neighboring nations see in Burma vestiges of the slower, seemingly more relaxed life common forty years ago in Thailand or Singapore. They often single out the open-air teashops, often without electricity, where customers spend hours sipping warm green tea and eating samosas and mohinga noodles beneath a skyline of gold-encrusted temples and crumbling colonial facades.
If visitors know anything about this country of some 55 million people, it’s that for nearly five decades Burma was ruled by a military regime. The junta outlasted nearly every other army in the region, leaving Burma, until the election held in 2010, among the few remaining military dictatorships in the developing world. And Burma’s generals seemed to conform to every image of thuggish men in green. In 1989 they locked up opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), decisively won Burma’s only free election in decades the next year, and then they ignored the outcome. They oversaw massive infrastructure projects built with forced labor, and adopted an acronym for the government—SLORC (later changed)—that sounded like a James Bond villain. They dominated a state media that, in its unswerving fealty to the regime and its bombastic attacks on critics and outsiders, made the Soviet-era Pravda look as flashy and open-minded as Vanity Fair.
The leader of the junta, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, was a man with little formal education who rarely traveled outside Burma or met Westerners. He stashed the country’s wealth overseas while spending minimal amounts at home on health and public education. A leaked video of the wedding of his daughter in 2006 showed her draped in diamonds, and she reportedly received more than $50 million worth of gifts from well-wishers. Than Shwe seemed to make decisions with little real analysis. In November 2005, with no warning, he moved Burma’s entire government from Rangoon, the largest city, to a desolate town in the baking central plains, which the regime named Naypyidaw. Some Burmese alleged that Than Shwe had acted on the advice of his favorite fortuneteller. Others claimed that he had moved the government to Naypyidaw—which, besides being the only town in the region with reliable electricity, was to be ringed by bunkers—in case the United States invaded Burma, a highly unlikely event.
Many foreign officials, writers and companies concluded that the generals were crazy, and that their backward country would never change. “You cannot reason with those chaps,” a Singaporean diplomat who had spent considerable time in Burma told me. “They don’t act like other countries.” Cables written by American diplomats and released by WikiLeaks show that the US embassy viewed Than Shwe as a paranoid leader completely out of touch with his own country, not to mention the rest of the world.
In fall 2007 tens of thousands of Buddhist monks, the most respected figures in Burmese society, rose up against the government, marching through the streets of Rangoon. The Saffron Revolution appeared to have taken the government by surprise, but officials wasted no time in dispersing the protests and raiding the monasteries, locking up some monks and beating and killing others. Meanwhile, in eastern and northeastern Burma, the army allegedly launched campaigns of mass rape, looting and wholesale burning of ethnic minority villages.
Because Burma has seemed so hopeless, and to Western leaders so strategically and economically unimportant, Western policy-makers for years have chosen to isolate it, something never attempted with China or Saudi Arabia, countries with terrible human rights records but where either Western companies have made sizable investments or Western politicians have built strategic alliances. Suu Kyi’s resolute stand for human rights and support for sanctions, broadcast by celebrity advocates and a global network of Burma human rights groups, have only added to Western pressure for isolation. (By contrast, the Dalai Lama, probably the only rights advocate as well-known as Suu Kyi, advises Westerners interested in Tibet to travel there to witness Chinese oppression.) In 1997 the United States imposed sanctions on Burma, barring American firms from making new investments in the country. The sanctions have since been tightened, and in an era of American political gridlock they continue to enjoy the rarest of things, bipartisan support: last year, the Senate renewed the sanctions by a vote of 99 to 1. Europe followed suit, imposing its own version of sanctions.
And yet the portrayal of Burma as isolated and unchanging, its leaders thuggish and crazy, is simplistic. Though the struggle between Suu Kyi and the government still draws most outside interest in Burma, the country is changing rapidly, and may possibly be entering its most optimistic period of reform in decades. Asian investors from China, India, Thailand, South Korea and other nations are pouring capital into Burma. India and China are competing for Burma’s ports, rails, roads, resources and favor. This attention could finally help the country develop, and even resolve its political deadlock; on the other hand, the influx of foreign money, migrants and munitions could exacerbate Burma’s serious internal conflicts, leading to worse inequality and even a new civil war. But whatever happens, Burma’s generals are not just standing back and watching. Far from being stupid or crazy, they have shown themselves to be savvy, skillful politicians, repeatedly playing Western leaders for fools.
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Partly because of its long isolation, Burma has been a difficult place to research for many foreign academics, and its sclerotic education system has been an impediment for any Burmese wanting to develop the skills to become a capable historian. Alone among Burmese writers, Thant Myint-U, a 45-year-old historian educated at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and Cambridge (where he has also taught), has gained international renown, and his perspective on the country holds considerable weight. He is also the grandson of U Thant, the third secretary general of the United Nations and a revered Burmese diplomat.
In his writing and interviews, Thant Myint-U has become the foremost advocate of a new Western engagement with Burma. In The River of Lost Footsteps (2006), a compelling blend of memoir and Burmese history, he argued that a country as ethnically diverse as Burma, patched together artificially by the British and having few unifying structures when it gained independence in 1948, all but required strong, centralized rule. It ultimately materialized in 1962, when after a succession of weak, unstable elected governments the armed forces seized power. This strand of Thant Myint-U’s argument was understandably controversial. He seemed to be suggesting that Burma had not been ready for democracy, even though many of its equally diverse neighbors, which also had been left in ramshackle condition by the British, had come to enjoy democratic rule and high growth. He appeared to go out of his way to minimize the enormous appeal to the Burmese of Suu Kyi and the NLD, essentially calling them irrelevant, even though Suu Kyi remains by far the most popular public figure in Burma. He sometimes seemed to blame Suu Kyi for the lack of dialogue between her and the generals, even though during most of the past two decades she has languished under house arrest.
But beyond apologetics for military rule, Thant Myint-U made some powerful arguments in The River of Lost Footsteps for changing Western policy on Burma. Most fundamentally, he argued that fifteen years of isolation achieved few results: the generals who were in power in the mid-1990s, when Western nations imposed sanctions, remained so in the late 2000s. He revealed Burma’s suffering, though he failed to acknowledge that it has been caused as much by the junta’s economic misrule as by international isolation. Still, it didn’t help that Burma has received only a fraction of the aid of neighboring Laos, run by an equally repressive regime. Burma has one of the worst HIV/AIDS crises in Asia, and many areas of the country have life expectancy and infant mortality rates that rival the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Where China Meets India, a sequel to The River of Lost Footsteps, Thant Myint-U advances the second part of his argument for changing Western policy: isolation is useless because Burma is changing anyway, becoming a bridge between two rising global giants. Writing of his travels through the borderlands of China, India and Burma, Thant Myint-U hopes to demonstrate how this region of Asia, home to more than 600 million people, is integrating, and how Burma will be at the center of it. If the West does not join Asian nations in aiding, investing in and interacting with the Burmese government, he argues, the power of Burma’s leaders will remain undiminished and the West will be hampered strategically. It will lose access to the Indian Ocean and other trade routes as well as to important sources of petroleum, and it will lack leverage over Burma’s government, which has the second-biggest army in Southeast Asia, a worrisomely close relationship with North Korea and, possibly, nuclear ambitions. But if Western nations do engage with Burma, they can benefit from the new Asian trade, aid and investment flowing into Burma, and help ensure that it benefits the Burmese people rather than only their rulers.
In Where China Meets India Thant Myint-U is on less sure ground than in The River of Lost Footsteps. In the sections focusing on Burma, he remains a fluid storyteller and sharp polemicist, able to blend vivid anecdotes of his youth with policy arguments and analysis of the country’s rich history. He speaks the language; he understands how Burmese history has shaped the country’s relationships among ethnic groups and between the military and civilian politicians; and he expertly explains the country’s complex past as a crossroads of cultural, ethnic and religious influences from China and India. If he sometimes offers too much detailed history of Burma’s wild northeastern hinterlands, he exquisitely captures how and why this region, where stark valleys and mountains have divided ethnic groups for centuries, has resisted centralized government. For the Rawang, one of the people living in these highlands, “even salt is a treasured commodity, and for salt they will hunt the few tigers left in the valleys.” But when Thant Myint-U travels to the Indian and Chinese regions along the Burmese border to examine the new Asian integration from the other side, his confidence and storytelling skills often falter. Unable to speak Chinese, and far less familiar with China’s Yunnan province or India’s northeastern states (an area rarely visited even by Indian writers), he too often recycles tropes and stereotypes, or provides long summaries of recent Chinese and Indian history that add little to his book. He even succumbs to one of the oldest China-travelers’ tricks, reciting and mocking the strange English translations of menu items in China.
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