Thursday, December 28, 2006

Burmese Centuries

The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma,

For many of us, most of what little background we have about Burma, apart from a vague impression of repressive military governments and Aung San Suu Kyi, is from the essays of George Orwell, or his novel Burmese Days. As Thant Myint-U says, in “The River of Lost Footsteps,” for most people, the remarkable upsurge of popular demonstrations in summer 1988 was “like hearing of a coup in Shangri-La.” Reasons for that included “the lack of television, summer holidays," but "also because Burma was almost entirely unknown.’

But as Thant Myint-U shows, it is a fascinating history that we have been overlooking. Orwell’s experience in the British police in Burma converted him to anti-colonialism and hence to anti-capitalism. Orwell honestly depicted the effect of a resented colonial regime on both sides of the equation, and confessed his own struggle with the temptation not to reciprocate the hate and resentment that the intensely nationalist Burmese offered him.

In later essays, Orwell complained at British neglect of events in Burma. Thant Myint-U’s book belatedly fills that gap in readable and comprehensive history of the country from early days to the present, and he shows how much of that history explains the present, and indeed Orwell’s experiences.

There are some good reasons for the amnesiac strand. It was not really in the interests of either the British government, nor the Burmese military rulers of the last four decades, to spell out that the British handed over power to a group whose core had trained and fought with the fascist Japanese.

In contrast to India, where Nehru cannily ensured that those who fought with the pro-Japanese Indian National Army were honoured but completely excluded from the independent Indian military, the Burmese Independence Army, whose reputation was laundered by a last minute defection from Tokyo as the war ended, are the root of the present Burmese military. But it says a lot for the unpopularity of British rule that so many Burmese leaders were prepared to embrace the Japanese - even if they were soon disillusioned with the realities of the Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Indeed the other trend was of those who were subscribers to the British Left Book Club, and admirers of Stafford Cripps, the leftist Labour MP represented by U Thant, the author’s grandfather.

Upper Burma was one of the last additions to British India, and Thant Myint-U suggests that the major motivation for the invasion was Randolph Churchill’s need for a colonial victory for the forthcoming election. Reminiscent of similar more recent adventures a laconic civil servant recorded “The people of this country have not, as was by some expected, welcomed us as deliverers from tyranny.”

Equally similarly, the deposition of King Thibaw led to the decapitation of the government and the disintegration of civil society.

One of the values of Thant Myint-U’s work is to remind us just how much we subliminally absorb the colonial prejudice that the societies incorporated into empire only joined history at that moment of annexation. Without romanticism - indeed he stresses the militarism of the early Burmese states -he sketches the rich and literate history of the country, and he also stresses the pluralism of the society, which had absorbed not only neighbouring nationalities but Turkish, Portuguese, French and other adventurers, bound together by mutual obligations and roles. The armies were armed with muskets - and in the eighteenth century Burmese shipbuilders launched teak warships for both the British and the French although that parity disappeared when the East India Company launched the first ever steam powered war vessel against the Burmese.

That was what disappeared with the British conquest. Indeed he postulates an alternative, and arguably better outcome, where the British could have kept the monarchy as a protectorate, one of the princely states, and assisted it to stay on its modernizing course, although he also points out that Western inspired government reforms were already undermining the traditional networks of government. (The development of a Burmese Morse code was one interesting aspect).

There is no romanticism in his dispassionate treatment. Thibaw was offered just such a deal but cavilled at the requirement to stop the mass political executions he was conducting.

His narrative is pointed so his emphasis on the martial tradition and the pluralism explains how the the present rulers developed their ideology of narrow ethnic nationalism, steeped in past military glory. Burma had been “suddenly pushed into the modern world without an anchor in the past, rummaging around for new inspirations, sustained by more sour nationalist sentiment, and Fidel finding voice in the extremist years of the 1930’s,” he asserts, while also showing how colonialism and racism created those conditions.

It was poor preparation for the tests to come when the Allies and the Japanese fought over the devastated land. “The Burmese had nothing to do with the war but it destroyed their country,” he says, showing how those militant nationalists made common cause with the Japanese, while conducting pogroms against the large minorities from Karens to Indians. While the Burmese were soon disillusioned with the Japanese, that did not imply any nostalgia for the rapidly retreated British.

The British reoccupation was a stopgap, while the various parties, of whom the strongest was the nationalist collaborators with Japan, juggled for power, but independence was celebrated with the assassination of much of the leadership so the new Republic launched itself with “several of its key leaders, including its nationalist hero, dead, its principal minority demanding an independent state, and another nationalist leader getting ready to lead a communist rebellion. It was not an auspicious start,” Thant says.

With his own family history tied inextricably in these events, the author made his reacquaintance with the land of his birth by accompanying the corpse of his grandfather, former Secretary General U Thant, back home after his death in New York in 1974.

It was a bizarre reintroduction with the revered deceased being kidnapped and shuffled around between competing groups and between popular demands for a significant memorial and General Ne Win’s hostility to Burma’s most famous citizen. Like the later democracy demonstrations, it was a telling demonstration of the inability of the bloated military to win the hearts and minds of the nation whose essence they claim to represent.

Thant Myint-U’s narrative is literate, drily humorous, personally engaged but politically dispassionate. This is a book that is worth reading for its own literary qualities, but essential for anyone who wants to understand Burma, or indeed the ripple effects of the end of empire around the world.

Lending authenticity to Thant Myint-U’s analysis is his acknowledgement that there are no easy fixes. Sanctions and isolation he points out are unlikely to affect a regime that actually wants isolation, and has a steady income stream from trade. He also suggests that the regime has not been given credit for its flexibility in coming to terms with many of the armed factions. It will be a long and hard road to rebuild a nation that, he points out, with over sixty years of conflict, effectively a continuation of the Second World War.

The publishers have done Thant Myint-U and the reader a tremendous disservice by missing out an index. In a complex narrative, with unfamiliar names of people, titles and places, this is a book that desperately needs one to complement the detailed and fascinating narrative.

Click to buy

The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma,
By Thant Myint-U, Farrar Straus & Giroux, New York $25

1 comment:

Tara said...

Thanks for the review - I haven't had the chance to see this book yet, but what you've written is good food for thought. I'm curious to know how much of the perspective of the ethnic states he's included in his history - talk of the last king is all well and good, but Thibaw was not king of all that is currently Burma. For many of the ethnic nationalities, rule by the Burmans is no different than rule by the British, except that they had more freedom and prosperity under the British. It would be impossible to effectively approach the issue of Burma, and its history and development as a nation without considering the very different histories and perspectives of the ethnic states. But, the way that the histories of Burma are used in the creation (or attempts thereof) of the modern state is fascinating.

I'm a little sceptical about the claim that the junta has been undercredited in 'flexibility' in coming to terms with the armed factions. Many of their so-called cease-fires have simply provided a front for activities designed to slowly erode the economic and political clout of the opposition groups. The junta uses different strategies to marginalize and eliminate the minority cultures in each state, and most of those strategies don't involve guns.