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The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma

Reviewed by Bertil Lintner

The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma, by Thant Myint-U. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 384 pages. $25.

Why is Burma in such a mess when the rest of the region is booming? Half a century ago, Burma had functioning democratic institutions, a relatively healthy economy and a small but growing, well-educated middle class. Military coups were not uncommon in Asia when the Burmese army seized power in 1962, but only in Burma have the generals managed to cling to absolute power for more than four decades.

Thant Myint-U sets out to answer this question in his most recent book, which builds on his first, The Making of Modern Burma (Cambridge University Press, 2001). Both examine Burma's past to explain today's predicaments, but River of Lost Footsteps is also a very personal account of the author's family. His maternal grandfather, U Thant, served as secretary-general of the United Nations in the 1960s and belonged to the middle class that the late dictator, General Ne Win, tried to obliterate after seizing power in 1962. The author himself was born in New York, educated at Harvard and Cambridge, and later worked for the U.N. in Phnom Penh and then in Sarajevo. At the same time, he is fluent in his mother tongue and has visited Burma regularly since childhood. In other words, with his Burmese as well as international perspective, he is well suited to analyze the country's history from a more neutral standpoint than, for instance, British colonial historians or nationalistic Burmese writers.

Thant Myint-U argues that the removal of the Burmese monarch in 1885 by the British created “a break with the ideas and institutions that had underpinned society in the Irrawaddy Valley since before medieval times.” Rather then keeping a figurehead monarch on the throne and establishing a protectorate—as the French did in Annam (now part of Vietnam), Cambodia and Laos—the British turned Burma into a province of India, despite vast cultural, language and historical differences. Burma, the author states, “would be adrift, suddenly pushed into the modern world without an anchor in the past.” This was followed by the Japanese occupation during World War II, and, since independence in 1948, the longest-running civil war in the world between the central government and a myriad of mostly ethnic but also politically diverse insurgent armies. Burma retreated into its shell, putting an almost permanent “do not disturb” sign on the door for the outside world to see.

Thant Myint-U outlines these developments quite well and the book is a good read. He makes 19th century Burma come alive and gives a vivid account of the emergence of the Burmese nationalist movement and its leaders. Intertwined anecdotes about the author's family make it popular history at its best. But just the removal of the Burmese monarchy more than 120 years ago and ensuing colonial humiliation cannot explain Burma's sad plight. The Japanese removed the Korean monarchy, too, when they turned the peninsula into a colony in 1910 and ruled it with far greater brutality than the British in Burma. Yet, Korea—at least the southern half—has managed to prosper and develop into a modern, affluent and democratic society.

Rather, the explanation lies in what Thant Myint-U describes in another part of the book as Burma's “long history of failed state-building.” This is a welcome break from theories promoted by Western scholars, according to whom a strong and well-organized “Burmese state” existed before the arrival of the British, and British colonialism—and democracy—was simply a foreign interlude. In 1962, the “state” supposedly reasserted itself and brought Burma back to its historical roots, according to this theory.

In reality, precolonial Burma was ruled by warrior kings who were adept at conquering land from their neighbors, including parts of what today is Thailand, but failed to consolidate their conquests by establishing functioning administrations in their new domains. That warrior-king mentality, not any ancient notion of a “Burmese state,” is the main legacy of “old Burma,” and is the reason why the country even today is fractured and in a permanent state of civil war.

Further, today's Burma is a colonial creation which includes territories and peoples who had nothing or little to do with any precolonial Burmese kingdom, and have no desire to be inside the boundaries that Britain established in the 19th century. The outcome is a civil war that never seems to end—and a military firmly entrenched in power with few signs of overt dissent.

Thant Myint-U goes on to criticize the West for believing that condemnation and sanctions may force the Burmese generals to change their minds about the way the country is governed. He argues that “in Burma it's not simply getting the military out of the business of government. It's creating the state institutions that can replace the military state that exists.” Consequently, more foreign investment, engagement and tourism are the answer, not exclusion from the world community, because “much more than any other part of Burmese society, the army will weather another 40 years of isolation just fine.” On the contrary, if Burma were less isolated, “the conditions for political change would emerge over the next decade or two.”

In theory, no one would argue with that. But, as the author himself points out, foreign investment—which began to trickle into the country in the early 1990s—has “largely dried up, partly as a result of the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, but mainly the result of a still poor business environment.” Even without sanctions, not many foreign businessmen would want to invest in Burma, and tourists constantly complain about substandard services and government-sanctioned rip-offs.

Nevertheless, The River of Lost Footsteps should provoke a debate about the outside world's approach to Burma's problems, and its atavistic regime. Years of condemnation have not had any impact on the regime—but neither has the policy of “constructive engagement” that Burma's neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have been advocating.

So what is to be done? The author doesn't present any concrete suggestions, only a general argument for more engagement. That is disappointing, because time is running out for Burma. Economically and socially it is a wreck. Since the 1988 pro-democracy uprising was brutally crushed by the military, universities and colleges have been closed more than they have been open. Thousands of the country's talents have left the country to look for a brighter future abroad, leaving what little was left of Burmese civil society even sparser. More than 100,000 people from the Karen, Mon, Karenni and Shan ethnic minorities have fled to Thailand and are living in refugee camps. Drug abuse is rampant, especially in the border areas, and the HIV epidemic is out of control, possibly more severe than in any other Southeast Asian country.

Short of a foreign intervention, a massive, popular uprising or a split within the army itself, it is hard to see what could bring about change in Burma. But none of these scenarios appears likely in the foreseeable future. Burma's failed state-building may have already led to a failed state, with disastrous consequences for the entire region. Thant Myint-U's book may therefore, despite its shortcomings, serve as a wake-up call for the outside world. Perhaps a fresh approach is needed after all. The alternative is the continuation of a very depressing status quo.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, April, 2007

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