Blood, dreams and gold: or how Burma’s past has caught up with its future

Ahead of next month’s election, Richard Cockett, author of a new study of Burma, looks back at its rich but troubled colonial past and warns that the future won’t be rosy

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi  greets US secretary of state Hillary Clinton at her residence in Rangoon in December 2011. Photograph: Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi greets US secretary of state Hillary Clinton at her residence in Rangoon in December 2011. Photograph: Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Images

 

The peg for my new book about Burma, Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma, is the general election in the South-East Asian country on November 8th. This will surely capture the world’s headlines. Foreign election observers have been invited in, the world’s media will be there in force, and cameras will undoubtedly be following opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s every step. Burma (also known as Myanmar), previously sealed off from the world for decades, will be stepping out into the limelight as never before.

By the standards of the past 50 years or so of authoritarian rule by the country’s military this election should be relatively “free and fair”, and that in itself should be a big step forward. Furthermore, caught up in the unprecedented whirlwind of excitement, many people will be expecting the result to presage deep and lasting change in the country, ushering in a new era of democracy, even. This would cap a process of reform that started in 2011 with the appointment of a new president, Thein Sein, who seemed intent on dismantling much of the apparatus of the cruel and oppressive military rule that his predecessors had imposed on the country since the early 1960s. I myself first arrived in Burma as a correspondent for the Economist in 2010, when the country was still in the tight grip of military control, and then stayed in the country for extended periods over the following five years as that grip was gradually, but by means entirely, relaxed.

Indeed, on the back cover of my book is a photograph that I took of Hillary Clinton, then US secretary of state, embracing Suu Kyi at her lakeside home towards the end of 2011, thus giving America’s official endorsement to Burma’s reforms. Having been locked away in self-imposed isolation, perhaps this nation of more than 50million people could finally be reclaiming its place as one of the most advanced, prosperous and strategically important counties in Asia, nestled as it is between the regional superpowers of China and India. Suu Kyi, once the world’s most famous political prisoner, might even end up as president.

Yet my book shows how unlikely it is that much of this will ever come to pass. Blood, Dreams and Gold is a history of modern Burma, from the early British colonial period in the 19th century up to the recent reform period. The title, Blood, Dreams and Gold, is a phrase taken from a poem by the renowned Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who was also his country’s consul in Burma’s colonial capital of Rangoon (now Yangon) during the mid-1920s. The phrase captures, I think, the violence, promise and extraordinary wealth of the city when it was at the peak of its prosperity and importance, the capital of one of the leading entrepôts of the British Empire.

But the argument of my book is that Burma has still to overcome the ruinous consequences of that colonial rule, let alone move on to a contemporary nirvana of peace, prosperity and democracy. The divisions that British rule created were never healed, the conflicts never resolved, and they continue to haunt this beautiful country to this day.

The first part of the book is called “The plural society and its enemies”. It is a reference to the concept of the “plural society”, coined by the British Burma scholar and civil servant JS Furnivall specifically to describe the extraordinarily cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse society that flourished in colonial Rangoon (as well as Jakarta in what is now Indonesia). Hundreds of thousands of immigrants, often desperately poor, were drawn to the port city by the lure of Neruda’s dreams and gold; trading in commodities such as teak, oil and rice, British (and more often Scottish) trading houses made fortunes in Burma, and their activities sucked in financiers and bankers as much as labourers and stevedores from all over the world, and especially from South Asia. Some of Rangoon’s splendour from this period remains, and many of the ornate colonial buildings are described in the book.

Yet the plural society was as much a curse as a blessing. Indeed, Furnivall originally used the term in a pejorative sense, the opposite to how it is used today. Whereas the colonialists and immigrants might have built a bustling, wealthy city and country, the indigenous Burmans were largely excluded from this enterprise. The plural society was thus imposed on them, and they came to bitterly resent not only the British administrators, but the vast numbers of immigrants who came to Burma in their wake; the Indians, and particularly Muslims from nearby Bengal, were regarded as little better than colonial satraps. Even worse, indigenous ethnic-minority groups in Burma such as the Karen and Kachin enthusiastically enlisted in the colonial administration to promote their own interests and to police the ethnic Burmans, thus creating the essential divisions in the country between the Burman majority (that today make up about 60 per cent of the population) and the minority Karen, Chin, Kachin and others that survive to this day.

Unsurprisingly then, when the British left in 1948, the perilously weak state that they left behind, devastated by successive Japanese and Allied invasions during the second World War, fell apart almost immediately. The Karen and other groups started fighting the Burmans, and most of these conflicts have yet to be peacefully resolved. At the same time the Burmans, particularly after the generals took over in 1962, began to try to dismantle the plural society by driving many of the immigrants out of the country and starting a policy of aggressive Burmanisation. Muslims were particular targets of the Buddhist Burmans, and that has continued in recent years with the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims in western Rakhine state.

In short, Burma has never been a peaceful, functioning nation, and one election is not going to change that. A more profound transformation is needed, and the book makes some suggestions as to how that might come about. One point of writing Blood, Dreams and Gold was to uncover just how run-down and pauperised people had become in Burma in the name of Burmanisation, so we have a more clear-sighted view of exactly how far the country still has to go.

It is also a book written as far as possible based on the first-hand testimony of the Burmese themselves – so this is as much an account of their views of their country as it is mine. This, I hope, will give the book greater depth and veracity. The text is leavened with plenty of stories from ordinary Burmans, Karen, Rohingya and others, and is designed to be very accessible to the general reader as much as it might be useful to the specialist.

Blood, Dreams, and Gold The Changing Face of Burma by Richard Cockett is published by Yale University Press, £18.99. Cockett has reported from Latin America, Africa and Asia for The Economist, and was Southeast Asia correspondent from 2010-14. He is the author of several books, the most recent being Sudan: Darfur and the Failure of the African State.

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