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Understanding the hidden history of Myanmar

New books on Asian nation look at race and the impact of colonialism

The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century by Thant Myint-U, Atlantic Books, £18.99
A Savage Dreamland: Journeys in Burma by David Eimer, Bloomsbury, £20

These two new books on Myanmar (formerly Burma) appeared either side of last month’s bizarre spectacle of Aung San Suu Kyi at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, defending her country and Myanmar’s military or Tatmadaw, against the persecution and alleged genocide of the Muslim Rohingya minority in 2017.

It is even more absurd that after 15 years of incarceration by the same Tatmadaw of whom her father Gen Aung San was the founder, and now as the de facto leader of Myanmar, she feels the need to rush to their international defence. If anything, it will serve to strengthen her hand in this year’s general elections which if successful, she will be sharing a government made up of 25 per cent military appointees and with many of the ministries bagged by the military.

Stripped of honours and awards the world over – but retaining her Nobel Peace Prize of almost 30 years ago – she remains resolute and defiant in the face of Western opprobrium. While in Myanmar, the Bamar Buddhist majority support her blindly and revere her as a “mother” of the people. Internationally, China, who has feted her since her release, supports her for its own strategic agendas.


Recent events prove if anything, that Myanmar is both an unfolding story and a moveable but not always palatable feast where, according to Thant Myint-U, “echoes of the past are growing stronger”. Myanmar is still reeling from the outcomes of 50 years of moribund stasis under military dictatorship and a host of other violent conflicts between the Burman dominated Tatmadaw and militias claiming to speak on behalf of a bewildering array of ethnic communities. Many of these conflicts, including the longest running war in the world, were hidden by Myanmar’s self-imposed isolation and far away from the international gaze. When the current Rohingya crisis broke, soon after the “democratic” government had been installed, it was going to get the attention it merited.

Hidden Burma by Thant Myint-U could be described as the work of an insider; the Burmese author and historian of numerous books on Myanmar including the masterly, The River of Lost Footsteps, and grandson of U Thant, Secretary-General of the United Nations in the 1960s, Thant has also served as an adviser to the transitional post-junta government.

A Savage Dreamland is the work of an outsider; David Eimer a British journalist and travel writer who has form as a South-east Asia correspondent and a first book based on exploring the Chinese hinterlands and borders. Eimer goes to live in Yangon/Rangoon just preceding democratic elections at the end of 2015. Both authors prefer Burma instead of Myanmar as "Myanmar" was arbitrarily concocted by "nativist" generals in 1989, while Thant Myint-U continues to use Rangoon instead of the more widely used Yangon.

Eimer immerses himself in Yangon and is a fluent observer of Myanmar and its people/s. He journeys to the far-flung extremes of Myanmar that encompass the Himalayan heights in the far north, encounters with the rebel armies in the northern states to the Buddhist centric heartlands which he entitles, “The Buddha Belt” and as far south as Kawthoung, Myanmar’s most southerly town on a sliver of land divided with Thailand and from where the mysterious sea gypsies or Salone still roam the Andaman Sea. Apart from the many people encounters he makes, Eimer enlists previous travellers, among them Irishman Maurice Collis, who is regarded by the Burmese as one of finest late colonial chroniclers of Myanmar. Eimer’s informed peregrinations make A Savage Dreamland a fascinating and revelatory read.

Thant Myint-U concerns himself with the past 20 years of Myanmar from the height of the dictatorship at the turn of the millennium to the present day. He does so with a profound awareness of history and his characteristic weave of historical analysis, memoir and reflection and drawing upon his recent roles in public life.

Early on he establishes that the long shadows of a “brutal and destructive British colonialism” and one which first established the modern state as a “racial hierarchy” didn’t help. Race, as he carefully delineates in a country with 135 distinct ethnic groups and more than 100 languages, has always been at the heart of Myanmar. He reminds us that the modern state of Myanmar “was born as a military occupation”.

It’s curious then that the British, who regarded the Burmese as both lazy and cheerful, came to call them the “Irish of the East”. Thant Myint-U cites an NC MacNamara who valiantly tried to draw a racial connection and prehistoric migration between Bronze Age Burmese, the Irish and the “tin mines of Ireland”. Eimer also picks up on this “cultural affinity” by quoting a British official during the colonial era explaining to all and sundry that, “The Burman was a happy-go-lucky sort of chap, the Irishman of the east, free with his smiles.” However, those smiles were later wiped when by the 1930s, Myanmar’s new leaders had emerged from Rangoon University and having “read Marx, Lenin, and Sinn Féin … were drawn to the Irish example of armed insurrection.”

Thant Myint-U although foreign born and whose first visit at the age of eight, to Myanmar was for the funeral of his distinguished grandfather U Thant – an episode in itself – was by 2007 working on Myanmar mainly from neighbouring Thailand and making frequent visits and forays. By 2013, such was the pace of events unfolding in Myanmar, he decided to settle in Yangon.

He chose an apartment and a restoration project in one of the very many dilapidated old colonial buildings in downtown Yangon, and one where the poet Pablo Neruda lived in the late 1920s, relishing that the view from his apartment of the British Secretariat was one that Neruda once had. Neruda was the ultimate outsider, neither English nor European but racially white. He described Rangoon as “an oven, a hell, a terrible exile” and a place where he felt like a ghost, perhaps not helped by his wearing of a white suit and white cork hat.

But testimony to Thant Myint-U’s energy and vitality is that no sooner had he settled into an historic apartment that he established the Yangon Heritage Trust, which set out to preserve Yangon’s colonial heritage buildings at a time when the inflow of money into the city was largely bent on destroying the old, and turning Yangon into a noisy and ugly building site. On a personal note, I arrived with my family and my wife’s development aid work that summer to live in Yangon.

In those heady few years leading up to the democratic elections of 2015, Thant Myint-U was appointed advisor to President Thein Sein, a former military general who headed up the post-junta government. The government, essentially transitional, was seen as quietly reformist or certainly Thein Sein and a couple of his ministers were, and Thant Myint-U’s narrative and easy erudition presents a very different take on things.

The West’s (invariably the US) obsession was with creating a democracy in the heart of Asia and resting that mantle on one set of shoulders. No one was willing to analyse the roots of Myanmar’s authoritarianism, its complex interethnic relations or its colonial legacy. Despite money flowing in, there was little awareness of how to deal with the illicit economies in Myanmar from jade to amphetamine production, heroin and gambling. China, like the British before them, was raiding the country of its remaining teak and abundant natural resources and now creating pipelines for gas and access routes to the Bay of Bengal.

After the National League of Democracy’s landslide election of November 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi had to govern with a cadre of mostly inexperienced administrators, many of whom had done long spells in prison. There was a serious lack of capacity which the junta had done its best to ensure and by then many state institutions had failed.

In a sombre conclusion Thant Myint-U states that since colonial times, "ordinary people have consistently wound up the losers." Now the two most combustible elements on the Burmese political landscape remain race and inequality and time is running out. If there is hope, he proffers that, "Burma needs a new project of the imagination."
Joseph Woods' poetry collection, Monsoon Diary was reviewed in these pages. He has been pursuing a life of Maurice Collis since leaving Myanmar