Thant Myint-U's The Hidden History of Burma reflects on the socio-political crisis ailing an aspiring democracy
In an interview with Firstpost, historian and diplomant Thant Myint-U talks about his third literary outing on the history of Burma, the country as an inchoate democracy, and what challenges its people are likely to face in the upcoming elections.
Decoding the fragile socio-political juncture at which Burma stands today is Burmese historian and diplomat Thant Myint-U, in his book The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century.
His work closely examines the past 15 years of the country, and why it once showed promises of being a functional democracy.
Thant Myint-U has previously authored Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, and The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma.
A disillusioned George Orwell had once famously called the British a “dull, decent people, cherishing and fortifying their dullness behind a quarter of a million bayonets," in his novel Burmese Days, while serving as a police officer in Burma (now Myanmar), under the Indian Imperial Police force. Cut to 2019, and the stories emerging from the country still seem to evoke this bruised colonial past, as it languishes under a brutal military dictatorship, and devastating natural calamities. Decoding this fragile juncture at which Burma stands today is Burmese historian and diplomat Thant Myint-U in his book The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century. His work closely examines the past 15 years in the country, and why it once showed promises of being a functional democracy.
Through most of history, Burma — perched precariously between India and China — had been exiled by global powers, who finally lifted their sanctions in 2013, ushering in a seemingly new era of progress in the nation. Embodying Burma's spirit of new-found liberation was Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who emerged from years of house arrest at long last, thereby instilling hope in the hearts of citizens and global leaders alike. Barack Obama was among the numerous politicians who visited the country in its brief moment of glory, before it fell prey to a rapidly crumbling economy that was newly introduced to the volatile world of social media. Rising questions on race, religion, and national identity gave way to violent clashes, which soon snowballed into one of the biggest refugee crises of the incumbent century — the exodus of Rohingyas.
In an interview with Firstpost, Thant Myint-U talks about his third literary outing on the history of Burma, the country as an inchoate democracy, and what challenges its people are likely to face in the upcoming elections.
This is your third work of non-fiction on Burma and its history. But this time, while writing The Hidden History of Burma — considering its temporal relevance today — how did you manage to maintain objectivity while documenting and analysing the events that have led to Myanmar's current socio-political crisis?
I had thought of waiting and writing about this period perhaps ten or fifteen years from now, when I might be more detached from the subject and there might be archival or other sources not available now from which to work. But I felt it was important to put down my thoughts on what's happened this past decade or so. Burma's at an inflection point, and there are so many myths about this country, including its recent past. I've woven into the book an account of my own efforts and my interactions with top leaders, so people can judge for themselves what parts might stem from a more personal perspective.
You were born and have spent a majority of your life outside of Burma, studying and working in the United States, among other places. This, of course, brings with it a certain kind of privilege that a majority of your country does not enjoy. Coming from such a position, are you conscious of your privilege, especially as a writer of people's history? (Most importantly of ones who are perhaps far less fortunate.)
Burma is often perceived as a simple morality tale, a contest between dictators and democrats or between warring ethnicities. The issues of democracy and identity are important. But what's often missing is any sense of the lives of tens of millions of the country's poorest, and the ways in which Burma's economic trajectory, from the army-run socialism of the mid-20th century to the army-run capitalism of 1989-2011, has created a level of wealth inequality unparalleled in our post-colonial history. This deeper current, the way in which capitalism has evolved over the past quarter-century, is, I believe, key to understanding what's happening today, and to understanding the limits of democratic change. I've lived and worked around the world, but I've also been involved in Burmese politics since I first tried to help Burmese dissidents along the Thai border in 1988 (when I was 22) — my own experience is fairly unique, but I hope that gives me a vantage point that might be interesting to readers.
Without giving much away from the book, what I found interesting is how you acknowledged that just when the world was watching Myanmar emerge as a story of hope and well-executed diplomacy, — with Aung San Suu Kyi gradually taking charge — in reality, it was teetering on the edge of a breakdown more than ever before. As an insider, were you, at that point in time, able to foresee this crisis?
When I was at the United Nations in New York from 2000-2006, I tried to raise the alarm: that far from seeing Burma as a democracy promotion project, we needed instead to recognise that this was a deeply impoverished country riven by violent inter-ethnic conflicts; finding a just peace and a path to sustainable and equitable development had to be front and centre. Few wanted to listen. From 2011-2016, the hope was that things might finally turn around, and that we might at least begin a conversation around issues like inequality and discrimination, and the many dark legacies of colonialism that lay at the heart of our challenges. But as readers will see in the book, events got in the way.
Myanmar's elections are around the corner, and the situation seems unlikely to get better any time soon. Even though Min Aung Hlaing has initiated a 'goodwill tour', charges of genocide and ethnic cleansing that have been brought against him can't be overlooked. And Aung San Suu Kyi's watch has been heartbreakingly disappointing as well. How does the country break out of this fatal deadlock and move ahead?
It's important to remember that there's been tremendous progress. Burma is politically a far more free place than a decade ago. As in 2015, we will have in 2020 freer and fairer elections than in any of our neighbouring countries other than India. There are thousands of new civil society organisations, and the army has stepped back from vast areas of political life as well as the economy. On the other hand, there is the continuation of decades of armed conflict, the extreme violence we've seen in places like northern Arakan, and the exodus of hundreds of thousands of people to Bangladesh. Hundreds of thousands of others are displaced elsewhere in the country. There are no easy answers. But what's absolutely required, what needs to come urgently, is a fresh conversation and a dynamic agenda around issues of identity, discrimination, wealth inequality, and climate change. As readers will see, we also need to teach kids history in a very different way.
Your book, while comprehensive, puts the spotlight on Nay Win Maung, Soe Thane, Aung Min, and Aung San Suu Kyi, a little too much. Why did you choose to focus on these people more than so many others who've been instrumental to Burma's social reform down the years? Does it not make the accounts myopic, and perhaps a little elitist?
They are three of around two dozen different people I've highlighted in my book, from a migrant worker who became for years a slave on a fishing boat in Thailand, to top generals, to leaders within ethnic minority communities, to businesswomen to students turned insurgents. I've tried to give a range of perspectives. I couldn't not highlight people like Soe Thane and Aung Min because they, little known on the outside, were actually the central figures behind the reformist moves in 2011-2012. Why they (as an ex-admiral and ex-general) pushed the way they did, the reasons behind their success, and their unhappy fate, is not just a fascinating story but tells us why we are in the position we're in today.
It also felt like the narrative of your book tends to gloss over the problematic histories of a lot of leaders, like Soe Thane, a former high-ranking junta leader. And as we know, the junta is known to have regularly violated human rights in the country.
The junta's human rights record is well known. Over 2,000 political prisoners were locked up, and there was next to no political freedom. But what's more important is the way in which the capitalist system has evolved since 1989, intimately tied to the China border trade, to the ceasefires of the 1990s, to multi-billion dollar illicit industries, large-scale land confiscations, displacement of hundreds of thousands, the migration of millions of poor to new urban slums and overseas, the destruction of forests, and as mentioned already, the creation of a new, unfair, unequal society. Rackets and networks of money-making cross every racial and religious line, and are far stronger than any state institution including the army. It's these dynamics that I hope people will understand more clearly when they read my book. Why some in the military leadership then wanted to change things (and the extent they really did) is one of the stories I try to tell.
While you have meticulously charted Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) trajectory, could you tell us a little more about why you think the NLD failed on so many socio-political fronts, especially with regard to the Rohingyas?
The new government in 2016 inherited some of the most difficult legacies anywhere, and this included the situation in northern Arakan, which had already seen extreme violence between Buddhist and Rohingya as well as other Muslim communities. There were many looking to take political advantage of racial hatreds and fear of other peoples. But what's important to understand is that the current government isn't simply a 'new government' in the normal sense. It's what's left of a revolutionary movement, bruised and beaten over two decades, that has been grafted onto a bureaucracy, withered under decades of autocracy, and a singularly predatory capitalist system a quarter-century in the making.
Your book doesn't leave us feeling too hopeful about Myanmar's future, even though you hint at a possible middle-ground that the NLD and national military might reach with each other sometime soon. Could you elaborate a little on that?
The answer doesn't lie in the NLD and the military finding a middle ground. If that were it then it would be easy to be fairly optimistic. Readers will see both the depth of the challenges, but also the unexpected ways in which positive change might actually come.
One can see a definite swell in right-leaning majoritarianism across democracies in the world. Conventionally, such politics encourages homogeneity, and discards plurality and diversity. How do you see Myanmar overcoming the same roadblocks — considering its legacy of being a culture of contradictions — and progressing towards becoming a sustainable democracy?
Through radical policies of non-discrimination, a robust agenda to tackle wealth inequality, and create dignified work, and urgent measures to adapt to global climate change.
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