Monday, June 1, 2009

New Book and Memoir on the history of Burma

The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma, by Thant Myint-U. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Burma or Myanmar as it is now called is a puzzle for human rights advocates and promoters of democracy. It remains an isolated military government that denies rights to its citizens. However all attempts so far to pressure the military regime to reform, from imposing sanctions, to UN human rights protests, and diplomatic efforts to free prisoners have all failed. In this compelling book, Thant Myint–U presents us with a personal view of the problematical history of Burma. He presents us with various personal anecdotes about leaders from accounts of his meetings with grandfather U Thant, the General Secretary of the UN, in New York apartments, to the life of courtiers who were his ancestors at the medieval court of Ava. It is also a work by a Burmese whose identity is bound up with the fate of his country. It is from that very personal perspective that he gives a sketch of the various dynasties of Burma which often illuminate the possible roots of some of these long standing problems suffered by the modern dictatorship.

He begins the story with the fall of the last Monarchy under King Thibaw and the conquest of Upper Burma by the British in 1880, an event that overshadowed the modern history of Burma. It is this gap in continuity, the loss of a center of cultural authority that has caused Burmese governments to be haunted with a lack of legitimacy in succeeding years. The shame of this defeat motivated a rather extreme form of nationalism in the later struggles for independence and national self determination. After this dramatic beginnng he outlines the various reigns of Burmese Kingdoms that led to this moment. His overall his point is to show the negative consequences for the future in many of these events. Myint-U shows how arrogant military conquests of ancient kings, ethnic civil war, colonization by the British, have all added problematic factors into the mix of Burmese society and institutions that may work against the possibility of an eventual emergence of democracy. In the post WWII world, Burma seems to have undergone a further series of disasters from, occupation by the Japanese, and assassination of the charismatic leader General Aung just before Independence, and the military coups of Ne Win and U- Nu, disasters that again set Burmese History on a difficult course.

Myint-U is a good narrator able to summarize an historical era by good character analysis and evaluation of the social conditions of the time. We are brought up to the present in his evaluation of the failed revolution of 1988 and the formation of the SLORC and SPDC military regimes. Interestingly, Myint-U is a revisionist, deviating from the usual human rights activist line of thought that seeks to directly pressure the regime to reform. He is skeptical about the chances of sanctions or external pressure working. Instead he advises a more quiet approach that accepts the conditions as they exist with the regime for fear of making things worse. I would recommend this history/memoir as a very personal view of the hope and fears of a Burmese considering his own history and an exciting read that helps fill one in upon centuries of historical events little known to outsiders in the histories of Burma.

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