Getty
Books

Tarnished golden land

Graham Stewart reviews The Hidden History of Burma by Thant Myint-U

In recent times has any country weathered more reversals in its international reputation than Burma?

In the two decades after the 1961 military coup that dispensed with its fragile democracy, the country shunned the rest of the world. Then, in the late 1980s and 1990s, its ruling junta attempted to reverse out of the cul-de-sac of the “Burmese road to socialism”. But they backed into protesting crowds, brutally crushing internal dissent. China didn’t mind, but Western countries chose to notice. They imposed sanctions.

In 2015, hope blew open the locks. Free and fair elections saw the triumph of the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the charismatic daughter of her country’s slain independence leader, Aung San. The world rejoiced in this late Burmese Spring. A “golden land” once more! There would be a happy ending.

The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century, by Thant Myint-U Atlantic Books £18.99

That sugar-rush of goodwill evaporated abruptly in August 2017 when the Burmese military retaliated with default brutality to hit-and-run attacks from Muslim militants in Rakhine state. Where activists had failed, the military succeeded in finally bringing the fate of the Rohingya to wider international consciousness. In the West, at least, Burma had turned full circle and was a pariah once more.

It is tempting to see in the life of Aung San Suu Kyi the mirror of her country’s fate. During the years of her struggle and in her moment of triumph, she became the only Asian politician to enjoy an international reputation comparable to Nelson Mandela. Western leaders and other fair-weather celebrities lined up to associate themselves with this delicate but unyielding woman who spoke the language of human dignity in the reassuring accent of a BBC Home Service announcer.

But the reports of atrocities in Rakhine state prompted her old Oxford college, St Hugh’s, to speedily replace the portrait of its most globally famous alumna with a depiction of creeping flowers. Awards and city freedoms were rescinded. “We should not have any truck with this woman,” proclaimed Bob Geldof who in 2012 had gladly crooned for her. “She’s let Ireland down.” That Irish eyes are no longer smiling on Burma’s state councillor and de facto leader is unlikely to sway the millions of her fellow citizens who — coronavirus permitting — will turn out in the autumn to re-elect her for a second term. That there are 700,000 fewer people who style themselves Rohingya in the country has not lost her any support among the ethnically Bamar majority. Among them, the prevailing view is that the Rohingya are mostly Bengalis who have finally gone back to where they belong.

But if Shakespeare lived today he would have the subject for his next tragedy. In achieving her ambition, Aung San Suu Kyi is experiencing the pain of victory. The onetime Oxford housewife has risen from house arrest at a lakeside villa in Rangoon (now renamed Yangon) to voluntary confinement in a simple modern house in Naypyitaw, the world’s most boring capital city.

There, observes Thant Myint-U, she “had few close friends or confidants, and as a teetotaller no one with who she enjoyed a drink at the end of the day. She hadn’t lived anything approaching a normal life for thirty years.” Where in this friendless new-build toytown can a 74-year-old widow turn for companionship? As if suffering Stockholm syndrome, she finds her one-time captors, the generals in her cabinet, “rather sweet”.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Thant Myint-U is the grandson of U Thant, the Burmese diplomat who in the 1960s was the first non-European secretary-general of the UN. He is his country’s leading public intellectual. Active in think-tanks and diplomatic networks, he founded the Yangon Heritage Trust to save Rangoon’s colonial-era architecture from the wrecking ball. He is the author of several books about where his country has been and may be going, including one masterpiece, The River of Lost Footsteps. In The Hidden History of Burma he focuses on the last 30 years. Why hidden? It is not as if the country’s struggles are a secret. But like Giancarlo Caselli’s La Vera Storia d’Italia — that great testimony to the rottenness at the core of Andreotti’s Italy — The Hidden History of Burma lifts the veil on what we vaguely knew was going on, but just not quite how and why. Thant Myint-U makes the complex intelligible without recourse to simplistic generalisations.

Throughout these years, the Tatmadaw (the Burmese armed forces) has remained the one properly functioning arm of state delivery, not least because there is never a lack of internal enemies for it to fight, particularly among the country’s 135 officially recognised ethnic groups. The author pinpoints 16 April 1989 as a pivotal moment. It was the day that “the Communist Party of Burma, for decades the country’s biggest insurgent organisation, imploded”.

The communists had deliberately destabilised Burma’s post-independence socialist government. Up against the hard men of the Tatmadaw in the 1960s, their mischief was sustained by China. By the 1980s, the Tatmadaw had them pinned back to the mountainous Kachin and Wa regions near the Burma-China border. Yet, still the communists numbered 20,000 well-armed men. However, by 1989, their commanders were wearying of ideology. They could get richer, quicker, by becoming drug kingpins. Overthrowing their commissars, they duly split into four rival forces, all of which junked Marxist-Leninism for the speedier thrills of narcotics, casinos and prostitution. They made an alternative killing by opening the sluice gate of Burma’s wild east frontier to China’s border-hopping lowlife. The largest of the communist-turned-narco militias is the United Wa State Army. No plane hijackers these: they part-owned a commercial airline.

A stock exchange was opened in Rangoon in 2015 but there are still only five listed companies, trading at trivial levels

Five years ago, a ceasefire was agreed with eight ethnic insurgent forces, a breakthrough for President Thein Sein, the soldier turned reforming politician who ran perhaps the most successful government in Burma’s post-independence history until, later that year, the National League for Democracy swept to power and the pace of reform slackened.

Aung San Suu Kyi has made little progress in completing the peace process. Ethnic warlords must weigh up whether low-level disruption suits their self-enrichment better than going legit within a formal federation of states. Constructive ambiguity clouds what federal union might involve. Critically, who gets oversight over the local resources has yet to be settled. Why bargain away your chips and the militias that guard them?

This is part of a wider issue of how the economy transitions from crony capitalism to a more transparent form of capital allocation. A stock exchange was reopened in Rangoon in 2015 after decades in abeyance but five years on there are still only five listed companies, trading at trivial levels. Lacking are the means of disruption to the small number of well-connected individuals and army-backed entities that dominate the economy.

Indeed, having impoverished itself during the decades when it was unplugged from the veins and arteries of global capital, Burma now faces new risks in trying to become compliant. “By 2019, top companies were increasingly and in some cases desperately strapped for cash. The central bank had imposed stringent new regulations to bring Burma in line with international standards,” Thant Myint-U writes. “Businessmen had borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars as overdrafts, with no real intention of repayment. Now the loans were being called in and dozens of the largest companies were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.”

How should Western governments and investors respond? The author maintains that “sanctions during the 1990s and 2000s did nothing to compel the generals in a liberal direction and, if anything, have made any transition to a better future more difficult.” If the EU revokes trade privileges, it “would collapse the garment industry and throw more than 500,000 otherwise destitute young women out of work”.

Thant Myint-U disputes the popular view that the junta only embraced democracy in order to escape dependence on China. But China remains the biggest investor and most important neighbour. The relationship certainly matters to Beijing. The oil and natural gas pipelines that run from the Burmese port of Kyaukphyu on the Bay of Bengal to Yunnan province ensure that China is no longer dependent on tankers passing through the choke-point of the Malacca Straits.

Spurned by the West, where should Burma turn? Thant Myint-U’s conclusion is that “on all sides of Burmese politics, there was little vision of the future”. Yet still the great bulk of Burmese people quietly endure and hope for the best. For all the horror in Rakhine state, and the corruption and myopia of those entrusted with power and influence, Burma tops at least one international ranking. Per head of population, its people are the most generous on earth.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover