SINGAPORE, (Reuters Life!) - A pariah state led by generals who have oppressed their people for more than 40 years: Myanmar is a black and white story to most writers.
But understanding how history has shaped Southeast Asia’s most stubborn military junta not only adds accuracy to debate about the former Burma, it is key to changing the country’s future, argues historian Thant Myint-U.
In his latest book “The River of Lost Footsteps”, the grandson of U.N. Secretary-General U Thant draws on history and his personal experiences to analyse the prospects for change.
He spoke to Reuters Life! while on a visit to Singapore.
Q: Many writers struggle to make sense of Myanmar. Some romanticise it as a forgotten tragedy, others characterise it as on the cusp of revolution. What do you make of these depictions?
A: An old but still current way of seeing Burma is as a sort of tyranny that can be stripped away -- that underneath there’s a timeless, peaceful, Buddhist country. That was the paradigm through which the British saw it in the 1880s before their invasion. That’s why they thought that the removal of the king would change everything very quickly for the better. The results were a disaster.
A sort of contemporary version is to see Burma as a sort of a Eastern European-style democratic revolution in the making. That if enough people took to the streets then the regime would collapse, but everything else would stay intact and you would have a very peaceful and stable transition to democracy and a free-market economy.
The two kind of reinforce each other: this older sense that Burma is a tyranny over an otherwise peaceful Buddhist society, and this more contemporary sense of this Eastern European uprising in the making.
Q: Is either a good fit? What’s a more accurate analogy?
A: If you look at Burma as a country that has been in civil war, armed conflict, for 60 years, with more than two dozens different insurgencies and only tentative ceasefires; (then) you might think of more parallels with countries in sub-Saharan Africa; which are very poor, which have experienced sustained conflict, and which have huge problems with governance and need all kinds of outside help.
Q: How does taking this view inform strategies for change?
A: You wouldn’t necessarily think that isolating (the country) as part of a push towards democracy would be the answer. Very few people would think that for the poorest [and most conflict-ridden countries in Africa a sudden transition to democracy is the only answer, yet that is the kind of sense that people have for Burma.
Q: Your book argues that understanding Myanmar’s past is the key to understanding its present. How does history explain the stalemate between the military government and democracy movement?
A: (One example is) this myth about the way in which Burma became independent and the way to think about it.
In 1946 there was a political crisis in Burma because the independence movement was pushing for immediate independence, led by General Aung San, and the (British) Labour government of the time was thinking of a much more gradual transition.
In this nationalist narrative, the idea is that these independence heroes, by standing firm, by uniting “the people”, by stubborn and focused determination, forced the British to leave. In fact by 1946 Britain was exhausted by the war. It had many other things to think about. Even in terms of Empire they were thinking much more about India and Palestine. Burma was a sideshow. They came to their own conclusion that their future in the East lay in Malaya and Singapore, and that Burma was expendable.
At most, the independence movement forced the timing a bit, and got the British to leave a few years earlier. But there’s this myth that by standing firm Burma’s nationalist heroes forced out the British empire.
Q: And that rhetoric is still in play today?
A: It feeds into all sides of the Burmese political debate, this looking up to this model of stubborn-ness, determination, and not wavering from a principled position. There’s little celebration of any sort of compromise, or pragmatism.
Even within the democracy movement, it resonates. Aung San Suu Kyi herself has called the democracy movement the second struggle for independence. I can see why she does it, but I think it’s reading the wrong lessons from 1946. I‘m sure there are times in Burmese history when people have had to make painful compromises, but those examples are ignored.
Q: You supported sanctions in the early 90s, but have changed your position to a more pragmatic policy of “opening up”. What would ending sanctions achieve?
A: Normal relations with the outside world, and especially to the West, will do more to facilitate political change very quickly, than a situation in which the government and the economy is increasingly dependent on natural gas exports, and its only significant opening to the outside world is China.
Q: You have said Myanmar’s political story is often reduced to black and white -- bad military government and good Aung San Suu Kyi. How would a more nuanced vision of the country help it?
A: Burma is often seen as a country of 55 million victims whose lives are awful. And the only thing they’re waiting for is democracy. Or Rambo coming. There’s an element of truth in this, there are people who are unhappy, people are unsatisfied with the government, people who do want change. If you ask the average person if they want democracy or dictatorship they’d say democracy.
But it’s a cycle.
From the outside world there’s this constant stream of international condemnation and calls for democratic change. It feeds a tendency to think that the U.N. Security Council or Washington, if convinced of how bad things are, can just push a button and the government would suddenly collapse. It’s not been a very helpful expectation to have fostered.
Q: So it stifles debate?
A: It prevents people from thinking more realistically about change and about other ways that the outside world might engage with the country, that is separate from the question of who’s in charge at the top. Everything shouldn’t just be about politics.
From the outside, there are a lot of opportunities for reducing poverty, building up social services and strengthening civil society that are being missed.
Q: What’s your take on the latest debate, over the military’s move to set a 2010 election date?
A: It’s good they set some sort of timetable. But I think it’s wrong to get too caught up in the constitutional reforms.
For the government it’s more a way of moving towards some sort of civilian government, even if those civilians are largely ex-military people. And it’s a vehicle to get many ceasefire groups to disarm and co-opt them into that framework.
That’s what you’re going to get, some sort of civilian government, and some sort of way in which some of these armed groups will come into the political process.
For me it’s not the main thing. For me what’s more important are the actual policy changes that will help improve people’s lives. It’s possible some people are better off now than they were 20 years ago,[it’s not all gloom and doom, but there’s a lot of acute poverty and kids growing up desperately poor ill-educated, and dying needlessly from curable diseases.
Changing policy, bringing Burma back into the international mainstream, and exposing the new generation to all kinds of new influences and ideas, is key.