Thant Myint-U has titled his reflective and illuminating new book The Hidden History of Burma, even though he gently suggests that the country’s past wasn’t so much obscured as it was hiding in plain sight. For decades, especially after a ruthless crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in 1988, Burma had drawn international ire for the brutal rule of its military junta, which for a time went by the grotesque-sounding acronym SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council). Against the depredations of the dictatorship stood the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi: A tireless civilian advocate for democracy who spoke consistently of hope, enduring years of detention and house arrest with a serene smile and a flower in her hair.
Her public image weighed heavily in the international community’s imagination, which was decidedly more familiar with the morality play of “The Lady Versus the Generals” than with the longer history of Burma. That history proved to be stubborn and consequential — its effects only aggravated by how much its convolutions were simplified or ignored.
“In the early 2010s,” Thant Myint-U writes, “Burma was the toast of the world.” (The junta had changed the country’s name in English to “Myanmar” in 1989; a prefatory note explains why this was an “ethno-nationalist” move — the equivalent of Germany demanding that English speakers refer to it as “Deutschland.”) The generals seemed to be ceding power, the country seemed to be ending its long isolation, tourism seemed to be on the rise; a number of rebel groups signed cease-fires, and in 2015 the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won enough seats in the country’s first free elections in a generation to form a government.
By 2018, that hopefulness had all but vanished. The year before, the Burmese military had unleashed a scorched-earth campaign against the Rohingya Muslim minority, with more than 700,000 refugees fleeing across the border to Bangladesh. During the military dictatorship, the world had grown accustomed to looking to Aung San Suu Kyi for moral guidance, but once in government as Burma’s de facto leader she sprang to the defence of the military that had previously detained her. What Thant Myint-U argues is that the conditions for the current situation were already in place — less a flipped switch than a lit fuse.
He writes briskly about Burma’s history as part of the British Raj, when colonial officials were flummoxed by what one of them called the “racial instability” of the region, where distinctions, the official complained, were “neither definite, nor logical, nor permanent, nor easy to detect.” Under colonialism, classifications cleaved and hardened, as British administrators insisted on dividing the regional people into “native” (or “indigenous”) and “alien” types.
The book’s focus is on the convulsions of the last 15 years, from a seemingly unshakable military dictatorship to the beginnings of democratic rule, but examining the legacy of Burma’s colonial past is crucial to grasping what’s happened more recently. Aung San Suu Kyi may have been venerated as a democracy activist and a human rights icon, but Thant Myint-U suggests she’s better understood as a Burmese nationalist. He cites an essay she wrote in the 1980s, before she became involved in politics, in which she described Indian and Chinese immigrants acquiring “a stranglehold on the Burmese economy” and “striking at the very roots of Burmese manhood and racial purity.”
Thant Myint-U has long studied the country, as both an insider and an outsider; his grandfather, U Thant, was born in colonial Burma and later became the secretary general of the United Nations. After the military crushed the pro-democracy uprising of 1988, Thant Myint-U supported aggressive sanctions against the junta regime, only to reverse himself when he realised that boycotts and aid restrictions were harming the ordinary people they were supposed to help.
He tries to nudge readers away from getting too fixated on messianic solutions. Democracy was a preoccupation among the junta’s critics, but the country wasn’t quite prepared for how a competitive political system might work — especially one where the peace process itself entrenched a belief in the existence of fixed ethnic groups. Protecting minority rights, such as those of the Rohingya Muslims, has proved to be an unpopular proposition among the Buddhist majority; it’s been much easier to rile up voters with rank appeals to identity. As Thant Myint-U puts it, “fear and intolerance” offer convenient cover for opportunists seeking to hide a “failure of the imagination.”
Combined with this whipping up of virulent nativist sentiment has been a headlong plunge into free markets, as Burma lurched from being one of the poorest and most isolated countries in Asia to another aspirant on the capitalist world stage. Thant Myint-U acknowledges the real economic gains that have been made over the past decade — a growing middle class, a new kind of self-made entrepreneur unconnected to the cronyism of the old regime — but he also notes that Burma is still a very poor country where extreme inequality and attendant anxieties have flourished.
The Hidden History of Burma is an urgent book about a heavy subject, but Thant Myint-U, whose previous work includes the marvellous “The River of Lost Footsteps,” a mixture of memoir and history, is a writer with a humane sensibility and a delicate yet pointed touch. He observes that for all of Aung San Suu Kyi’s soaring rhetoric before she ascended to power, “her instincts were deeply conservative.” A telling anecdote has her conducting a discussion with a group of university graduates in 2018, in which she elected to talk not about the Rohingya, or the peace process, or democracy, but about novels. She asked the group what was more important: Plot or character?
The Hidden History of Burma Race, Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century Thant Myint-U
WW Norton; $27.95; 288 pages
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