The Burma trail


By Thant Myint-U

Faber & Faber, 384pp, 20

BURMA HAS THE DUBIOUS distinction of playing host to the world's longest-running civil war - it began with independence in 1948 and still goes on - and its most durable military dictatorship. If not for North Korea, Burma might also claim top honours in two other categories - most isolated and most xenophobic - but it could still win the prize for most misunderstood.

Geographically remote, politically retrograde, economically backward, Burma, today called Myanmar, struggles on, burdened by one of the largest armies on the planet and desperate for help. In The River of Lost Footsteps, Thant Myint-U offers at least a little understanding, "an introduction to a country whose current problems are increasingly known but whose colourful and vibrant history is almost entirely forgotten".

Thant looks at Burma from an unusual vantage point. His maternal grandfather, U Thant, who served as secretary-general of the United Nations in the 1960s, belonged to the first generation of Burmese nationalists who assumed control of the government after the British left in 1948. Throughout the author's childhood, spent in New York, notable figures from the Burmese anti-colonial movement and the military government of General Ne Win paid visits to the family residence. The River of Lost Footsteps is therefore, in its later chapters, a kind of family history, made even more personal in the years after 1988, when the author became involved in the fledgling Burmese democracy movement.

Part history, part memoir, part polemic, with a little travelogue thrown in, the book begins with the overthrow of the last royal dynasty in 1885 and the absorption of Burma into British-ruled India. Typically, Burma never even counted as a principal actor in the dream of empire. It was a sideshow, an afterthought, destined to be a footnote to India or China.

"To the extent that it was thought about at all, it had the image of an exotic and dreamy backwater, a gentle Buddhist country, lost in time and quietly isolated, hardly the sort of location for a foreign policy crisis," Thant writes. He refers to the international response to the democracy movement of 1988, but the quotation could be applied to events at any time over the last several centuries.

The Burmese, of course, see things differently. Thant, after setting the stage for the takeover by the British, tries to put the Burmese point of view back into the picture by retelling their history, in the hope that it might explain their present predicament. Despite having written his doctoral dissertation at Cambridge on 19th-century Burmese history, he does not tell the story well. His narrative is choppy and often hard to follow.

But several important points come across. The Burmese, who conquered all of present-day Laos and Thailand in the 16th century, regarded themselves as a great race and their military as a source of national pride. It was Burmese military hubris that led to the first war between Burma and Britain, from 1824 to 1826, a disaster for the Burmese. National pride made the Raj period doubly humiliating. It was bad enough to endure the slights and the snubs, especially for the educated class that revered British culture and the British political system, but to be nothing more than a minor Indian province was truly upsetting.

U Thant, first Burmese member of the Left Book Club, fervent admirer of Labour politician Sir Stafford Cripps, makes an ideal symbol for his grandson's sensitive reading of the Raj period. An elite that might have furthered British aims was systematically alienated and insulted. The British, generalising from their experience with the Gurkhas of Nepal, recruited their army from the mountainous tribal regions. The Burmese, mighty warriors in their own mind, were dismissed as childlike and lazy. "It was a policy choice that rankled deeply in the Burmese imagination, eating away at their sense of pride and turning the idea of a Burmese army into a central element of the nationalist dream," Thant writes.

The closer he draws to the present, the more spirited he becomes. He has an understated sense of humour (Ne Win is introduced as "playboy, tyrant, numerologist and onetime post office clerk") and a subversive attraction to details that might not advance his story but most certainly brighten it up. He lists ingredients for the house cocktail at the Pegu Club in Rangoon, and notes that Rudyard Kipling never got anywhere near Mandalay. One would love to hear more about the mysterious, if irrelevant, Olive Yang, described as a "bisexual warlady". Thant needs to release his inner Paul Theroux more often.

Burmese independence came, of course, as an afterthought to India's - a further insult. Almost nothing has gone right since.

Thant eloquently and mournfully recites the dismal history of the last half-century and, in analysing the country's nascent democracy movement, holds out only the slimmest of hopes for a better future. And trying to topple the military regime by isolating it would, he argues, be disastrous.

"Much more than any part of Burmese society," he writes, "the army will weather another 40 years of isolation just fine."

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