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Sunday July 29, 2007

Exploring the roots of conflict


starmag-feedback@thestar.com.my 

The grandson of a former UN Sec-Gen explores how Myanmar’s current problems can be traced back to the 19th century in his latest book, which was launched in Malaysia on Friday. 

IT’S tempting to think of Myanmar in simple terms. Most of the world views it (if at all) as an isolated country ruled by a military dictatorship. So, use international pressure to remove the ruling junta. Recognise the democratic elections held in May 1990 transferring power to the National League of Democracy leader, the jailed Aung San Suu Kyi. And there you have it: problem solved.  

The reality, of course, is that Myanmar is a complex situation. A nation that has largely been ruled by ethnic Burmans, but which contains a hotchpotch of minorities (Shan, Karens, Mon and many more), it is still suffering from the after effects of both British colonialism and Cold War conflicts. 

One man who believes that it is necessary to understand Myanmar’s past in order to resolve its current predicament is Dr Thant Myint-U. The grandson of former United Nations Secretary-General U Thant, Dr Myint-U, 41, has lived a life that has largely been outside the crushing grip that Myanmar’s rulers have on its people. However, he refuses to be untouched by their plight. 

Dr Thant Myint-U believes the world has to understand Myanmar’s history before its current problems can be solved. – SOFIA BUSCH
Dr Myint-U has authored The River of Lost Footsteps: The Histories of Burma, a book that seeks to explain exactly why the current isolationist government has been able to stay in power (albeit in various incarnations) since General Ne Win toppled the elected government of Prime Minister U Nu in a military coup in March 1962. 

In it, he talks us through the infighting of the Burmese monarchy in the 19th century that destabilised the country, enabling the British to move in, and laments the period surrounding the assassination of Myanmar’s “founding father”, Aung San, in July 1947. 

Dr Myint-U also intersperses the history lessons with recollections from his own life, including his childhood in New York, where he still currently resides, and his visits to his native country. 

While Dr Myint-U has himself enjoyed a distinguished career (he was educated at Harvard and Cambridge Universities, getting his PhD in Modern History from the latter institution, and has also served on three UN peacekeeping operations in Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia), his writing is simple and he does not couch the truth in academic or diplomatic terms. 

Recently, Dr Myint-U responded to an e-mail interview just ahead of his visit to Malaysia to launch his latest book (which follows 2000’s The Making of Modern Burma). River of Lost Footsteps was launched in Kuala Lumpur on Friday by Tan Sri Ahmad Rithauddeen, president of the United Nations Association Malaysia.  

“I don’t think we can even begin to understand today’s problems, much less think of possible solutions, without appreciating Burma’s incredibly colourful, complex and often violent history,” he explained when asked about the relevance of the bloody infighting of the 19th century Konbaung dynasty to 21st century Myanmar. 

“Burma’s problems – its long running armed conflicts, poverty, military dictatorship, the isolationist and xenophobic policies of recent decades – have a reason, a history that needs to be understood if we are to even begin looking for durable solutions.” 

Even more than Aung San, the most fascinating figures to emerge from Dr Myint-U’s book are the enigmatic erstwhile comrades, U Nu and Ne Win. The author shared his views on the two former leaders of his nation. 

“There is a myth that Burma emerged from independence from Britain in 1948 as a peaceful and prosperous country, only to decline mysteriously afterward. In the 1930s, the Great Depression had impoverished millions of people; Burma was then devastated by the Second World War, with entire cities wiped out. 

“In 1947, on the eve of independence, General Aung San and nearly the entire political leadership were gunned down. A year later, the Communist party of Burma, then the biggest political party in the country, rose up in rebellion, as half the army defected to various ethnic and other rebel militia. 

“The Chinese Nationalists then invaded in 1951 and created turmoil in the eastern Shan states. It’s hard to see how any government would have coped well; I think U Nu’s government did as good a job as possible under the circumstances. 

“When General Ne Win took over in 1962 he could have taken things in many different directions. That he chose to nationalise the economy, expel hundreds of thousands of ethnic Indians, and isolate Burma from the outside world – cutting off nearly all trade, tourism and investment – was a huge disaster for the country.” 

Like any historian, Dr Myint-U can’t resist conjecturing what sort of country Myanmar would be had Aung San not been assassinated.  

“Many believe that by 1947 Aung San had moved decisively from his earlier fascist and pro-Japanese leanings to a real commitment to democratic government. He also seemed to appreciate the need to bring the country’s many ethnic minorities fully on board as equal partners in a new ‘Union of Burma’. 

“If he had lived, it’s possible (though far from certain) that he would have been able to keep the Communists from rebellion. 

“What’s more interesting is to speculate what would have happened if Burma’s nationalists had not pushed for independence in 1948 – and what if Burma, like Malaysia and Singapore, had remained under British rule for another 10 years, with the British and not the Burmese army dealing with any communist insurgency.” 

I have often heard it said that Myanmar is caught in a time warp, as there seems to be so little development, and this can seem attractive, idyllic even, to the outsider. But Dr Myint-U laments that there is nothing idyllic about the lack of industrialisation in the country. 

“It’s not as if the country is somehow frozen in time. Under colonial rule, Burma’s traditional social structure entirely collapsed. More recently, the huge rise in Burma’s population (now over 50 million) has thrown up a new class of rural and urban poor, with millions of young people moving all around the country and across the border into Thailand in search of work. 

“Critical social services like healthcare are far from adequate. There is no idyllic, timeless Burma anywhere – only a country that has undergone massive social and political upheaval, 60 years of civil war and more than 30 years of intellectual as well as economic isolation.” 

Having lived a relatively comfortable life away from the brutal struggles of his countrymen, Dr Myint-U is, nonetheless, possessed of a fervour to see his country change for the better. 

“With so many desperately poor people in Burma and the very real possibility of greater instability in the future, I think all Burmese people should do what they can, even in a small way, to help find pragmatic ways forward and at least alleviate the suffering that exists. 

“I don’t think you need to have important ancestors to want to try to be helpful.”  

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