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Thant Myint-U interview

March 11th, 2008 · No Comments

U-THANT’S GRANDSON SPEAKS: The family’s ardent love for Burma lives on
Despite being born in New York in the 1960s, Thant Myint-U’s memories are of a childhood steeped inBurmese culture. Life in his maternal grandfather U-Thant’s house in Riverdale, just outside of Manhattan, was a stark contrast to the icy, snowy winters and bright lights surrounding him. It was a home where people wore longyis, spoke Burmese and ate tea-leaf curry.

The distinct feeling of being an outsider was never far away for Thant as he grew up in the US and studied at the Riverdale Country Day School.

“I only spoke Burmese until I went to school, and didn’t speak English until I was five,” he said. “I was very conscious of being Burmese.”

Sitting in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand, Thant spoke about his first journey from his privileged home in New York to a Burma marred by violence. He described his teenage years in Bangkok and how a fascination with history led him through the halls of Harvard and Cambridge universities, to a diplomatic career in the UN and the International Peace Academy. And how frustration with his homeland’s tragic situation culminated in the writing of his book The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma, which was published in paperback last month.

He explained why he thinks the current view of Burma prevents real progress towards building a just and lasting peace. Controversially, he argues that sanctions only deepen Burma’s isolation from the rest of the world, further entrenching and strengthening the military junta’s grip on the country, while accelerating China’s economic and political hold over mainland Southeast Asia’s largest country.

By the time of Thant’s first visit to the country in 1974, at the age of eight, Burma’s language, food and culture were second nature to him. However, the complex realities of everyday life under a military dictatorship were a different matter.

“My introduction to Burma as a country was Burma in crisis,” he said, reflecting on what transpired when his family returned with U-Thant’s body that December after his death from lung cancer.

U-Thant was a consummate diplomat and probably the country’s most respected figure in the global political arena. He gained international recognition through his service in U Nu’s democratic government (which was ousted by General Ne Win’s 1962 putsch), as Burmese ambassador to the UN, and with his two stints as UN secretary-general.

It was this recognition that led an increasingly paranoid and jealous Ne Win to deny U-Thant the honour of a state funeral. Nevertheless, despite Rangoon airport being cleared of civilians the day the funeral party arrived, the streets into Rangoon were lined with people. Thousands more came to pay their respects at his coffin, which was on display in an unceremonious tent at the Rangoon Turf Club.

It was here that a group of students took his body to the Rangoon University Students’ Union building, demanding a proper state funeral. Over the following days, talks between the junta and the students broke down. When the army’s patience finally ran out on December 11, troops stormed the campus, seized the body and started shooting at students.

“All I remember of that day was that we were at the Inya Lake Hotel and we were woken up very early in the morning. The government took my

father and my grandfather’s brothers to see the coffin they had just seized, to open the coffin to prove to them that they had the body.

“They buried it, then poured concrete over it at the site near the Shwedagon Pagoda, where he rests today, so there would be no question as to where the body was.”

Rioting broke out in response to the shootings, and the government declared martial law in Rangoon. “Nobody knows how many people were killed,” he added.

He noted, not without irony, another contrast. That while the US continued to fund, arm and train Burma’s military, communist China stood alone in its condemnation of the atrocities.

It would take another 14 years for the rest of the world to sit up and take notice.

“For most people, Burma only came into view with the crackdown in 1998 and the elections in 1990. It became this contest between the democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi and the military government,” he says. “From that point of view, it is very easy to take sides. But for 20 years we have been stuck in that viewpoint. The good faith initiatives haven’t got very far, and one could argue that the government has got stronger and is more entrenched than it ever has been.”

The obvious fight between the country’s Orwellian ruling State Peace and Development Council and the democracy movement is clear, but numerous complex ethnic tensions — in a country with numerous ethnic groups — are too often overlooked.

“We have to remember though that there are not just two sides — there are over two dozen armed groups in the country, with well over 30,000 troops combined, most with ceasefire arrangements with the Burmese army, all this as well as Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy and other political parties.”

Burma’s history and multi-ethnicity make it exceptional. But it is exceptional too in the treatment it has received from the international community. While Thant said the UN and other NGOs engaged in humanitarian work, there are “unsung heroes of the last 10 years”, and he is critical of the failed diplomatic efforts.

“If you look at successive UN general assembly resolutions from 1991 onwards, they are all about the democratic transition. It is the only country in the world where there is a civil war [and yet] where the UN’s focus is not on the war. We would never go to Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Sierra Leone and say the only focus of the UN should be the democratic transition.

“The UN should have been more focused on the closing chapter in Burma’s civil war in the early ’90s. The issues of just peace, disarmament, demobilisation, ethnic grievances and also the army’s own concerns of sovereignty. Not to do so was a massive failure.”

Thant looked back to the time after the 1988 crackdown, when, as a recent Harvard graduate, he spent months on the Thai-Burma border with students who had fled the violence. In Bangkok, where he lived in the 1970s, he raised funds for food and medicine for them, helping others to gain refugee status or secure safe passage to the US.

Armed insurgency was never the answer for him, but he did believe that sanctions were. In the US, through his work with Human Rights Watch, he was instrumental in setting up the first “round table” on Burma in Washington in 1989, and lobbied for US senators to implement sanctions.

“At first, I thought a really tough position by the US would make all the difference. I started doubting that by 1992,” he said. He joined the UN Secretariat in 1992, where he became an expert on humanitarian affairs and threat assessment, leaving in 1996 after receiving his PhD in history from Cambridge University. Most recently, he has been a visiting fellow at both Harvard University and the International Peace Academy in New York.

However, he considers his best contribution to understanding Burma is his book, The River of Lost Footsteps, named after the poem by Rudyard Kipling, who visited Burma in the late 1880s while the UK was fighting a protracted anti-guerrilla campaign after its annexation of the kingdom. Kipling listened to stories of how British soldiers had gone upriver and died in the fighting. “He described the Irrawaddy River as the river of lost footsteps because a lot of English people went up and never came down,” said Thant. “I thought it was a nice way to talk about Burma’s lost history, in general.”

In it, he traces its history back 3,500 years, to a time preceding the kingdom of Taguan. He presents the country as a cultural melting pot, a crossroads between the East and West where Buddhist kings would wear Mughal robes and stamp Islamic inscriptions on their coins.

“Burma was once a very cosmopolitan place. Contrary to nationalist views, it was never this pure country of just Burmese Buddhist people surrounded by different minority groups.”

Historically, he puts the UK’s 1885 annexation of Burma, when King Thibaw was toppled and the whole administrative apparatus dismantled, as a watershed event. He said if the country had entered the 20th century with the monarchy disempowered but intact, it may have coped better with other transitions.

Independence in 1946 was the second major transition. He cites the inability of successive governments, military or otherwise, to build a multi-ethnic, multicultural concept of Burmese identity as “the single biggest failure of successive Burmese elites since independence”.

In the face of such complexity, the international community needs a complex policy to deal with Burma. Total focus on democratic transition without looking at the deeper issues is unlikely to succeed, said Thant, pointing out that last September’s massive protests were triggered by monks demonstrating against severe economic conditions.

“As a military government, the junta sees itself as the protector of national security. It is not particularly concerned with the outside world and all of its systems are designed to cope with isolation. So, the international community needs to do some creative thinking on this.

“The other thing that has changed significantly is the increasing influence of China in Burma, especially economically. Even if you took away the other arguments against sanctions, you would still have the strongest argument, which is that sanctions only really means Western sanctions and for every company that withdraws or Western government that refuses to trade, China will fill the hiatus. I cannot see how that in any way supports the cause of democracy in the country.”

Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Thant Myint-U is determined that unlike its past, Burma’s future will not be lost in time.

Tags: Bangkok Post · books · interviews

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