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Alienated nation

June 16th, 2008 · No Comments

Historian Thant Myint-U tells Greg Lowe why the international community must change its tactics on the question of Myanmar

Myanmar’s military government shocked the world when it chose to let its people die rather than allow foreign aid workers enter its storm-damaged interior.

And the horrors will continue until constructive engagement with the junta – which must involve rolling back sanctions – takes place, argues Myanmar historian, former humanitarian worker and author of The River of Lost Footsteps, Thant Myint-U.

Thant, with his close personal connection to the country and its politics, believes the fact that essential international assistance was blocked for more than two weeks after cyclone Nargis left at least 100,000 people dead, and more than two million in dire need of aid, proves the international community must change tactics.

“The cost of [the former] Burma’s isolation from the rest of the world, with the mentalities and world views this perpetuates, is becoming too high. I think more than ever the international community needs to review urgently all of its policies towards Burma,” he says.

Understanding the perspective of the military rulers – that any foreign intervention is a national security risk – is essential. “Their [the junta’s] overwhelming priority is to make sure they have control over any situation. The idea of thousands of foreigners moving around independently inside the country, during a crisis, is pretty much their ultimate nightmare scenario.”

For Thant, Myanmar is a unique country, for its cultural and ethnic diversity, for having the world’s longest-running civil war and for the diplomatic community’s response to its brutal government.

“Successive United Nations resolutions from 1991 onwards are all about democracy transition. It’s the only country in the world with a civil war where the UN focus is not on the war,” he says. “We would never go to Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Sierra Leone and say the only focus should be regime change.”

Thant worked as a humanitarian officer with the UN in Cambodia, Croatia and Bosnia and for the organisation’s Department of Political Affairs, where he advised on issues such as counter-terrorism and post-conflict peace building. He was a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, for four years, teaching modern history.

Born in New York in 1966, he spent his early life in his maternal grandfather U-Thant’s home. U-Thant was a formidable political actor in what was then Burma. He was instrumental in U Nu’s post-colonial government, which was ousted by General Ne Win in 1962. He served as Burmese ambassador to the UN and was twice UN secretary-general. He died from lung cancer in November 1974.

Thant first visited the country a month later when his grandfather’s body was taken home. Although Rangoon [today’s Yangon] was locked down by Ne Win, who was jealous of U-Thant’s popularity, thousands lined the streets in respect. University students took the body, demanding a full state funeral for U-Thant.

Exhibiting what would become typical behaviour, the army lost patience and stormed the campus, raining down automatic fire on the protesters.

“My introduction to Burma as a country was Burma in crisis,” says Thant. “To this day nobody knows how many people they killed.”

At the time, while the US continued to fund, arm and train the country’s military dictatorship, communist China was the only country to express outrage.

Myanmar drifted into obscurity until the army cracked down on the pro-democracy movement in 1988 and 1990. Since then a simple political paradigm has existed: Aung San Suu Kyi and the pro-democracy movement good; junta bad. “From that point of view it is very easy to take sides,” says Thant. “But for 20 years we have been stuck with that perspective and all the good-faith initiatives haven’t got very far. One could argue the government is stronger and more entrenched than it ever has been.”

However, this monochrome lens through which the world views Myanmar, and the country views itself, is nothing new. The River of Lost Footsteps is in part Thant’s attempt to address this fact.

It covers 3,500 years of history, emphasising how the British annexation of the country in 1885 marked a watershed. He catalogues how the colonial regime dismantled the monarchy, destroying its administrative power base and replacing it with an extension of the Raj, undermining the country’s capacity for self-rule. The point was demonstrated by the internal disarray that followed independence in 1946.

Thant also brings to light post-independence Myanmar’s own denial of its rich past. This was a country where Buddhist kings wore Mughal robes and minted gold coins with Islamic inscriptions; more than 300 ethnic groups coexisted in relative peace.

“If there has been one single failure of successive Burmese elites since independence, whether under democratic or military government, it is their inability to imagine themselves living in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society,” says Thant.

A false nationalist concept of a country full of pure Buddhist Myanmar people surrounded by ethnic minorities has infected politics on both sides of the spectrum, he believes. “Until that ends you won’t see an end to conflict and you won’t see an end to military rule.”

The book also shows how, in modern times, the military destroyed the country’s remaining administrative apparatus, wilfully withdrawing from the world under Ne Win’s Burmese Way to Socialism and creating systems in which its power could thrive in the face of isolation.

This is where economic liberalisation offers opportunities after other initiatives have failed, says Thant. “If you ask the military to enact economic policy changes in return for the lifting of sanctions so Burma can compete with its neighbours, they won’t have an answer to that.

“Who knows what they will do, but you would at least be appealing to elements in the army who want to see the country grow as an economy.” In that situation, he says, the government would have to allow civil society to manage aspects of the economy, gradually eroding the military’s dominance.

Thant also points out that last year’s demonstrations were sparked off by monks protesting about the country’s deteriorating economy.

“The other thing is the increasing influence of China. For every company that withdraws or western government that refuses to trade, China fills the breach,” says Thant. “I cannot see how that in any way supports the cause of democracy in the country.”

The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U (Faber & Faber, HK$160)

First published in South China Morning Post, June 15, 2008

Tags: books · features · interviews · SCMP

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