Myanmar, or Burma, has been in the news for some time now. For the first time in decades, the military rulers who had usurped power in Rangoon have announced a timetable for restoration of democracy. They said that they will hold a national referendum on a new constitution in May this year and follow that up with elections in 2010. It would seem that massive street protests in September last year followed up by intensive international pressure have had their result, surprising though it may seem.
Myanmar hasn'thad a general election since eighteen years; like Pakistani generals, Myanmar'sgenerals have made vague pledges to restore democracy but have not kept their promises. How did this come to pass? What is Mynmar'shistory? Why is this country completely out of world attention?
There are few books on Mynmar. One of the focused studies on Myanmar in recent times is provided by the quarterly Dialogue (July-September 2007) published by Astha Bharati, a New Delhi-based publication which has two articles, one on Coming to terms with Myanmar and another on Indo-Myanmar Trade but they are focused on two contemporary issues.
What The River of Lost Footsteps does is to provide the larger picture of Myanmar down the centuries. Its author, Thant Myint-U happens to be the grandson of U Thant, a former Secretary General of the United Nations from his mother'sside. On his father'sside, he is a descendant of a long line of courtiers who served at Burma'sCourt of Ava for nearly two centuries. The author himself has been a senior executive at the UN and worked for peace-keeping operations in Cambodia and was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge and Harvard and can be considered an authority on the history of his country.
He describes his book as ?histories? of Burma, one believes deliberately. Indeed, Mynmar has had several ?histories?. Time was when Burma had close links with China, India and Tibet, when envoys from Rome travelled through Burma to discover the markets of Han China, when, in the 16th century, Portuguese pirates, Japanese renegade Samurai and Persian Princes jockeyed for power at the Court of Arakan, when in the first Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-26, the East India Company'ssteamships fired rockets at the elephants and poorly armed musketeers of the King of Ava.
Reading this book can make sensitive Asians, be he a Burmese, a Sri Lankan or an Indian?but more especially an Indian?weep. To read how the Burmese king surrendered to the British?the British thugs were almost at the front of the king'spalace, and military resistance seemed out of question, one is reminded of the fate of Delhi'sBahadur Shah Zafar. Writes the author; ?For the ten thousand Buddhist monks who lived in and around the capital (Mandaly), occupation by a non-Buddhist power was almost impossible to comprehend. Mandaly was the centre of religious life in Burma? all of a sudden their patron was gone and an entire system of higher education and religious training collapsed overnight.? As in India, so in Burma, British arrogance was unbelievable. The Commander of the British forces, a barbarian, no doubt, was to write: ?The in-born conceit, light heartedness and impulsiveness of the Burmese rendered them impervious to salutary impressions of that kind? and that ?neither their religion nor their temperament permit me to suspect their impartiality?. Shades of Macaulay who had contempt for Indian culture. Burmese rebels were mowed down, just as, during 1857, British soldiers captured and hanged Indian rebels on trees. Writes the author: ?Colonial magistrates were granted wide-ranging powers?and dozens of villages were simply burnt to the ground. Summary executions, sometimes by the half-dozens or more became routine as did the public flogging of captured guerrillas. In at least one case a suspected resistance leader was tortured in public.? British bestiality was at its height. One patriot, talking like Bhagat Singh said, as he walked to the gallows: ?We Burmese are finished and it would be better to be dead than be their slaves.?
Writes the author: ?A generation of young aristocrats were among those killed in the fighting of the late 1880s.? Thant Myint traces the history of Burma from ancient times?and sometimes it reads so like the history of India with its quarrelling princes, its dynasties, the discovery of copper and bronze, iron-working settlements, a good 2,500 years ago, which saw even the perfection of complex irrigation systems and walled cities, Burmese tradition says that two Burmese merchants traveled to India, met the Buddha by chance, offered him rice cakes and honey and the eight hairs of this that Buddha gave them in return are enshrined to this day in Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma'sholiest of shrines. The author thereafter traces Burma'shistory down the centuries till British thugs under the guise of merchants came upon the scene and what transpired thereafter. Burma at one time was part of the British South Asian empire. One must remember that the last Indian ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar had been forced to live in Burma. That part of this life is fully recounted here. Burma attracted Indian traders whose presence, says the author ?transformed daily life?.
But for the British, Burma was a backwater with a reputation for being a country ?for rest and recreation?. British Residents kept Burmese mistresses, no doubt for recreation. The 1930'swere Burma? s formative years of politics. Then came the Second World War and the Japanese invasion. In the summer of 1943 Japan formally granted Burma what really was ?a sham independence?. The last days of the British raj makes inviting reading. We come to know of Aung San, now a legendary figure, and what he did for the liberation of his country, until he was shot dead. That by itself is a tragic story. Sadly the author notes: ?Independent Burma would soon enter this world with several of its key leaders, including its national hero, dead?.? What followed is dictatorship and isolation.
The author is pessimistic about the future. He writes: ?There are no easy options, no quick fixes, no grand strategies that will create democracy in Burma overnight or even more several years?.? Depressing thought, and one can only hope that he is wrong in his predictions. Burma deserves better than its local military dictators. The author'scondemnation of the military rulers makes sense. Burma has isolated itself for over 30 years. The Burmese feel trapped. But surely real freedom is not far away, Gen. Ne Win is dead. Aung San Sun Kyi is still around. And let us remember the lines which said: The darkest hour is before down. As the poet Arthus Clough put it: Say not the struggle naught availath. And nothing is permanent, not even vicious dictatorship.
In this matter, there arises one thought: Can'tIndia help? Surely it can. It has to offer scholarships to Burmese students in its universities and offer unconditioned help and assistance to Burma. Good will is never lost and may one day be repaid by a grateful people, who should be given an opportunity to see that India can be an deal model for all its faults.
(faber & faber, 3 Queen Square, London WCIN 3AU)
(The book is marketed in India by Penguin Books India (P) Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017.)