[Marxism] ‘The Hidden History of Burma’ Traces the Vanishing of Hope

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Nov 20 09:50:37 MST 2019

NY Times, Nov. 20, 2019
‘The Hidden History of Burma’ Traces the Vanishing of Hope
By Jennifer Szalai

The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of 
Democracy in the 21st Century
By Thant Myint-U
288 pages. W. W. Norton & Company. $27.95.

Thant Myint-U has titled his reflective and illuminating new book “The 
Hidden History of Burma,” even though he gently suggests that the 
country’s past wasn’t so much obscured as it was hiding in plain sight. 
For decades, especially after a ruthless crackdown on pro-democracy 
protestors in 1988, Burma had drawn international ire for the brutal 
rule of its military junta, which for a time went by the 
grotesque-sounding acronym SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration 
Council). Against the depredations of the dictatorship stood the 
charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi: a tireless civilian advocate for democracy 
who spoke consistently of hope, enduring years of detention and house 
arrest with a serene smile and a flower in her hair.

Her public image weighed heavily in the international community’s 
imagination, which was decidedly more familiar with the morality play of 
“The Lady Versus the Generals” than with the longer history of Burma. 
That history proved to be stubborn and consequential — its effects only 
aggravated by how much its convolutions were simplified or ignored.

“In the early 2010s,” Thant Myint-U writes, “Burma was the toast of the 
world.” (The junta had changed the country’s name in English to 
“Myanmar” in 1989; a prefatory note explains why this was an 
“ethno-nationalist” move — the equivalent of Germany demanding that 
English speakers refer to it as “Deutschland.”) The generals seemed to 
be ceding power, the country seemed to be ending its long isolation, 
tourism seemed to be on the rise; a number of rebel groups signed 
cease-fires, and in 2015 the National League for Democracy, led by Aung 
San Suu Kyi, won enough seats in the country’s first free elections in a 
generation to form a government.

By 2018, that hopefulness had all but vanished. The year before, the 
Burmese military had unleashed a scorched-earth campaign against the 
Rohingya Muslim minority, with more than 700,000 refugees fleeing across 
the border to Bangladesh. During the military dictatorship, the world 
had grown accustomed to looking to Aung San Suu Kyi for moral guidance, 
but once in government as Burma’s de facto leader she sprang to the 
defense of the military that had previously detained her. Speaking to 
The Washington Post, she denied reports of army-perpetrated atrocities 
including infanticide and gang rape, dismissing them as mere 
“rigmarole.” (Last week, Gambia filed a lawsuit at the International 
Court of Justice in The Hague accusing Burma of genocide.)

A recent article for The Atlantic by Ben Rhodes, who served as a foreign 
policy adviser to President Barack Obama, bore the title “What Happened 
to Aung San Suu Kyi?,” conveying a sense of bewilderment, as if a switch 
had been flipped. What Thant Myint-U argues is that the conditions for 
the current situation were already in place — less a flipped switch than 
a lit fuse.

He writes briskly about Burma’s history as part of the British Raj, when 
colonial officials were flummoxed by what one of them called the “racial 
instability” of the region, where distinctions, the official complained, 
were “neither definite, nor logical, nor permanent, nor easy to detect.” 
Under colonialism, classifications cleaved and hardened, as British 
administrators insisted on dividing the regional people into “native” 
(or “indigenous”) and “alien” types.

The book’s focus is on the convulsions of the last 15 years, from a 
seemingly unshakable military dictatorship to the beginnings of 
democratic rule, but examining the legacy of Burma’s colonial past is 
crucial to grasping what’s happened more recently. Aung San Suu Kyi may 
have been venerated as a democracy activist and a human rights icon, but 
Thant Myint-U suggests she’s better understood as a Burmese nationalist. 
He cites an essay she wrote in the 1980s, before she became involved in 
politics, in which she described Indian and Chinese immigrants acquiring 
“a stranglehold on the Burmese economy” and “striking at the very roots 
of Burmese manhood and racial purity.”

It’s not so much a gotcha moment as a plea for a deeper understanding in 
what turns out to be a learned yet also intimate book. Thant Myint-U has 
long studied the country, as both an insider and an outsider; his 
grandfather, U Thant, was born in colonial Burma and later became the 
secretary general of the United Nations. After the military crushed the 
pro-democracy uprising of 1988, Thant Myint-U supported aggressive 
sanctions against the junta regime, only to reverse himself when he 
realized that boycotts and aid restrictions were harming the ordinary 
people they were supposed to help.

He tries to nudge readers away from getting too fixated on messianic 
solutions. Democracy was a preoccupation among the junta’s critics, but 
the country wasn’t quite prepared for how a competitive political system 
might work — especially one where the peace process itself entrenched a 
belief in the existence of fixed ethnic groups. Protecting minority 
rights, such as those of the Rohingya Muslims, has proved to be an 
unpopular proposition among the Buddhist majority; it’s been much easier 
to rile up voters with rank appeals to identity. As Thant Myint-U puts 
it, “fear and intolerance” offer convenient cover for opportunists 
seeking to hide a “failure of the imagination.”

Combined with this whipping up of virulent nativist sentiment has been a 
headlong plunge into free markets, as Burma lurched from being one of 
the poorest and most isolated countries in Asia to another aspirant on 
the capitalist world stage. Thant Myint-U acknowledges the real economic 
gains that have been made over the past decade — a growing middle class, 
a new kind of self-made entrepreneur unconnected to the cronyism of the 
old regime — but he also notes that Burma is still a very poor country 
where extreme inequality and attendant anxieties have flourished. A 
population buffetted by economic upheaval and climate change is 
especially prone to paranoia. He’s skeptical of what neoliberalism 
offers, even in a best-case scenario: “Relentless environmental 
destruction and congested cities, compensated for only by the 
opportunity for lots of shopping. Is this really the only future possible?”

“The Hidden History of Burma” is an urgent book about a heavy subject, 
but Thant Myint-U, whose previous work includes the marvelous “The River 
of Lost Footsteps,” a mixture of memoir and history, is a writer with a 
humane sensibility and a delicate yet pointed touch. He observes that 
for all of Aung San Suu Kyi’s soaring rhetoric before she ascended to 
power, “her instincts were deeply conservative.” A telling anecdote has 
her conducting a discussion with a group of university graduates in 
2018, in which she elected to talk not about the Rohingya, or the peace 
process, or democracy, but about novels. She asked the group what was 
more important: plot or character?

Follow Jennifer Szalai on Twitter: @jenszalai.

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