Delving into the hidden history of Burma

Delving into the hidden history of Burma

The complex history and politics of Burma (Myanmar) – as told through different sub-stories in a pulsating pace makes a new book that has just been published a compelling read for all.

“The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century” by Thant Myint U is published by Juggernaut Books, New Delhi, India. 

As a master story-teller, Thant Myint U, identifies the intersections of politics of identities, perceived anxieties, conflict, democratic aspirations and modes of economic appropriation, through personal narratives, as a part insider and outsider of the system. The canvas is wide - giving a kaleidoscopic view of the history as well as intricate detail and inside stories of the trajectory of change and transition that the country has witnessed during the past twenty years.  

Spread in nine chapters, the account sometimes touches the personal chord of the author and also brings out the despair and exhaustion of the actors that shaped the events, decisions and outcomes. It is a story with a right mix of optimism or silver lining, in an otherwise dark saga of an un-finished nation-building project. Some of the myths and stereotypical understanding of Burma were dethroned or challenged through persuasive explanations and alternative propositions.

Contemporary history of Myanmar is replete with intrigue and suspended disbelief, especially for those who followed the country’s democratic transition from 2011 reforms set out by the then quasi-military leadership led by Thein Sein’s government.  Did the western sanctions work on the military regime? Was this change of heart – reform process- due to sanctions? Was it a coincidence of several factors that fall in place neatly.  The events that cover reform period and up until 2015 elections in Myanmar that brought the NLD to power is a narrative that attempts to bring an analytical understanding of the actions, actors and their motives.  There were several false ‘alarms’ or ‘hopes’ that all is going to be well, but as the adage goes - ‘the past is catching up with the present’ – the country was falling prey to renewed anxieties and insecurities that the diverse communities felt and they were reflected in terms of challenges and crises one after another. 

Most recent events, viz., the Rohingya crisis, have brought down the iconic status conferred on the champion of democracy viz., Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.  Where did the country go wrong? Why did the fairytale democratic transition falter? What is this all about? And why have divergent perspectives emerged on issues of identity, race, religious plurality and ethnic strife? To what extent have the contemporary competitive politics contributed to this?

For Thant Myint U, scholar-historian and former UN official with vast experience, answers to a larger extent lie in the colonial legacy which left fault lines in terms of race, ethnicity and religion. ‘Burma’s story takes place under the long shadow of a particularly brutal and destructive British colonialism’ (p.5). The new world of Burma, of the 21st century, has to be understood particularly from this vantage of colonial-era policies. Identities shaped during the colonial period, perceptions created of the ‘other’ have cast a long shadow of anxieties and insecurities among all communities throughout the modern history of the country.

For many in the west, Burma at the turn of the century has meant a binary view - of a pro-democracy movement on one side represented by ‘the lady’ under house arrest, facing a repressive and ruthless military junta on the other. The NLD symbolized a revolutionary movement and for 20 years Daw Aung San Suu Kyi became an icon of democracy across the world. ‘Burma was for the united nations and the west, the signature democracy project of the 1990s and 2000s’.

How did the 2011 reforms fan out? What were the motivations? This complex story of ‘reforms’ needs to be understood from the inside thinking of the then Generals, especially Gen Than Shwe who was at the helm of affairs for a long time. In the backdrop of Arab Spring, a hybrid constitutional arrangement with the presence of military and elected (civilian) representatives in the government and parliament was devised and this was to be seen as a compromise that would facilitate the easing of sanctions and provides a sustainable arrangement for the military establishment to hold on to power.  Author Thant Myint U identifies this as a critical factor in rolling out of the democratic reforms – under the Thein Sein leadership and in a strange coincidence (alignment of stars!), this was reciprocated in the form of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD’s participation in by-elections (2012). 

Visits of President Obama and Hillary Clinton have provided necessary supplication that opened the flood gates of reforms and easing of sanctions.  Removal of pre-censorship, allowing a free press, easing of restrictions on political activities, leading up to the 2015 elections and power transfer, all reflect the success of the story of democratic transition. All these were results of carefully calibrated actions of a few individuals who steered the processes often going out of the script and ensuring forward movement of the reform agenda. Above all, the reforms were under the restrictive 2008 Constitution and any attempt to address constitutional reforms is fraught with the danger of push back from the military.

The fallout of such a transition, while to some extent been positive, it exposed the underbelly of Myanmar’s identity politics to the fore. The colonial fault lines and anxieties of Burmese ethnic population were stoked and politics based on identity were to play a significant role in terms of the hardening of ‘nationalist’ feelings among the Burmese majority and ‘othering’ of ethnic and religious minorities.  These were dealt with by the author in a more dispassionate way, as the underlying causes date back to the colonial era. The policies of ‘divide and rule’ of the colonial regime, racial ordering of the society, have accentuated the differences and nation-building project remained in a way an unfinished agenda. It is interesting to note that colonial rulers of British India (in which Burma was a province until 1938) had encouraged migration of a population (Indians from other provinces like Bengal and Madras) for its exploitative enterprise and left behind the scars of partition in the form of ethnic, racial and religious strife (pp 17-19). 

The ‘native sentiment’ of preferential treatment towards national races and discriminatory practices towards ‘others’ (alien races) was seen as the seed for ethnic and religious strife in Arakan and elsewhere in the country since 1948. Popular perceptions and constitutional sanction to this formed the crux of discrimination and disenfranchisement of sections of people in the democratic process and has led to ethnic and religious strife, in the form of episodic violence of different intensities during 2016-8.  Treatment of this part of the history by Thant Myint U is very incisive as he brings out the complex interplay of language, culture, identity (self-declaration) and the perceptions of the dominant community towards the others.  The communal flare-up witnessed in Arakan, the plight of Muslims (self-identified as Rohingya Muslims) and the response of the military and the optics of these events, have all been dealt through this prism by the author.

The role of western countries (scholars and diplomats) in this quagmire need to be located through these sets of contesting narratives of what constitutes a national race, who are the others, historical and colonial legacies and popular perceptions and myths.  Nationalist sentiments and religious extremism and concomitant violence and perceptions - all received significant click bytes in social media echo chambers which have exacerbated the knotty problem further. 

Is there a way out? While the author provides detailed treatment of these issues interspersing personal narratives, the epilogue of the book provides an insightful ‘out of the box’ way of looking at issues and problems and what is required is a ‘project of the imagination’ that would bring in accommodation of diversity of the country and celebrating it as its strength. Conversations with dispassionate treatment to history are the need of the hour.

Be that as it may, the other complex area of recent past is the conflict, peace and national reconciliation processes. This story is mired with suspicion, lack of vision and exasperation of the contending parties.  There was really never a stop for conflict in Myanmar since 1948. Displacement of millions of people and hardship for ordinary people reflected the unfinished agenda of nation-building. The author traces the genesis of these in a fast-paced narrative – bilateral ceasefires, the NCA and the 21st-century Panglong peace conferences - and addresses the root causes and the political economy of the war industry that benefits different ethnic armed groups with self-interest as well as the Myanmar military. 

The role of external players, particularly of the interests of China in this theatre of ethnic strife is important to acknowledge in the ultimate analysis. Apart from political ambitions of ethnic organisations, a complex web of economic interests including illicit activities of drug trafficking, income from extractives and extortions of different types have their role to play in sustaining the enterprise of ethnic conflict. Numerous militias promoted by different stakeholders testify this reality (chapter 7).

According to the author, bigger political economy questions are to be probed further in order to understand contemporary Burmese politics. Four decades of military rule and subsequent opening up of the economy has not dismantled the old economic order, but rather it propelled and sustained the complex web of business links and networks across a diverse spectrum of the elites cutting across ethnic and racial lines. Dismantling of the socialist system and the embracing of the so-called free-market economy has not led to emergence of institutions that offer a level playing field, regulating the markets, rather an opaque system of decision-making emerged wherein ‘cronies’ (those business groups identified closer to the ruling elite) ruled the roost, cornering a large chunk of economic and business opportunities. Continued isolation and sanctions have actually benefited such elite capture of the state apparatus.

This has in fact led to the decoupling of the country’s’ economy with the rest of the world thereby the economic thinking remains in a time warp.  Very little has been done on the social policy front and the poor were left to fend themselves. Land grants, import licenses, mining licenses, public contracts, and concessions were offered through discretionary powers of the ruling elite to select few. This system continued well into the NLD government period, though economic policy reforms formed one of the agendas of the government. Policy inertia, lack of capacities and weak institutions are identified as some of the reasons for such a situation.

How does one see the future? Solutions of democracy and free markets are seen as default prescriptions by many for an ill-equipped society (p.257).  Peace was perceived as the absence of war. Given that race and identity are at the heart of Burmese politics for over one hundred years, ‘Any brighter future will depend on Burma crafting a new and more inclusive identity, one not tied to race and one not based on a notion of uniting fixed ethnic categories’ (p.256). Challenging and conversing on the economic and social policies that work for a majority and the type of capitalism that is required would also address issues of economic exploitation, rising inequality and the impact of climate change on the society.  

As the epilogue of the book points out, the need of the hour is to build an inclusive people-centric vision and programme for the country that would save it from the risk of becoming a failed state. It would mean moving away from combustible elements of race and inequality – and ‘embracing diversity, natural environment and aspirations for a new way of life’ (p.258). This, indeed, is an appeal that is worth consideration by one and all.