Myanmar historian Thant Myint-U receives Indian Padma Shri award

29 March 2018
Myanmar historian Thant Myint-U receives Indian Padma Shri award
Dr. Thant Myint-U. Photo: Hong Sar for Mizzima

Thant Myint-U author and founder and chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust has won one India’s prestigious Padma Shri Award. The award ceremony will be held in New Delhi on April 2.
The Padma Awards, one of the highest civilian Awards of the country, are conferred in three categories, namely, Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri. The Awards are given in various disciplines and fields of activities, including art, social work, public affairs, science and engineering, trade and industry, medicine, literature and education, sports, and civil service. ‘Padma Vibhushan’ is awarded for exceptional and distinguished service; ‘Padma Bhushan’ for distinguished service of high order and ‘Padma Shri’ for distinguished service in any field. The awards are announced on the occasion of India’s Republic Day every year.
Dr Thant Myint-U was awarded the Padma Shri for Public Affairs. In the following interview with Mizzima, Dr Thant Myint-U discusses the award and his work.
You have been awarded India's prestigious Padma Shri Award. Could you tell us about it and what it is in recognition of?
The Padma Shri is one of India’s highest civilian awards. I was deeply humbled to receive this award. I believe the award is in recognition of my public service both in Myanmar and internationally over these past decades as well as my efforts to further India-Myanmar relations.
What is the main focus of your work nowadays?
My main focus should be my new book, but I am having trouble finding the time to write! It will be a book on Myanmar from the mid-2000s to the present. I am also chairman of U Thant House. U Thant House started as a museum dedicated to the life and work of U Thant [the late Myanmar statesman and Thant Myint-U’s grandfather], but is becoming more a centre for the discussion of the many different issues that were important to him, from peace to the environment to development to human rights.  We have talks and private seminars almost every month, including with visiting dignitaries like [former UN Secretary General] Kofi Annan. This year we’ll be starting an education programme there for young people. In addition, I’m a Founding Partner in an advisory firm that works with international organizations and businesses.
What are the main priorities of the Yangon Heritage Trust at the moment?
YHT was founded six years ago. Our main achievement has been to stop the planned demolition of dozens of historic buildings in downtown Yangon and begin a process of renovation. We have provided technical assistance to nearly 100 renovation projects; launched a Blue Plaques programme to recognize historic buildings; surveyed hundreds of others; developed policy ideas for government through our “Yangon Heritage Strategy”; and I believe significantly raised the profile of urban conservation. Over US$100 million has been invested in renovation efforts these past years. I firmly believe that combining conservation and modernization is the best path to Yangon’s future prosperity. I myself will be stepping down as chairman of YHT, though I will continue to help as possible. I think it’s important for any organization not to be dependent on one person, and we already have a very good team of dedicated staff in place.
There is clearly logic in strengthened ties given Myanmar and India's shared history. But relations over the last half a century have not always been plain sailing. Why is this?
It’s impossible to separate the deep history of India and Myanmar. The two countries share histories literally going back to time immemorial. We have as well the shared history of colonial occupation and anti-colonial resistance. Since independence there have been periods of frosty relations, such as in the early 1990s when New Delhi took a strong position on the side of emerging pro-democracy forces in Myanmar, but on the whole, state-to-state relations have been very friendly and often very close. I think though that Indian and Myanmar people are far less familiar with one another than in the recent and distant past; the bonds of history and culture have been largely forgotten. I hope this can soon be corrected.  
Relations between Myanmar and India are clearly strengthening; particularly with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit last year and more emphasis on India's Act East Policy. How do you view the developments?
I think relations now are excellent and India’s Act East policy should be warmly welcomed in Myanmar. What happens next hinges to a large extent, though not entirely, on progress in Northeast India. Northeast India and Myanmar are long lost cousins, barely aware of each other, but who have so much in common, and when reacquainted will quickly forge deep connections. Northeast India like Myanmar has been wracked for decades by poverty and conflict. With progress on both sides of the border, much will be possible, with both Northeast India and Myanmar acting as bridges between the far greater population centres on either side.  That being said, Myanmar’s relations with India cannot be just about ties with the Northeast. Ties with all parts of India should be nurtured, not least places like West Bengal and south India with whom Myanmar also has had long shared histories. One relatively simple step would be to improve air connections, making travel between Yangon, Mandalay, and key Indian cities as easy as possible.
What opportunities do you see in India being more proactive with its Act East Policy? And what might be holding back a fuller engagement?
Myanmar needs to be proactive. Myanmar should not just be waiting to see what India does or proposes next and then respond. Myanmar should have its own vision based on its unique geography between India, Bangladesh, China, and ASEAN.  I see little in the way of public discussion on the many options before us. And I think this is in part because Myanmar’s knowledge of India and even of neighbouring states like Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland is so limited. There is the need for long-term vision but also a need for realism in terms of practical short-term measures. On both sides of the border are still enormous challenges, related to poverty, conflict, and state capacity.
Please can you tell us about the important role you played in Myanmar's democratic transition, from 2007 to 2011?
I left my job at the United Nations - I was head of Policy Planning in the Department of Political Affairs - in 2007 because I wanted to find a way to help in Myanmar. This was during the dark days of military dictatorship when it seemed like very little change was likely. I realized quite quickly however that though the transition to the planned new constitutional set-up would not lead directly to democracy, it would be the biggest shake-up of power in recent decades and would be a unique opportunity for positive change.  
I believed that those who wanted to see a more democratic, prosperous, and peaceful Myanmar needed to strategize properly and not allow what would be a short-window of opportunity to slip away. Between 2007 and 2011 I made dozens of trips to Yangon, Nay Pyi Taw, and capitals around the world, including Washington, Tokyo, Delhi, Beijing, London, Brussels, Canberra and Oslo. I wanted to make sure that the international community responded skillfully to any shift away from military dictatorship and encourage and support a path that would be genuinely beneficial to ordinary Burmese people. I will write much more about this period in my forthcoming book.
This included involvement in mitigating the negative effects of Cyclone Nargis, right?
Cyclone Nargis laid bare the limitations of the state and led directly to a new landscape, for Myanmar civil society organizations and for international friends who wanted urgently to address the country’s extreme poverty. I worked between 2008-2011 closely with several international organizations, including the World Bank and LIFT, the Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund, where I became a member of the board, trying to build bridges into the government, and encourage moves to provide more room for aid and assistance.
Could you also tell us about your behind the scenes role in foreign policy issues from 2011-2013?
From 2011 to 2015 I was a member of the National Economic and Social Advisory Council and a Special Adviser to the government on the peace process. I also assisted more informally with many efforts related to normalizing Myanmar’s relations with the rest of the world, in particular with the West and international bodies like the UN and the International Financial Institutions. I will write about this too much more in my new book.
We believe you have been spending a significant amount of your time involved in Myanmar's peace process. Can you tell us about this?
Between 2011-2015, I tried to help the government manage international aid to the peace process, knowing from past experience at the UN that this was both essential and very difficult. This included setting up the Peace Donor Support Group 2012, which was at best only partially successful.  I was also very much involved in a little-known effort called the “Beyond Ceasefires Initiative”.  This was an effort to support the peace process by bringing to Myanmar top people involved in other peace processes around the world. I believe it made a big difference in exposing senior figures in Myanmar’s peace process, on all sides, to lessons learned elsewhere.  We brought the most experienced UN mediators and heads of peace processes in other countries to meet with government ministers, senior army officers, leaders of Ethnic Armed Organizations, leaders of political parties and civil society organizations, in a series of carefully prepared discussions between 2012-5.
On a regional level, clearly a new version of the Great Game is underway in Asia with India concerned about growing influence by China. How do you view developments?
I wouldn’t necessarily call it a Great Game. Yes, three of Myanmar’s biggest neighbours have gone to war with one another in past decades. And yes, there are regional tensions. But there is no reason Asia must mimic the intra-European ties of a hundred years ago and every reason why all of Myanmar neighbours can and should work together to build a more prosperous region for everyone.  Myanmar’s role should not be to play a “Great Game” but instead to become a hub for regional economic and cultural ties and a site of not just regional but global cooperation.  There is absolutely no reason for Myanmar to chose one set of friends over another.  I would love to see a strategic and well informed discussion involving not just government but leaders of all ethnic minority communities on how best to take advantage – together - of Myanmar’s unique geography over the rest of the 21st century.
China is forging ahead with its One Belt One Road initiative. How do you view this project and where does Myanmar fit in this plan?
Far stronger economic ties with China can be a very good thing. Myanmar is next door to the greatest industrial revolution in human history. How to take advantage of this should be the centerpiece of thinking about the country’s economic future.  Having said that, Myanmar also needs to be savvy. It’s not about specific schemes but about a long term vision of economic relations. Myanmar needs to understand what the China market may be 15-20 years down the road and plan accordingly. My fear is that knowledge of China, like knowledge of India, is extremely limited. Also, any shift in economic ties with China may impact first and foremost the border regions, and so the nexus between this economic change and opportunities for peace building and for a more inclusive society needs to be fully mapped and discussed.
Washington's influence in Asia - and with Myanmar - appears to be waning. Why is this?
We see clearly the rise of China and of Asia generally so it’s inevitable that Washington’s power and influence in the region wanes in some way. But it shouldn’t be overemphasized. America will be a hugely important country in the region for decades to come. There’s no doubt that the Rakhine crisis has cooled relations and ended whatever fantasies may have existed in Washington of an easy transition to liberal democracy. For Myanmar it’s vitally important to maintain good relations with Washington and the West in general. Renewed isolation from the West, with Myanmar becoming the only country in the region without good access to Western markets and Western knowledge, would be an unmitigated disaster.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Myanmar is facing many challenges. There are serious issues of state capacity. But at the very heart of these challenges is a failure of the imagination. Myanmar needs a new story to tell itself and tell the world. A story that welds together the perspectives of all the country’s peoples and that looks forward to an inclusive as well as prosperous future. I don’t think this is possible without a far better understanding of Myanmar’s multi-faceted and multi-cultural history and its place in global history. We need a new project of the imagination.