Force of Burmese history
The River of Lost Footsteps By Thant Myint- U Faber & Faber, 361pp, $ 59.95
WHO better to write about Burma? Thant Myint- U is uniquely qualified to peer into the murky depths of that benighted nation, where mad generals sit in a capital carved from the jungle and thousands of monks risk their lives to march for peace and freedom.
The grandson of one- time UN secretarygeneral U Thant, Myint- U comes from a long line of Burmese aristocrats. Educated at Harvard and Trinity College, Cambridge, he has a scholar’s detached and objective view of the broad current of events. Yet as a son of Burma he has seen the misery up close, spending a year working with refugees on the Burma- Thai border.
In The River of Lost Footsteps , Myint- U twines a tendril of his family story around the fractured and blood- spattered modern history of Burma: from mad King Thibaw, who married his halfsister and ordered dozens of his siblings murdered, to mad General Than Shwe, who deposed and arrested his predecessor Khin Nyunt and recently ordered a brutal crackdown on the marching monks and their supporters.
Myint- U has a general and personal interest in Burma’s fate, and an insight into the personalities that will shape the nation’s future. He knows, for instance, the Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the staunch democrat locked up by the state for a total of nearly 12 years.
As a young woman, Suu Kyi was accustomed to visiting U Thant’s family compound in New York, where Myint- U lived as a child ( the book includes a photo of her, looking about 15, with Myint- U’s mother). Later, Myint- U remembers visiting Suu Kyi in Oxford, where she lived with her husband and children.
Yet although he obviously admires Suu Kyi, and salutes her courage and resolution, Myint- U disagrees with her idea of punishing the junta with a tourism boycott and, on the same basis, takes issue with European Union and US sanctions. Sanctions and boycotts don’t work and won’t work in Burma, he says. The Burmese military can rely on vast natural gas fields for hard cash, ignore Western imprecations and sink ever deeper into itself. Only the heady air of the outside world can begin to effect change in Burma and even then it will be a glacial process.
Myint- U adopts a lighter tone for Burma’s earlier history; he enjoys the doleful Thibaw, who was deposed by the British and sent off to live in India. An unlucky king, he was later the central figure in Amitav Ghosh’s mesmeric historical novel The Glass Palace .
He is tough on Britain, writing that the colonists were usually happy to reap profits while permitting puppet rulers to sit on their thrones. But Britain took a different tack with Burma and in 1824 war was declared on the Burmese Court of Ava.
Britain saw Burma as a placid outpost of India and few Britons other than George Orwell chose to be stationed in the smaller and less glamorous colony. But a desire for independence began to stir in the 1920s, ushering the ‘‘ strangely attractive oddball’’ Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father, into the limelight.
Myint- U is good at delivering a broad sweep of history enlivened with fascinating cameos. When Winston Churchill’s confidant Duff Cooper visited Burma to gauge the possibility of a Japanese invasion, his wife, Lady Diana Cooper, took more than 100 pieces of baggage. Within months of Cooper’s reassuring report, Japan invaded Burma. Burma’s independence activists, including Aung San, saw the invasion as a way to finally topple the British colonists. Churchill, meanwhile, diverted the Australian Sixth and Seventh Divisions — on their way home from the Middle East — to Burma, an order famously overruled by prime minister John Curtin.
Myint- U is excellent, too, explaining the complexities of Burma and how most of the nation’s biggest problems stem from the nearly bloodless military coup of 1962. Professional bureaucrats were sacked, industries and businesses were nationalised, the foreigners were booted out, including nearly 400,000 ethnic Indians. Burma has never recovered.
In 1974 U Thant died and his family, including the eight- year- old Myint- U, accompanied his body to Burma for burial. Yet the mad General Ne Win’s hatred of U Thant delayed matters for days. Students twice stole the coffin and took it to Rangoon University where they lauded U Thant as a hero and demanded a state funeral. The coffin was eventually retrieved by the army, using tear gas.
Ne Win, bizarre beyond belief, was the tyrant who introduced a currency divisible by nine — which Myint- U remarks made shopping an interesting mathematical exercise — who worked through years of therapy with an Austrian psychiatrist and who married Yadana Nat Mai, also known as June Rose Bellamy, the product of a union between a Burmese princess and an Australian bookie. Many prayed for his death, expecting better things once he was gone. But after Ne Win finally died in 2002 very little changed and Burma trudged on, a militaristic anachronism in the modern world.
The River of Lost Footsteps is filled with accounts, occasionally first- hand, of the often warring ethnic minorities — the Kachin, the Shans, the Karens, the Was — and the disastrous protests of 1988 that left nearly 3000 demonstrators and supporters dead.
The Burma disaster is enormous, overwhelming and appalling beyond belief for the ordinary Burmese, whose lives are tragically blighted by a mad regime. Pessimistic about Burma’s future, Myint- U insists there are ‘‘ no easy options, no quick fixes, no grand strategies that will create democracy in Burma overnight, or even over several years’’. Yet it’s clear he wants the process to start, no matter the effort involved and no matter how long it takes.
Military madness: General Than Shwe salutes during ceremonies marking Burma’s Armed Forces day in March this year