Force of Burmese his­tory

The River of Lost Foot­steps By Thant Myint- U Faber & Faber, 361pp, $ 59.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Sian Pow­ell

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

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