By Thant Myint-U
Faber & Faber | $39.99
“PERHAPS they thought I was a government spy,” muses Thant Myint-U as he follows a group of Italians through the backstreets of a Burmese town. Shuffling along incognito, in his local attire and flip-flops, Thant delights in the spectacle of “well-heeled, middle-aged” tourists listening to the commentary of their Burmese guide speaking in “what seemed to be fluent Italian.” He speculates on what they think and tries to understand where they are coming from. As an interpreter of complex social and political situations, he is always looking to seize on the remarkable or the out-of-place, and to provide some fuller context.
Thant’s new book, Where China Meets India, is the product of purposeful wandering. He covers great distances in central and northeast Burma, in southwest China and in northeast India – he calls it “Asia through the back door,” and it is hardly a standard tourist itinerary. This is a region beset by long-running civil wars and defined, in many imaginations, by the notoriety of the “golden triangle” drug trade and the disgrace of Burma’s decades-long dictatorship. I know from hard experience that getting to many of the towns that Thant visits – obscure places like Guwahati (India), Mong La (Burma) and Ruili (China) – requires determination and stamina. But, as he also explains, there is no alternative if we are to understand the people of these borderlands.
Thant is intensely focused on contextualising the characters he meets along the way. He is preoccupied with the blending and blurring of the faces, languages and politics that define the China, India and Burma borderlands. This has sometimes amusing results. Describing his difficulty trying to “detect” some of the Burmese in a Chinese border town, he notes that “it was as if they were in disguise, making themselves indistinguishable from the locals, wearing trousers and shoes and polo shirts.” With characteristic self-awareness he states that he too, in his own way, was probably hard to pick out of the crowd.
Indeed, Thant dwells on identity and appearance in almost every chapter. In Mandalay we meet “new Chinese” who are “easy to spot, never dressed in a Burmese longyi (as many of the Burma-born Chinese were), but instead wearing the somewhat baggy, Western-style clothes of modern China.” He describes “women with Himalayan faces” and “Burmese ruffians… sunburnt… looking wild and uncertain,” and even notes that “a European strain” was “sometimes visible,” the product of colonial-era genes.
While he makes judgements about anything out-of-place that catches his eye, Thant is himself an exceptionally smooth operator, one of those rare figures who can fit in almost anywhere. He is the grandson of U Thant, the former United Nations secretary-general; the author of two well-regarded histories of Burma; a former diplomat with a CV weighed down by heavy peace-making and public relations credentials; and now a freelancing international trouble-shooter and humanitarian. In this book he also demonstrates audacious documentary ambitions.
Part of the art of his account is its almost continuous use of the past tense. It is as though a wise but distant figure, immersed in deep historical reading and empathy for his subjects, has provided descriptions that will make sense to historians next century, or perhaps the one after. He has sought to clarify the timelessness of borderland geography and also its constantly changing economic and political present. With his deft use of language he forces us to look back, with a critical appreciation, on the here-and-now.
As he explains, “the geography of Burma is important in understanding its history, its current ethnic make-up, and its possible futures.” Burma sits wedged between the high Himalayas to the north and the rows of cascading mountains that serve to divide it from the civilisations of the Indian subcontinent and East Asia. This region is mountainous, no doubt, but it is also a land of wild rivers, huge gorges, fertile valleys and pleasant plateaus. This inheritance has not, however, guaranteed splendid isolation.
For millennia, Burma has experienced irregular flows of people, ideas, language, culture, politics and goods: all dictated by its position between Asia’s giants. In one poetic flourish Thant insists that, “like the Caucasus at the other end of Asia, this is a mountain Babel which has long proved inimical to any centralising authority.” Southwest China’s Yunnan province was “a land of outlaws and miscreants and exotic religious sects, a place where musket-slinging Han settlers battled bow and arrow-wielding tribesmen and aliens from beyond the pale.” He cites political scientist James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed (2009) as a recent contribution to understanding this history of rebelliousness.
For the moment, Thant thinks it unlikely that Yunnan will face the fate of Tibet and Xinjiang, with their recent ethnic uprisings and crackdowns. Yunnan’s dozens of ethnic minorities are “much more jumbled together” and thus less likely to offer strong and united opposition. And recent history in southwest China suggests that rebellion ends badly: Thant describes what is believed to have been the only major uprising during the Cultural Revolution when, in 1975, the Muslim townsfolk of Shadian, in Yunnan, rebelled. It took several regiments of People’s Liberation Army troops, plus artillery and airpower, to stamp out their insurrection. Thousands may have died.
Since then China has, we know, generally tilted in more peaceful directions, and its steady rise to global prominence is a major theme of this book. Thant Myint-U describes China’s efforts with careful attention to all of the important details. While he gives us no reason to doubt China’s widely reported political and economic ambitions in Burma, he also tells us that, “whereas English was widely spoken by the educated class, no Burmese I knew spoke Chinese.”
This could, however, begin to change quickly. The Chinese government has recently established a Confucius Institute in Mandalay to provide training about China, including language tuition. According to Thant’s analysis, and employing his treasured past tense, “in the same way that Western observers saw Burma’s poverty and misgovernment and assumed Western models provided the answer, the Chinese did the same.”
The situation in northeast India is even more contested. This region, “home to around forty million people, has long been a policy headache for New Delhi.” Disrupted by civil war, and with countless different ethnic groups jockeying for position, it is arguably the wildest corner of the country. It is there, in the town of Imphal, that Thant visits India’s only Burma Studies Centre. Later there is a lively episode in which an Indian colonel, actively involved in counter-insurgency against the region’s ethnic rebels, tracks Thant down between operations to declare his scholarly commitments. The colonel, it turns out, is an amateur historian and the head of the local Burma history association.
In India, Thant again uses descriptions of faces and appearance to underline his points. He describes how most of the Indian soldiers and police based in the northeast stick out in a crowd. Drawn from “the Punjab and other faraway places in India, with their different complexions and aquiline faces, [they] looked alien, swirling around in their armoured personnel carriers, automatic weapons on display.” Elsewhere, naturally enough, he is drawn to personable entrepreneurs looking to get a slice of the rapidly expanding commercial action. Many are making explicit accommodations with China’s dreams for regional influence. One ethnic Shan-Kachin chap can operate fluently in Burmese, Shan and Chinese societies. While that is hardly a unique situation in these polyglot borderlands he makes one especially pertinent observation: “the Chinese think of me as purely Chinese.”
Many others develop cross-border connections. Arguably the most exceptional site for these connections is Mong La, which in its heyday, fuelled by gamblers and prostitutes, became “an Alice in Wonderland world, where the back of beyond was suddenly transformed though its connection with China into a mini-metropolis.” But that experiment with freewheeling cross-border capitalism was brought to an abrupt end by Chinese officials concerned with the money being lost across the border. Without the waves of cashed-up Chinese gamblers, Mong La is now only a skeleton of its former glory.
That experience of recent lawlessness points to other persistent problems. Thant concludes his book by explaining that while the Chinese, Indian and Burmese governments all talk of increasing connectivity, especially in terms of trade and cultural links, they must appreciate that “there is already a connectivity of a different sort, of violence and criminality, which in the future may only grow.” This critical appreciation is one of Thant’s key lessons. Increasing harmony and connectivity will almost inevitability create a parallel realm of shadows and discontent that will require careful attention and management.
More optimistically, with the right leadership Burma could undoubtedly use its position between China and India to its advantage. Thant argues that this geography “more than anything could provide tremendous opportunities going forward, for the entire country.” But since this book was published many of the areas under discussion have lurched, again, into ferocious civil war. Perhaps the most important new conflict is in northernmost Burma, between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burmese government. Many hundreds have been killed, with the majority of the losses absorbed by some of the Burmese army’s most battle-hardened infantry battalions. In ambushes they have been slaughtered: pulverised by an enemy that has declared enough is, simply, enough.
In the borderlands between India and China many others are similarly motivated to take up arms against government. In this troubled region history shows that long, simmering ethnic wars are the prevailing pattern.
And if Thant Myint-U’s less optimistic observations are any guide, then major conflict could loom just over the horizon. This means that the soldiers and spies – not to mention journalists and academics – who trade in information about this region will continue with their work. As part of this effort, Thant has, once again, helped to improve our understanding of the societies of Burma, and its wider neighbourhood. He states, quite rightly, that “a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Burma would be a game-changer for all Asia.” In the meantime, he has set out a unique and instructive story about the borderlands where Burma meets its giant neighbours. •
Nicholas Farrelly is a Research Fellow in the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific and co-founder of New Mandala.