Inside Story

Winning votes was the easy part

Books | The essential Burmese writer of his generation proposes a “new project of the imagination”

Nicholas Farrelly 18 September 2020 1523 words

A Burmese refugee and her children pass a poster featuring Aung San Suu Kyi at the Mae Tao clinic in Mae Sot, northwest Thailand, during the historic 2010 election campaign. Damir Sagolj/Reuters

The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century
By Thant Myint-U | Atlantic Books | $29.99 | 304 pages

Almost twenty years ago, during one of my first visits to Myanmar, I found myself on a motorbike outside Keng Tung, a valley stronghold of Shan ethnic minority culture in the country’s easternmost corner. Having whizzed past communal labour packs marching across the plains after harvesting a bumper rice crop, my friends and I pulled into a little village with substantial concrete houses. We were visiting somebody’s extended family: multigenerational and welcoming, all of them curious about the unexpected foreigner in their midst.

The conversation and the food and drink flowed through lunchtime as we swapped stories of travel and family. Even jokes across the multiple language barriers went down well. But what I remember most of that afternoon are the pictures on the wall: the glowing faces of young women and men taken before their time, victims of the AIDS pandemic that rolled across Southeast Asia in the 1990s.

Many young people from this war-torn corner had sought out greener pastures on the Thai side of the border, drawn to the bright lights and good money available in Mae Sai, Chiang Mai and Bangkok. They worked as labourers and in the service industry, and some became sex workers. They were vulnerable and very poor, often with only modest schooling, and were far from home. As HIV swept through Thailand, they were without ready recourse to the local health system.

Some, I learned that afternoon, drifted home to die, without proper medical care but surrounded by their families. I heard a mix of pride and ambition, shame and misery. Parents never want to outlive their children: remembering them and telling their stories is one way to make life tolerable.

Myanmar has so many sad stories: an often-deadly mix of war, poverty, drugs, disease and simple misadventure has marked every single village. In the background is decades of mismanagement by generations of military leaders, whether in the uniforms of local militias or government forces. Even ten years after the country’s historic 2010 election, issues like social welfare, education and health are often subordinated to elite and military interests.

Since the even more crucial 2015 election, Myanmar’s democratic activists have found that winning votes was the easy part. Governing is a hard grind. Compromises to chauvinist and military perspectives have worn away at Aung San Suu Kyi’s previously exalted status. When she fronted the International Court of Justice in The Hague in December 2019, even her firmest foreign friends could not contain their horror. Her defence of military crimes will linger, always, in her legacy.

That legacy, and its deep historical and cultural context, are just one part of this splendid new book by global man-of-letters Thant Myint-U. For international audiences, Thant is the essential Burmese writer of his generation, and The Hidden History of Burma — timed to coincide with another national election scheduled for November this year — is a classic study of power, belonging, wealth and narrative at a time of global flux and uncertainty.

I have reviewed Thant’s work before (indeed, I wrote about his previous book in December 2011 for Inside Story). So I know that reviewing his analysis means succumbing, often, to a fit of head-nodding and exclamatory endorsement. He writes crisply, and he expects his readers to enjoy the ride over mountains, past old regimes, and through carefully chosen linguistic and cultural detours. The Hidden History of Burma is a wonderfully well-crafted book, with a sense of mission, yes, and playful attention to the incredible humanity of Myanmar’s rich political and social life.

Thant’s expertise sits at a confluence: serious scholar, policy practitioner and strategist, and conservator of some of the great lineages — familial, architectural and cultural — that have made his country remarkable on the international stage. He peppers Hidden History’s informed analysis with some cracking stories, including sharp profiles of the legendary Myanmar Egress reformist team, spearheaded by the late Nay Win Maung.

The fact that Thant knows everyone so well, their histories, their connections, their conflicts, means that his introduction to the many faces of Myanmar society and politics is as lively as any personal tour. We also benefit from the fact that, over the past fifteen years, he has so often been in the room, whether with Bono, or Barack Obama, or a motley cast of democratic chancers and lifelong military players. He can convey their needs, their sentiments, their understanding, with a clarity that usually escapes the rest of us.

Thant is sometimes very funny in the way he explains turns of events. One charming passage involves Aung Min, a former intelligence officer reincarnated as a powerhouse of ceasefire negotiations, for whom Thant would often interpret to English speaking audiences. Aung Min ends up co-opting the Myanmar Egress leaders who took over after Nay Win Maung’s untimely death — “Tin Maung Thann (the fish expert) and Hla Maung Shwe (the shrimp importer)” — as his “key lieutenants in the peace process.”

Thant describes other personal and institutional transformations, lingering on characters like the famous Thura Shwe Mann, a hardened combat commander turned legislative reformist, and the much more obscure Waiyan Moethone Thann, a remarkable bilingual broker who helped ambitious ministers build trust with foreign capitals.

But Thant’s greatest gift as a historian — and as someone who has invested so much in the demanding work required to bend the arc of history — is his appreciation of the structural, cultural, symbolic and narrative scaffolds that tie together different times and places. In this respect, to read The Hidden History of Burma is to look deep into processes of global, regional, national and local change over hundreds, indeed thousands, of years and to see our present moment as a fragment of many stories, beginning and ending, all around us.

Recounting his own pioneering work to build local and global coalitions for meaningful change, he describes how “then, as now, I felt that the plight of the poorest needed to be placed front and centre, together with new ways of thinking about race and identity.” Among stories of race and identity, poverty and violence, the saddest of those captured by Thant’s keyboard are about the Rohingya Muslims and their exclusion from Myanmar society.

Thant describes the “merciless” Myanmar army campaign against defenceless Rohingya in 2017 that pushed so many across the border into Bangladesh. He is at pains to explain popular sentiment in Myanmar and the perception, widely held, of a “Saudi–Western plot to… force the country to accept hundreds of thousands of new ‘Bengali’ settlers.” Thant’s discussion of this tragic episode of inhumane politicking and violence ends with China gaining a stronger position. There is no joy in this section of analysis.

“Since colonial times,” as Thant summarises it, “whatever has happened in Burma, the ordinary people have consistently wound up the losers.” It makes sense, therefore, that he ends the book with an urgent call for more to be done about inequality, inclusion and climate change with what he describes as a “new project of the imagination.”

Since Thant wrote these words, Myanmar, like the rest of the world, has grappled with the new disruptions unleashed by the Covid-19 pandemic. In his 2020 essays and public statements, he has considered the arguments of Hidden History in light of recent, dramatic shifts in the global economy. Those shifts have only reinforced his insistence that Myanmar requires policies that reflect the need for development and long-term economic success.

He is also understandably concerned about the implications of the current economic upheaval for the world’s poorest people, including in Myanmar. In a March 2020 tweet, Thant told his 140,000 followers that “thousands of people in Myanmar with no access to public health die every year from TB, Malaria, Dengue, and other infectious diseases. Myanmar has been in a health emergency for a very long time.”

That old health emergency, caused by entrenched poverty and inequality, and the new one unleashed by Covid-19 create daunting challenges for the next generation of Myanmar leaders. In his epilogue, Thant paints a bleak picture for what might come next. He worries that Myanmar may miss out again as it fails to quickly up-skill its people and is left behind by tomorrow’s technological revolutions. His dismay about potential climate-induced disaster leaps from the page.

With the world’s new pandemic still raging, it is worth considering that Myanmar never entirely escaped the distress of HIV. With around 240,000 people living with HIV, an estimated 7700 died from AIDS-related illnesses last year. It is impressive that the annual death toll has dropped by a third in the past decade, but the tragedies experienced across the Shan State in the 1990s are still a fact of life for too many Myanmar families.

Under Covid-19, Thant Myint-U’s wise counsel is timely: energy and creativity are surely needed to help ensure a better future emerges from such sad stories. The elections scheduled for November will be a further moment for change and reflection. But there are great fears, in Thant’s phrase, that “democracy and markets” as “twentieth-century solutions” won’t mean very much as Myanmar’s people confront the next stage of their history. •