Review | The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century – Thant Myint-U

About the Book

Precariously positioned between China and India, Burma’s population has suffered dictatorship, natural disaster, and the dark legacies of colonial rule. But when decades of military dictatorship finally ended and internationally beloved Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi emerged from long years of house arrest, hopes soared. World leaders such as Barack Obama ushered in waves of international support. Progress seemed inevitable.

As historian, former diplomat, and presidential advisor, Thant Myint-U saw the cracks forming. In this insider’s diagnosis of a country at a breaking point, he dissects how a singularly predatory economic system, fast-rising inequality, disintegrating state institutions, the impact of new social media, the rise of China next door, climate change, and deep-seated feelings around race, religion, and national identity all came together to challenge the incipient democracy. Interracial violence soared and a horrific exodus of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees fixed international attention. Myint-U explains how and why this happened, and details an unsettling prognosis for the future.

Burma is today a fragile stage for nearly all the world’s problems. Are democracy and an economy that genuinely serves all its people possible in Burma? In clear and urgent prose, Myint-U explores this question—a concern not just for the Burmese but for the rest of the world—warning of the possible collapse of this nation of 55 million while suggesting a fresh agenda for change.

301 pages (kindle)
Published on November 12, 2019
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I have a fascination with other places. Specifically other places I know nearly nothing about. The less I know about it, the more interested I tend to be. Burma/Myanmar is absolutely that kind of foreign local for me. I know where it is on a map. I know it has a very harsh, military rule, and I know the bullet points of the recent Rohingya genocide. Also, Aung San Suu Kyi. As for people in the West, I’m pretty sure I knew basically the same amount of information about this region of the world as most other people around me. Not much. Not enough. Just the vaguest details. 

I stumbled upon this book when I was trolling Amazon, and I instantly knew I had to read it. The Hidden History of Burma might give you the impression, from the title, that it is about secrets, and covered up things that the author is just bringing to light, breaking news style, but that’s really not it at all. In this respect, it’s considered a “hidden history” because it’s just so unknown by the larger world. As I’ve said above, how many of us really know much about this region of the world? In so many ways, this country has been cut off from the rest of the world, and so there is very little known about it. This book makes a dedicated effort to change that fact. 

Thant Myint-U has worked with UN peacekeeping missions in several countries in the world, and has a personal tie with Burma, as that’s where his family hails from. In this book, he shows his knack for distilling complex topics into easily digestible bits of information. His personal connection to Burma also gives this book a more intimate flavor. While this is a scholarly work in a lot of respects, the author manages to keep it from feeling like you’re reading a work of academia, and his personal experiences and insights give everything he covers a far more human perspective than you’d get from, say, some Western scholar who has studied enough about the region to write a book, but had never actually been there. 

In fact, when I started reading this book, it was late at night and I (I know this will sound horrible) thought to myself, “Well, this book will certainly put me to sleep, so it’s perfect to read right now.” The truth is, after thinking that very thought, I was awake for nearly four more hours telling myself, “One more chapter. I swear to God, just one more chapter and I’ll go to sleep.” That’s the thing about this book: It sneaks up on you. You start reading it, and before you realize what’s happening you’re so sucked into the drama and the history, the captivating writing, and the personal connection that you just can’t stop reading. 

It helps that Burma is such an unknown country, full of people I know so very little about. For example, I was ignorant to the fact that Burma, a country sitting between the two powers of India and China, was once also a colony of Britain once upon a time. What, perhaps, interested me the most about this was how so many of the issues faced today, seem to find their roots in this colonial relationship with Britain. Britain, as it happened, seemed to divide Burma up largely along racial lines, and that legacy still lives in the country today, and is still very much a part of so many of the issues and insecurity so many Burmese people face. 

I also did not know how ancient this particular civilization was, nor did I know about the kingdoms that rose and fell, the wars, the strength, education, and so much more. Everything changed when the English came, as it was wont to do, but before that, the civilization stretched back a long, long time, and while it had many different shapes and forms, it was, in every way, a power in that region of the world. 

The situation in Burma is fluid and quickly moving and there are a lot of things that impact what is happening over there. The economic situation is precarious at best. A lot of problems, the Rohingya issue, for example, find their roots in the colonial days, which modern times hasn’t quite managed to get away from. In a lot of ways, I felt like Burma is a land with one foot in the past, and one in the future, and hasn’t quite managed to find their balance straddling that particular line. 

It is the people who end up paying for all of this. Poverty is widespread and rampant. A lot of the money that was spent on education was cut off, and funneled into the military, so the education is lacking, if it exists at all in some regions. Depending on where you are, and who you are, you may or may not be incredibly oppressed, or face very real danger for being part of a certain ethnic group. There is a push for modernization, but so many of the problems the Burmese face have their roots in issues involving race and identity, that spring forth from those good old colonial days, and until those issues are dealt with, I fear that Burma will never be able to reform in the way so many wish. 

“Burmese nationalists would blame the British for following a divide-and-rule policy. The truth was that the British took over a mixed and ever-changing political landscape and fixed boundaries to suit themselves. But by administering areas differently, they set up the fault lines around memory, identity, and aspiration that have vexed all attempts so far at nation-building.”

What, perhaps, surprised me the most was part of the book, early on, where the author spoke about economic sanctions. He tells a story about a hurricane that blew through an area of the country. It was catastrophic. No one was prepared for it, and a whole lot of people died. Due to the political situation, Burma was party to some of the most heavy-handed economic sanctions in the world. This meant that once the hurricane blew through, and people were trying to pick up the pieces of their lives, they could get almost no help from anyone, because every bit of aid offered to the country turned into a huge political flexion of willpower. I’d never really thought of it like that. I’d never really thought of the human price paid for the sanctions that other countries have to deal with. 

Another aspect of the book that keeps ringing in my head is just how dramatic an impact colonialism had on Burma, and, through extension, all of the other countries that fell (or still fall, in some cases) under the fist of a power so far away. So many of the issues faced by Burma may or may not have existed in one form or another long before the English came a-calling, but it was certainly made worse after they appeared. Colonialism drew lines in the sand, divided a society that had been in place for a long, long time, and made distinctions between race and identity the foundation upon which the modern Burma struggles. 

This sort of division is in every aspect of life. An example of this would be an 1824 (harkening back to those Colonial days I mention) law that divides those considered “native” to Burma (as in, those who had family living there before 1824 were “native”) while everyone who had arrived after 1824 are largely considered “guests” to the region, and thus, have very little actual power or say in anything that happens in the country in which they reside, regardless of how long they’d lived there. And that’s no small amount of people. A whole lot of migrants from, for example, India, came over to Burma after 1824 due to work and financial opportunities offered there that they didn’t have in their native country. They put down roots, and stayed.  

‘The late 20th-century military regime would make 1824 the cut-off date in determining who belonged in Burma and who did not, whose ancestors were “natives” and whose came as a result of foreign occupation and therefore were, at best, “guests.”

I don’t know what the future holds for Burma, but I do know that it is a fascinating, multi-layered country full of a diverse tapestry of people. An ancient civilization still bucking the echoes of colonialism, with a government that seems only capable of forward motion as long as it has an equal amount of repression. There has been a strive, recently, for democracy in Burma, and with an increasingly connected world via the internet, I do have hope that the young people will answer the call that so many Burmese have been offering up for a better, more just, more equal future. 

Things are changing. 

In many ways, I feel like this book was written as much for the people of Burma so to educate the rest of the world about the plight of the Burmese. It was richly informative, well-written, and nuanced. Thant Myint-U weaves together a stunning three-dimensional tapestry of a nation that so many of us know not nearly enough about. Captivating and informative, this book really made a profound impact on me.

5/5 stars

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