A Review of “The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century”
from Asia Unbound

A Review of “The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century”

Myanmar author Thant Myint-U speaks during the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) in Jaipur, India on January 23, 2012.
Myanmar author Thant Myint-U speaks during the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) in Jaipur, India on January 23, 2012. Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty Images

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By Hunter Marston and Joshua Kurlantzick

Hunter Marston is a doctoral candidate at Australian National University.

In the run-up to Myanmar’s elections next year, there is little positive news to report about a country that seemed like a democratic success story less than five years ago. On Aung San Suu Kyi’s watch, over the past four years the country has seen a regression in press freedom, expanded usage of anti-defamation laws and a general crackdown on speech, and massive rights abuses in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Although over one million Rohingya have already fled Rakhine, and chaos is engulfing the state again, as the military battles the Buddhist, ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army; the fighting is spreading, as army units reportedly have been attacking civilians as well. Fighting has ramped up in other ethnic minority areas as well, in the north and northeast, and Suu Kyi’s government also has made little headway towards serious economic reform either. Her government has shown little ability to develop or implement economic policy, tourists are scared off by the country’s deteriorating international image, inbound investment is falling, and Suu Kyi reportedly remains focused on the shaky peace process with ethnic rebels, not paying enough attention to the country’s dire economic needs. (To be fair, in recent months the National League for Democracy (NLD) has appeared to take up some reformist ideas, calling for changes to Myanmar’s constitution that would dilute the power of the military and potentially foster democratic progress.)

The situation is unlikely to improve this year or next. Although army chief Min Aung Hlaing has embarked upon a goodwill tour of the country that apparently aims to polish his image and possibly prepare him to be nominated for the presidency, he already has been linked to attacks in Rakhine State for which a UN special fact finding panel has said top Myanmar military commanders should be prosecuted for genocide. If he were to be elected, the country’s international image will probably get worse (although Suu Kyi has done it no favors by minimizing rights abuses and defending crackdowns on freedom of speech), and it is hard to imagine Min Aung Hlaing resolving the conflicts in the north and northeast, or the spiraling battle between the military and the Arakan Army. Meanwhile, with the situation still miserable for Rohingya in Rakhine State, and for Rohingya in camps in Bangladesh, there is a greater possibility of a more organized, armed Rohingya group emerging as compared to the shadowy, seemingly small group that has already launched attacks.

When Suu Kyi’s party triumphed in 2015, in the first free national elections since 1990, Myanmar was expected to turn a corner. Building on five years of progress under a civilian government installed by the military, Suu Kyi’s government, which took power the next year, would pave the way toward democratic consolidation and attract foreign investment while taking steps to reduce deep poverty and inequality. With the goodwill she enjoyed, Suu Kyi would even possibly end some of Myanmar’s long-running civil wars. The Barack Obama administration, and many in Congress, believed that Myanmar was clearly on the right track and also was an example of successful diplomacy by the United States and other countries, which had pressured the country’s generals with years of sanctions but then slowly eased pressure as real political change emerged.

In reality, as Thant Myint-U acknowledges in his new book exploring Myanmar’s current crisis and its roots, the country was closer to a failed state when Suu Kyi took over than many outsiders would have imagined—and it veers even closer to a failed state today. Its infrastructure was destroyed, the central government faced ongoing insurgencies, the education system was in tatters, the military remained the dominant institution in society, and the history of Myanmar royal rule, British colonial rule, and junta rule had left the population extremely divided along ethnic and religious lines. These divisions would be exacerbated by social media, which flourished in Myanmar with few constraints, spreading dangerous conspiracies and fomenting hate against the Rohingya and other minorities.

Thant Myint-U, a former UN diplomat and advisor to Myanmar president Thein Sein, Suu Kyi’s predecessor as civilian leader, (Suu Kyi is not technically president but she clearly is Myanmar’s civilian leader) has become one of the ablest chroniclers of modern-day Myanmar and its multiple deep economic, religious, and ethnic fault lines. (He also, notably, has worked to preserve some of Yangon’s most important architectural legacies.) As a prominent advisor to Thein Sein and other military reformers who shepherded the country between 2011 and 2016, a period when most Western states ended their isolation of the country, he had a first-hand view of Myanmar’s challenges, and how they could have been addressed. In some cases, as he notes, because he was a prominent member of Myanmar society (his grandfather was former UN secretary general U Thant) and had enjoyed ties to both military reformists and the NLD, he served as an interlocutor between Myanmar leaders and top foreign leaders, including Barack Obama, during his time advising Thein Sein.

Thant Myint-U looks deeper into Myanmar’s history, beyond 2011, however, to explain why the country that seemed so hopeful really was always going to be tough to transform. His book is elegant and concise, cramming in Myanmar’s older and modern history, background on the country’s racial and ethnic divisions, stories of the run-up to the 2011-2015 reform period, his personal experiences, and his assessment of Myanmar’s long, complicated history with free market economic models. Although detailed, it could appeal not only to Myanmar experts and policymakers but also to a general audience of people simply interested in what happened to the country and its icon.

Thant Myint-U traces Myanmar’s history—from its ancient kingdoms to its period of British colonial rule to its early years of independence. He pays special attention to the deep and lasting divisions that the legacy of colonization left on the country. Among other efforts to divide Myanmar, the British brought with them thousands of Indian migrants from British-administered India, with whom they filled the ranks of colonial administration in the country, much to the detriment of Burmese civil service, education, and the development of Myanmar’s aspiring middle class. These divisive policies left indelible scars on society, casting a long shadow after independence, on government capacity (only a small minority of Myanmar citizens benefited from both the higher education and administrative training of their colonial rulers) and on the collective memory of many Myanmar citizens. A sour ethnic nationalism curdled among the majority Burmans, and during decades of military rule the Myanmar government forcibly ejected hundreds of thousands of ethnic Indians and launched multiple scorched earth operations against the Muslim Rohingya. This sour nationalism would have effects on many other minorities as well.

When Myanmar achieved national independence in 1948, the country’s numerous ethnic and religious divisions quickly posed a problem for the first Prime Minister U Nu. Civil war erupted across the country within the first year of Burmese independence. Ultimately, the army would wrest political control in 1958 with promises of a “caretaker government” that soon gave way to decades of brutal military rule, with the army faced off against communist and ethnic insurgencies. By the time the country began to shift away from military rule to civilian rule in the 2010s, it already had vast internal divides, a ruined economy, a legacy of vicious racial conflicts, and the ongoing effects of authoritarian rule.

Thant Myint-U, like many other scholars, argues that, given the deep, possibly unbridgeable divisions left by Myanmar’s history, in the modern era outsiders have seen the country in too binary a focus: A people oppressed by a ruthless military dictatorship. Furthermore, he argues, there has been little effort outside Myanmar to understand the complexities of Myanmar’s authoritarian history or its myriad ethnic conflicts. This myopia, he believes, has limited the international community’s ability to respond to many of Myanmar’s modern-day crises, like the ongoing battles between the military and ethnic armies.

But by mostly focusing on structural causes and the legacy of history, Thant Myint-U gives the impression that these factors are unchanging determinants of Myanmar’s present and future—that the country was ruined, potentially doomed. And this type of essentialism also allows the author to avoid placing responsibility for Myanmar’s problems on individual policymakers—both military and civilian. Thant Myint-U does discuss some of the pivotal players in Myanmar’s political transformation in the years leading up to and immediately after 2010-2011, but his discussion focuses on a quite narrow cast of actors, including the NGO leader Nay Win Maung of Myanmar Egress, Aung Min and Soe Thane (two former generals Thant labels as “reformers”), and Aung San Suu Kyi.

The book accords Nay Win Maung, Aung Min, and Soe Thane central roles in Myanmar’s moment of political reform. Nay Win Maung was a controversial figure in the country’s budding civil society movement between the years of 2006, when he founded Myanmar Egress, and early 2012, when he died of a heart attack. His NGO was frequently accused of sacrificing the principle of providing independent advice to the numerous advantages of working with the former junta as a self-described “third force.” Aung Min and Soe Thane were respectively minister of railways and minister of industry in the former administration of President Thein Sein, himself a former general and prime minister under the military junta of Senior General Than Shwe.

Yet Thant Myint U’s account mostly ignores the contributions of countless other individuals to the reform process and glosses over the murky pasts of some of the key figures discussed. By only hearing the perspectives of these few elites, a casual reader may infer from the retelling of the reform years that Myanmar lacks a diverse and talented pool of grassroots civil society actors, and that the reform process did not stem from a broader societal push. This narrative also verges on whitewashing the records of former generals such as Aung Min, Soe Thane (formerly commander in chief of the navy), and Thein Sein, who worked within a junta that regularly violated its peoples’ human rights, for instance by employing forced labor, enlisting child combatants, and using rape as a weapon of war.

Thant’s account also doesn’t tell the reader much about where or why Aung San Suu Kyi and the current ruling party, the NLD, may have failed to achieve greater political liberalization, progress toward peace with ethnic armies, and any solution to the human rights crisis in Rakhine State.

In the end, Thant Myint-U lays the blame for Myanmar’s stalled democratization and continued polarization on (unnamed) opportunistic actors playing on the fears of foreign influence amidst rapid change and “a failure of the imagination” to challenge Myanmar’s insular nationalism. The book leaves the reader with little hope. He also hints at a future in which the NLD and military’s shared vision of ethnic nationalism and managed market reforms may lead the two former adversaries to a brokered political trajectory that allows each side to benefit: the military would maintain its traditional prestige as guardian of national unity, and Suu Kyi and the NLD would be able to actually implement policies, on issues ranging from economic reform to even potentially some modest military reforms, without the military negating the NLD’s decision-making. But given the military’s and the NLD’s record so far—both sides’ unwillingness to compromise and also the NLD’s failures to develop coherent policies on almost every issue—this brokered transition is hard to imagine.

Yet if Myanmar is to escape its past divisions and overcome the constraints of its colonial legacy, its leaders will have to find a way to enshrine pluralism and tolerance in the national imagination. Thant Myint-U suggests that overcoming economic and social inequalities will be essential to that transformation. But he advances few tangible policy visions for a more equitable society. With the NLD unable to stimulate foreign direct investment and kickstart economic growth, such challenges may be insurmountable for decades to come.

However, Thant Myint-U makes a compelling case for the urgent need for creative thinking—creative thinking that could result in new and effective policy responses to the multiple crises unfolding in Myanmar. In so doing—and by rooting his new book deeply in Myanmar's historical context—he offers a valuable contribution, and one accessible to a broad array of readers.

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