The case for peace in Myanmar (Burma) has been a tiring, relentless one. The biggest myth of all is that Burma was set to have a bright future during the dawn of its independence from the British, and Thant Myint-U, in “The Hidden History of Burma”, reminds us that the reality is far more complex and heavy. The colonial legacy within the state’s institutions and the impact on the plethora of ethnic groups across Burma’s peripheries would continue to haunt its present day problems that we keep seeing in the news today. The colonial era’s martial race policy would be at the forefront of these problems, among many other ingredients. Albeit the great academic legacy left behind by the colonial era, Thant argues, the weak state at the time General Aung San founded the nation would mean that whatever great was embedded within Burma was either purged or became stale over time during the years of poverty and “Burmese Way to Socialism”.
Towards the end of the 20th Century the ‘socialist’ part of the nation-state’s operational ideology would then peel away, and enter a form of free-market system, one that Thant best describes as ‘crony capitalism’. Yet Burma’s political reforms in the early 2010s imagine the alternative to be the implementation of neoliberal policies and a non-state intervening complete free-market system, to follow the steps of congested and inequality-ridden cities we so very often see across South East Asia today. The interconnectedness of the easily combustible issues surrounding race and inequality are left out of the picture – it seems like the state itself is not even cognizant of it. There is no room for the idea of how ethnicity could be fluid. State formation and attempts at conflict resolution are stuck in a vicious cycle of bureaucracy, electoral politics and red-tape, fueled by a strange concoction of neoconservatism and a fixed primordialist perception regarding race and ethnicity, amongst parties and actors of across the political spectrum.
The fatal faults regarding the sustained civil strife across various parts of the country lie amongst all parties, both at home and abroad. The behind-the-scenes narrative of Thant made me realise that it seems so bizarre, that China’s ambitions for Burma, thwarted by Thein Sein’s government and his aiding reformists, returned back into the scene when the conflict in Rakhine inflamed to the point of no return. Particularly striking were the unfortunate decisions made by the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi on the hitherto peacebuilding efforts succeeding the 2015 victory elections, where the Myanmar Peace Centre was sent packing because the staff composed of people who worked for Thein Sein’s government. This was such a jarring moment in history and such a wasted opportunity that many in the country did not pay much attention to, mainly the urban population very much distracted by the economic promises that could be realised by the new NLD government swearing in. More shopping centres, shinier airports, lesser visa restrictions and freer travel – the bourgeoisie gets to enjoy better, more instant luxuries. Personally this is something that I keep hearing from middle and upper-middle class people of the Burmese society, as a justifying bulwark against any other potential criticism of the actions taken by the NLD government that had wasted opportunities for peacebuilding and the entrenched, exacerbated calamity of civil strife across the country, the future of which today, seems more bleak than ever.
Internationally we see foreign policies by Western governments provide no room for complexity, and mixed bureaucratic responses by organisations such as the United Nations over the course of the past decade would ripple out to drastic consequences in the peace processes in Burma. Their involvements with the country’s democratisation efforts and embrace to the global economy were exclusively pivoted around Aung San Suu Kyi, with very little attention paid to the influence of ludicrous cross-border conflicts, war economies and the incentives of various factions be it within the state or of the rebel groups. On one hand the former president’s sudden and wide embrace to the West had been short-sighted in how that could have impacted on the participation of Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) along the Sino-Burmese border, while Suu Kyi’s government unfortunately underestimated the repercussions of Western isolation on the progression of the peace deals under the ‘21st Century PangLong Conferences’. Moreover, the young especially ought to question whether the story of Burma is either the story of Aung San Suu Kyi or the story of inclusivity. Most of the Burmese sadly do not seem to be able to tell the difference.
Though merely stating facts, Thant’s description of the unfolding of the contemporary political processes in Burma was at times specked with instances that were darkly astonishing to the point where it leaned towards unintentionally comical (e.g. when John Yettaw handed Suu Kyi the Book of Mormon), making it all the more surreal. Although there were parts where I wished he elaborated further such as the impact of U Nu’s policies on the racial and social integrity of a briefly democratic Burma prior Ne Win’s coup (and the civil-military dynamics leading up to it), the fact that a country of such a staggering level of enigmatic complexity was explained in the historical summation that the book intends to deliver is still nevertheless remarkable. But most importantly, Thant also shows that the story of Burma’s fight for democracy is not so much as black-and-white, not so much clear cut of a David-and-Goliath spectacle that we are made to believe most of the time. A particularly challenging part was the solemn account of a certain lady named Moe, whose life was driven into destitution by the cascade of events followed by Bush-era sanctions that shut down garment factories – from unemployment to sex trafficking and only to discover herself with a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS after a hazardous, painful journey back home. These were the same sanctions supported and driven by several Burma-related pro-democracy/human rights activists at home and abroad. The lines become blurry as the activists were part of the force that blocked The Global Fund humanitarian aid that was supposed to relieve HIV/AIDS and malaria outbreaks in the early 2000s Burma, cutting off all remaining hope for people like Moe. What is even more challenging is for us to understand that the story of Moe is not an uncommon one for the precariat of Burma, whose rights, needs and welfare seem to be entirely out of the picture of a current nation that keeps asking its people for personal sacrifice and insists on the virtue-like quality of it pivoted around personal life of the nation’s very leader, while people like Moe, the majority of whom occupy the country, have hardly any more to give. Lost is the potential of this beautiful country albeit so rich in natural resources, resided by deeply troubled rural citizenry with war as a norm and no glimmer of hope that the identities of the Burmese can be built around anything other than race and ethnicity. The latter overwhelms in all that the majoritarian state operates.
There were still some memorable, beautiful moments. During the peak of the Rakhine crisis in 2016, the compassion of a Buddhist monk in Rakhine that offered refuge and food to both Buddhist and Muslim displaced civilians traumatised by the violence raging outside will give any reader a chilling feeling of awe as the pages turned. The man was noted confronting protesters outside his monastery for housing Muslims together with the Buddhists, remarkably saying that they (the protesters) would have to go through him if they wish to ransack the monastery and commit violence inside. An anomaly of a preacher who truly practices, a rare act of an almost surreal compassion could perhaps make one faintly wonder just “what if?”.
What kind of a future Burma will head towards we still do not know, as history continues to be written. But as Thant puts, it is truly hard to be optimistic now. Yet understanding Burma is imperative still, in a way, as the story should provide us to rethink how Western democracies interact with authoritarian and transition regimes in the future. It should also provide a brutal lesson for us, when aiding and advocating for democracy in contested states, to jettison the idea that one-dimensional prescriptive foreign policies, a dose of sanctions and then neoliberalism, will do the trick of healing an infinitely complex, deeply conflict-ridden nation into peace and prosperity.