Book Review: The Hidden history of Burma

Thant Myint-U November 12, 2019
W. W. Norton & Company
2020, 285 pp, Hardcover, $27.95 ISBN:9781324003304

by Arnold Zeitlin 20 June 2020

The Hidden History of Burma comes across more like the unhidden history of its author, Thant Myint-U. He pops up like Woody Allen’s cinematic human chameleon, Zelig, in many episodes in his country’s history since his first visit in 1974 as an 8-year-old fourth-grader with the body of his grandfather, U Thant, the Burmese secretary-general of the United Nations. That visit erupted in chaos. Buddhist monks angered that the dictatorship of General Ne Win would not give U Thant a state funeral, seized U-Thant’s coffin, and demanded that a fitting tomb be built for it. Troops eventually recovered the coffin, burying it, writes Thant, “under six feet of concrete” near Rangoon’s celebrated Shwedagon Pagoda. In the rioting that ensued, troops killed hundreds. “I…experienced firsthand a dictatorship in action.”, writes Thant.   

He describes being back on the scene in 1988 after Ne Win announced he was resigning. In the subsequent turmoil, protesters seeking democracy may have been killed in the thousands. Out of the chaos emerged a military junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or the slick acronym. SLORC. Thant then was in Bangkok at “the founding meeting of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front….The goal was a revolution.”

Thant never reached that goal. He writes he was allowed to visit in 1996. By 2007, having written articles opposing sanctions on the Burmese military rulers as ineffective and harmful to the poor and deciding that “revolution was not possible,” he says he was invited to visit the country’s new capital, Naypyitaw, to meet generals. Thant alludes briefly to the army’s businesses and massive landholdings. But he is circumspect about the generals’ accumulation of wealth while in office or what he labels as “the corrupt and crony-driven capitalism of the past.”

From then on, part of his narrative becomes a personal memoir wrapped inside a historical account:     

 After Cyclone Nargis devastated the country, killing at least 138,000 in April 2008, Thant says he was in Bangkok to meet the U.S. admiral leading the American relief effort. That same year, he worked with United Nations official Noeleen Hayzer promoting policies to help Burmese poor.  He reports a junta representative even showed up in 2009 in Rangoon (now Yangon) for a modest family celebration of the centenary of U Thant’s birth. That year, he visited Rangoon and Naypyitaw a dozen times, trying to determine what the junta had in mind for a new constitution.

 By 2011, Thant was meeting reformist-minded generals, and the following year became an advisor to a Myanmar Peace Center, a quasi-government institution designed to promote peace talks with Burma’s numerous warring ethnic armies. A year later, he worked with a project, Beyond Ceasefire Initiatives, started by his wife, Sofia. By 2013, he met Burma’s president, Thein Sein, a retired general, seeking support for the Yangon Heritage Trust that Thant established to save the city’s old buildings from demolishment. As the trust’s founder, he describes escorting U.S. President Barack Obama for 25 minutes in 2014 around Burma’s old parliament building.

The reader also gets several pages of Thant’s search in 2012 for an affordable apartment in Rangoon. He finds one, settling after a peripatetic lifestyle that may or may not influence the way he writes about the country in which he resides and which only slowly is edging away from authoritarian rule. 

His appearances raise a question: Is the reader getting an account written by an objective outsider or by wannabe insider who may or may not pull his punches about the generals running the country (now known as Myanmar, a name Thant dismisses as not being sufficiently inclusive of the many ethnic groups)?

And then, there is Aung San Suu Kyi. Thant notes that had known her when she worked at the United Nations and visited U Thant’s home in Riverdale, New York. He had visited her in the 1980s at Oxford in England. The military initially refused to let him meet her in Burma (by now, Myanmar). After she was released from house arrest, he was allowed a visit in 2011. They talked about family, he writes.

By then, she was an international icon for democracy and courage, winning a 1991 Nobel prize and a U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, second only in global recognition to Nelson Mandela, as revered as Mother Theresa. Thant was in Oslo in 2012 when Sui Kyi finally accepted her prize there. By 2016, she was named State Counselor, a position that essentially made her head of government, despite a constitutional provision the military refused to change prohibiting her from becoming president.

That is when her reputation clashed with the issue of the Rohingya. After Suu Kyi assumed office, the military continued forcing Rohingya Muslims in the hundreds of thousands across to Bangladesh from homes in what once was called Arakan that their people had inhabited for centuries. Their bloody ouster is regarded internationally as a genocidal crisis.

“‘Rohingya,'” Thant writes, “….was the word some Muslims…used to refer to themselves in their Bengali-related language. It simply meant ‘of Rhang’, their name for Arakan.” Bengali-speaking Muslims had crisscrossed what is now the Bangladesh-Burma border since before, during, and after the British, Raj ruled both sides of that line.

These Muslims long annoyed nationalistic Burmese Buddhists, some of whom, as an Arakan Buddhist militia, joined the military action, a Muslim Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) resisted. Thant writes that the “vast majority” in Burma saw ARSA “as a real and present danger to the country.”

Aung San Suu Kyi has refused to condemn the army that her assassinated father had founded at the birth of Burmese independence or tried to stop the forced exodus of the Rohingya. The world has stripped her of honors and symbolically turned her portrait to the wall.

“Power was centralized in her office,” Thant writes. “….It was a power she used sparingly. There were no clear-cut policy aims….Her rule was never about government solving people’s problems. Her instincts were deeply conservative….Both Aung San Suu Kyi and the generals perhaps also sensed in one another similar nationalistic leanings….Both prized discipline and the idea of service to ‘the people.”

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