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

de Thant Myint-U

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1032269,357 (3.43)8
"How did one of the world's "buzzy hotspots" (Fodor's 2013) become one of the top ten places to avoid (Fodor's 2018)? Less than a decade ago, the world cheered as a dictatorship crumbled and internationally beloved Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi emerged from twenty years of house arrest. Yet just three years after her landslide victory at the polls, the country stands accused of war crimes and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims. As an historian, former diplomat, and presidential advisor, Thant Myint-U was part of the momentous changes that pulled Burma toward democracy, working with the ex-generals and meeting many of the country's biggest supporters, from Bono to Barack Obama. Yet no one was prepared to Burma's underlying challenges, from fast- rising inequality, disintegrating state institutions, and the impacts of climate change, to the rise of China next door and the issues of race, religion, and "national identity" deeply rooted in the country's traumatic colonial past. In this riveting insider's diagnosis of a country at a breaking point, Thant Myint-U shows that Burma's perils, far from being unique, are many of the same facing all of us. Burma is a warning for the world"--… (mais)
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How did Aung San Suu Kyi go from being the next Nelson Mandela, with pop stars and world leaders queuing up to have their photos taken with her, to become a figure of universal disdain, presiding over a humanitarian crisis she seemed to refuse to believe was happening? Well, obviously, that has a lot to do with our own insatiable appetite for heroes and villains and our reluctance to read long foreign policy analyses, but it also has something to do with the realities of governing postcolonial countries, where the legacy of generations of inequality, poverty, lack of education and the complexities of geography, religion and ethnicity cannot simply be magicked away by the first free election.

Thant Myint-U, as U Thant’s grandson, a former UN official in his own right and a senior adviser to the transitional government of ex-General Thein Sein, has his own stake in Burmese politics and is not exactly a neutral outsider, but he does give us a very clear summary of the country’s history and its problems, as well as a lively memoir of the period in the early years of this century when he was personally involved.

When the British withdrew in 1948, Burma was given borders which roughly corresponded to the area that had been under the control of the Myanma kingdom that came to power in the late 18th century. The cities and the Irrawaddy valley and delta in the centre of the country formed a reasonably homogeneous area, Burmese-speaking, mostly Buddhist apart from Indian workers brought in by the British, and with a legacy of British administration. But the border areas, west, east and north, were ethnically diverse and had not been under colonial administration. After 1948, all these areas came under the control of a patchwork of local militias, most of which have been in a state of civil war or at best uneasy ceasefire with the Burmese government ever since. In the west there were tensions between Buddhists and Muslims, some of whom were the descendants of people who had been living there for centuries, others more recent immigrants from Bengal. In the east the militias had important economic links with China, controlling activities such as narcotics, gambling, logging and mining. Burma came to be governed by an authoritarian military dictatorship that more or less kept the lid on the civil war, taking rake-offs from these illegal activities, and violently suppressing political dissent.

The country’s political and economic isolation, and the extreme poverty of most of the population, were only increased by the sanctions the international community used to try to pressure the leadership into democratic reforms. The dictator Than Shwe attempted to find a way out of the impasse by setting up a succession plan for his own retirement that would lead to a new constitution with the appearance of democracy but all the real power still in the hands of the army, but events moved much faster than he had anticipated, partly due to the great popularity of the leader of the main democratic opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi, who found herself de facto head of government at a moment when the country was still far from being governable in any meaningful way, with an army that was not under her control, and rebel forces on all sides ready to take advantage of the apparent weakness of the state. Tragically, the crisis that exploded first was in the west, with attacks by Muslim separatists provoking brutal army repression and resulting in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees to Bangladesh.

Very interesting, both in filling in a lot I didn’t know about Burma, and as a first-hand case study of the realities of postcolonial states. ( )
  thorold | Apr 25, 2024 |
All the basic information is here but not a compelling read. ( )
  mmcrawford | Dec 5, 2023 |
Exibindo 2 de 2
The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century by Thant Myint-U (Norton, $27.95 hardcover, 304p., 9781324003298, November 12, 2019)

The Hidden History of Burma is a work of history and contemporary political analysis, an explanation of how the promise of Burmese political reform was eclipsed by ethnic violence and uncertainty. Thant Myint-U refers to the country as Burma throughout, despite the ruling junta's 1989 decision to change the country name in English to Myanmar, for linguistic reasons as well as "the nativist underpinnings of the name change." This introduces a common theme of the book: Burma as a country in flux, unsure about its identity. Former UN diplomat Thant Myint-U shows how matters of identity are tied to some of the country's challenges today.

Thant Myint-U has written on Burmese history before in books like The Making of Modern Burma. The Hidden History of Burma introduces readers to the basics of Burmese history, focusing particularly on the way colonialism and migration contributed to a country riven by countless ethnic groups with separatist ambitions. Media attention has focused on the plight of the largely Muslim Rohingya people, but Thant Myint-U shows how Burma's unstable mix of ethnicities, ideologies and religions made the country "a sea of rebels and bandits" after the nation's independence from Britain in 1948. When the prospect of reform prompted many well-meaning nations and international organizations to engage with the long-isolated country, they often stumbled into a situation they didn't fully understand.

Thant Myint-U's grandfather U Thant was Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1961 to 1971, seen by many as "a symbol of a different, more liberal Burma." When Burmese military rule started to give way to something closer to democracy, Thant Myint-U worked with the ex-generals. The book frequently serves as a frontline account of events, featuring personal insight into many of the key figures in the transition, and insider accounts of the painstaking, frustrating work of diplomacy as well as agonizing examples of missed opportunities. By immersing the reader in the difficulties of, for example, organizing disaster relief with a sclerotic government, Thant Myint-U hints at how even a mythologized figure like Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi could not produce the miraculous change international observers hoped for.

The book contains many strong opinions about how Burmese reforms came to stall and give way to the violence that created hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees. His critiques are levelled at Burmese political leaders and the international community, who Thant Myint-U depicts as overly credulous of Burma's reforms. He also criticizes the harshness and futility of international sanctions, which did not bring political change but did contribute to Burma's desperate poverty. The Hidden History of Burma shows that reforms often fixed the easiest of Burma's problems, doing nothing to address the country's more fundamental challenges.

For Western observers who may have seen the crackdown on the Rohingya as a shocking reversal of recent trends, this book is a sobering corrective, an account of how the nation arrived at a crisis point and how the international community embraced a hopeful, misleading narrative. --Hank Stephenson, manuscript reader, the Sun magazine

Shelf Talker: The Hidden History of Burma explains how a country hailed for seemingly miraculous political reforms gave way to ethnic nationalism and created one of the largest refugee crises in the world.
adicionado por ndara | editarShelf Awareness, Hank Stephenson (Oct 24, 2019)
 
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"How did one of the world's "buzzy hotspots" (Fodor's 2013) become one of the top ten places to avoid (Fodor's 2018)? Less than a decade ago, the world cheered as a dictatorship crumbled and internationally beloved Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi emerged from twenty years of house arrest. Yet just three years after her landslide victory at the polls, the country stands accused of war crimes and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims. As an historian, former diplomat, and presidential advisor, Thant Myint-U was part of the momentous changes that pulled Burma toward democracy, working with the ex-generals and meeting many of the country's biggest supporters, from Bono to Barack Obama. Yet no one was prepared to Burma's underlying challenges, from fast- rising inequality, disintegrating state institutions, and the impacts of climate change, to the rise of China next door and the issues of race, religion, and "national identity" deeply rooted in the country's traumatic colonial past. In this riveting insider's diagnosis of a country at a breaking point, Thant Myint-U shows that Burma's perils, far from being unique, are many of the same facing all of us. Burma is a warning for the world"--

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959.1053History and Geography Asia Southeast Asia Burma (Myanmar)

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