Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Burmese History

Burma (now more commonly known as Myanmar) has been in the news lately because of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi. In fact, it has been on the world's radar ever since Ms Suu Kyi stood for and won the elections back in 1990. Unfortunately, that victory was taken from her by the erstwhile military rulers and she has been in house arrest ever since.

What kind of country is Burma anyway? Why, when its close neighbour and ally, China, has shaken off the shackles of communism, does its military rulers remain intransigent over the handing of power back to the people? So my curiousity was pricked when I chance across a book with the title, "The River of Lost Footsteps - A personal history of Burma". It was a paperback with 388 pages, something that I thought I could sink my teeth into in the limited time that my busy schedule afforded. I was wrong, it took longer than what I had expected to finish it, if only because the content of this book provides some much information through a broad sweep of history of and around Burma since the time of the Sakiyan Prince Abhiraja. 'Around' because the history of Burma cannot be told without mention of India and China, its neighbours to the West and Northeast. In fact, the author, Mr Thant Myint-U, brings in the Thai, the French and the British nations into the narrative because they, at one time or another, shaped and influence the development of Burma.

The book narrates the Burmese Kings, their conquests and their rise, and their eventual demise, to be replaced by another strongman, not unlike the history of most other kingdoms, such as China. The French came in the 1700s, and in the 1800s was displaced by the British colonisers. Burma relationship with China on its Northeast and Thailand on its eastern borders are also covered in this book. All these make for fascinating reading. But the book is not only about ancient history. It covers the period right up to the 1990s where the narrative involves General Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, U Nu its first post independence PM, and even the author's maternal grandfather, U Thant - the Secretary General of the UN in the 1960s. General Ne Win, who started Burma's current militaristic rule has not been left out.

The breadth of the narrative is truly amazing and one would pick up nuggets of history as you read along, and begin to understand the psyche of the Burmese based on its long history. One of the things that struck me is the author's conclusion, based on its history, that political and economic sanctions against Burma will never work because it has been isolated for so long anyway. Rather, Burma needs to be engaged. Hopefully, such engagements will eventually draw the reclusive military regime, through its people, to became an active part of the world community.

The world seems to have begun to realise this.

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