Answers In The Past
Full of counterintuitive views (he’s opposed to sanctions and wants tourists to visit Burma) historian Thant Myint-U is a former UN official and the author of the recent history of Burma, The River of Lost Footsteps. He spoke to LAKSHMI INDRASIMHAN on how Burma’s history affects its present day, and what the outside world can do to help.
In your book you talk about how the overthrow of the last Burmese king Thibaw in the late 19th century caused a breakage in the continuity of Burma’s history and, you argue, was the source of many of Burma’s problems today. Was the monarchy that important?
It’s hard to overestimate how central the monarchy was to traditional Burmese society for hundreds of years. When the monarchy was abolished in 1886, this represented a big break not only because all of the traditional institutions of government that were connected to it – the aristocracy, even the gentry families and local traditional social structures – for many different reasons collapsed around the same time. In some ways, it does mark the beginning of modern Burma’s many different problems. It’s not that Burma couldn’t have recovered from it but that in some ways it hasn’t recovered from it.
When you say upper class society you mean the civil society, the intelligentsia. Was this dissolved or did they become impoverished?
There was a traditional leadership class which dissolved. That doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing if it replaced by something else. You had the introduction of all these colonial institutions, some of which, if they had lasted might have been of benefit to the country. But partly because British rule lasted for such a relatively short time, these institutions never had a chance to right themselves – including the parliament, civil service – and then there was a huge immigration of people from the rest of British India at the time, who filled all the modern classes of society. So you had the old traditional system collapsed or taken away, and the new institutions were still very fragile. And you had people from other parts of British India coming to fill important positions.
By important positions you mean the bureaucracy and the civil institutions were mostly comprised of Indians.
Yes Indians, but people from all across what was then British India, except for Burma. It wasn’t just the bureaucracy. It was almost every single modern part of Burmese society, so whether it was the businessmen, the barristers, the university professor, all the way down to factory workers, dock workers, the urban proletariat. From the top to the bottom, everything that was modern and urban was essentially Indian. The old Burmese chiefs, the nobility had disappeared. Rangoon was 80 percent Indian, so you had this kind of egalitarian village Burma that began to develop this fairly soured defensive nationalism. I think that the turn happened in the 1930s when you had immigration at its peak, but because of the depression, there was this intense scramble for jobs in the cities. These jobs were already filled by mostly Tamils, sometimes people from Orissa, sometimes Bengalis. And that created the first wave of inter-communal violence at the time.
Is it the idea of the Burmese as a martial race rather than the childlike, happy people of British stereotype, that places the army in such a central position in Burma today? I know this deeply effected General Ne Win, but what about the average Burmese?
Absolutely. This was a country unlike India with the Mughals. Burma’s main experience with the British empire was at the height of the empire. In 1824-26, when the first war was fought, the Burmese had defeated the Chinese and the Thais within living memory, had conquered westward into Assam, so maybe they didn’t think they were going to beat the British but it was the height of their pride, their self image as a conquering people. And so I think that idea that it was the British and British rule and colonialism that took away this legacy is a very strong one. It wasn’t a country that was already otherwise in decline and then had to cope with colonialism. I think that made a difference in terms of the way in which the nationalism evolved in the country.
You talked about how at one point the attitude of Burmese Theravada Buddhism offered a good example of the Burmese tendency towards isolationism.
Theravada Buddhism had developed in Burma as a refugee Buddhism. In the medieval Pagan period, there was this huge influx of Buddhists from Bengal especially in the wake of the Muslim invasions of north India. So Pagan self-consciously developed as this Buddhist civilisation at a time when it knew that Buddhism was under threat almost everywhere else. In Tibet, in China with neo-Confucianism, in north India, even in Orissa and Bengal. And the school of Buddhism it adopted which now is pretty much the only school of Buddhism (Theravada) is also a kind of ultra-conservative Sinhalese Buddhism that saw itself as a threatened Buddhism that had managed to survive centuries of Chola and Tamil threat. And so the core of the Burmese cultural identity is the sense of a tradition that is fragile and needs to be guarded against the rest of the world.
Which is strange to think, because there are all these warrior-kings who went out and conquered surrounding kingdoms.
It’s related to that very directly. The Burmese believed that they alone were guardians of the true faith. And everywhere else, even other Buddhist societies like Thailand, as somehow corrupted, and their kings saw their great design was to strengthen it by expanding the boundaries of it. That’s why these kings had dreams of re-conquering Bodhgaya and expanding. It was part of this desire to push back the boundaries of Buddhism after what they saw as a thousand years of decline.
I know the regime has done a very good job of co-opting regular Burmese into their fold, by privileging the army with a parallel social welfare system, their own clinics, schools, subsidies. Is that one of the reasons the regime has been so enduring?
Certainly the fact that the army has been able to develop a whole series of privileges for its people and their families, for its veterans is a very important part of creating loyalty among the armed class of people. But this huge expansion in the army is very recent. Today it is one of the ten biggest armies in the world. It grew from 180, 000 to 400,000 just since 1990. This is also an army that has been fighting constantly. And so in a way, this sort of idea of the ethnic Burmese as this martial, conquering people is still a much bigger part of the mentality, because they are still fighting all these peoples on their periphery. And sure, a central part of the regime’s strength is its hold on the army. The fact that it is the army. And that institution has been coddled and privileged in many different ways.
You said the army grew by leaps and bounds after 1990. So this is after the 1988 protests that you were also a part of. Was this part of a new direction on the part of the government?
Yes. I think that after the uprising was crushed, the army over the next few years made a series of decisions. One thing was promise to hold elections and transfer power. And that they didn’t do. The things they did do was 1) enter into ceasefire arrangements with almost all the different rebel groups in the country, and that was new. It represented a turn towards a more political strategy for outmanoeuvring the armed conflict than a purely military strategy. 2) It vastly expanded the armed forces partly to make sure it had more than enough troops to contend with another uprising and partly to be able to consolidate the gains it was making as a result of these ceasefires. And then the third big shift was in the economic realm, where they decided that though they didn’t want to be a democracy they did want to end the isolationist policies and move towards a more open economy and invite foreign investment, etc.
Does it matter what the US does, when Burma has India and China and Japan?
I have no doubt that if regional countries pressured the Burmese government to do certain things, the Burmese government might listen and do them. But if those things are central to what the regime sees as central to its own basic survival and security I’m not sure that leverage is there to move it fundamentally. The generals believe that no amount of foreign interference right now is going to actually overthrow them. And I think that they believe that it is only through ruling with an iron fist, and then forcefully integrating all the minorities by building roads, by the economy, by trade, by integrationist educational and language policy within an authoritarian structure that in twenty years will finally lead to a stable Burma that is rid of all its insurgencies, that can grow economically.
What would they say if you were to say this is a really horrible way of doing things?
They would say this is the only guaranteed road to stability. Our’s is a country that naturally tends to fall apart, its comprised of hundreds of minorities, there is so much foreign interference, the Americans the Chinese and others have constantly supported different insurgent groups, its only when we finally and forcefully integrated the entire country that a single cultural language model, that we can have stability. But then you can say it is actually great to have diversity and different languages, it doesn’t cut much ice with them.
I know that you say that regime change is what everyone bandies about. But you don’t think that’s productive.
Well I’m not sure what that would even look like. Even if you had tomorrow a miraculously different government, a civilian government in power. You would still have the army as the only real institution in government.
What are the points at which pressure could be applied?
You have within the regional countries, India to some extent, but China, some of the ASEAN countries have economic leverage. These are relations the government desperately wants to preserve. Once there is a consensus of regional countries and we have a process that the regional countries are fully on board with, that alone acts as a sort of implicit pressure.
India, shockingly, said very little during the recent protests. To what extent are these governments just pacifying the junta and not necessarily using any leverage they have?
The bottom line consideration of these governments especially in the region is that this regime is going to survive, so there is no real point in irritating them. If either Delhi or Beijing went to the Burmese and said, ok, you have to have a quick time table to transition to an elected government, they won’t listen. But there are many ways around that. Even though the front door is very closed, there are backdoors and windows that might be slightly open. So what we need is a much more creative and dynamic diplomatic process and then on to that one can graft possible ways in which to persuade and pressure the government. I think the Chinese have actually come around to the realisation that in the past few years that its not clear at all that this regime will provide long term stability and that it doesn’t mean that you have to try and overthrow that but that you have to come up with ways to help the situation. And that the outside world can be part of helping. And I am not sure that Indian has come to the same conclusion. Even though China probably says less than India publicly, it is doing a lot more behind the scenes. Facilitating Gambari’s trip back to Burma. Facilitating direct talks between the Americans and the Burmese in Beijing last summer. It talks to the opposition groups, it talks to the insurgent groups on the common border. The Chinese are actually looking for ways in which to nudge everyone along. So first, I think it would be very good if India could speak out more clearly on its support for democracy, but perhaps as importantly, if not more importantly, is the need for India to become directly involved in diplomatic efforts to move things along.
I read something you wrote about how political change could emerge over the next decade or so, which seems a long time to wait considering the rate of emigration.
It’s really three things in my mind. The need to find a political settlement at the centre, that moves the country at least one good step towards eventual democratic government. The second is the humanitarian and economic and social fronts and the desperate need for change. And the third is moving towards the resolution of the armed conflict. And all three of these things have to move at the same time. As you saw in the recent protests, the initial spark was because of the people’s extreme desperation. If India especially, for its own national security reasons or otherwise, feels circumscribed in taking on a too confrontational attitude towards the government, I think then it should perhaps try to play a leading role on questions of poverty alleviation in Burma. And address the urgent need to improve health and education in the country and to increase impartial humanitarian access. And I think that would be a very respected role, and I don’t see any way in which that goes against other concern which India has in the country.
The view of the regime is as an incredibly repressive one. To what extent is that violence and repression committed against citizens on a daily basis.
For the longest time the worst human rights abuses- summary executions, burning of villages took place within the context of counter-insurgency campaigns. To the extent that most of these ended in the 1990s because of the ceasefires, the overall picture for many people probably improved. Because of the political repression at the centre there is on the one hand, there is almost zero political freedom in terms of freedom to speak out. And recently there’s been a real ratcheting up of the levels of repression and fear. At least in Rangoon. But though there is almost no free political space yet it’s not a totalitarian, communist, Stalinist society, because beneath that very repressive, robust political level, a lot of society is unaffected by the state, in terms of daily business life, cultural life, religious life. But other than the army, it is not as if there are millions of other bureaucrats that are watching. It’s not like China thirty years ago.
What are the day to day problems that the average Burmese has to encounter? I know high inflation is one of them.
Good statistics are very hard to come by. Like in other very poor countries, at least a third of the country is below a dollar a day, poverty wise. But then you could have as many as another sixty percent very close to that. The vast majority of people are barely surviving. And spending a huge amount of their income on food and that is why the fuel price increase has tipped the balance for so many people. You have a country in which only a tiny number of people have any sort of access to public health. Where the education system has been in decline for a long time. and some of these things, you can say is not just the fault of the government though they are clearly bad policies, but there have been western sanctions, which are not sanctions on trade and investment but on all kinds of aid for twenty years. So what you need is a process that convince the government to make the right kinds of reforms to turn the economy more towards something that will benefit ordinary people. And then as part of that a relaxation of sanctions at least on aid and then eventually on other things as well.
You talk about how the isolation of the regime. What kind of access do regular Burmese have to the outside world?
You have now in Burma the first generation who are now in their 20s early 30s, who have grown up with satellite TV, grown up with information from around the world, who are almost entirely free to get a passport and travel if they can afford it. In a way, it’s probably the army that is more isolated in terms of their mentality and outlook than a lot of people in Rangoon. It’s not like North Korea. You go to Rangoon, and people are fixated by these Korean soap operas. There are about 400 magazines in Burma, including gossip magazines with Brad Pitt. And that is all the more reason that they want more political freedom and more freedom generally. But they also want economic development, desperately.
Unlike Aung San Suu Kyi, you believe that tourists should visit Burma.
There are two arguments against tourism in Burma. The first is a moral argument that people shouldn’t visit dictatorships or places where there is political repression, and that is understandable and that is sort of an open and closed case. The second thought is a strategic argument that somehow if you go you are helping to fund and keep the regime going. And that I think is untrue. When Aung San Suu Kyi first said more than ten years ago, please don’t come, it was a certain circumstance, because the regime was still cash strapped. It had just launched this Visit Myanmar year hoping that this was going to bring in all this money. So she said yeah I think it is better for people to wait and she was hoping there would be change relatively soon. But now the government is getting billions from natural gas exports and its foreign exchange situation is better than ever before. The amount of money it is getting from tourism is negligible. At most it gets in the low 10s of millions of dollars. So even if tourists grew ten times, so they started getting 4-500 million a year, it wouldn’t make a difference between the regimes survival and not. Yet if the number of tourists increased ten time I think it would make all the difference in the world of exposing the country. Imagine if during the protests of last month instead of a few tourists, Rangoon was full of tourists? The landscape we have constructed of few tourists, almost no western companies, almost no foreign investment except in extracting industries oil and gas, is almost an ideal landscape where a repressive political system can continue to exist indefinitely.
How has the regime been able to resist the spread of democracy?
I think it’s purely violence. It’s not as if the country is divided between people that believe in the country’s ideology, because I don’t think they have an ideology. They have a certain mentality, certain kinds of things they tell themselves, but there is no ideology in the way a communist country might have a communist ideology. I think there is a deep seated xenophobia in the country, and an ethnic chauvinism and the regime taps into that. And there are probably people both inside and outside the regime that do believe that the minorities cause trouble and foreigners are to be distrusted.
When Ne Win came to power, he had twin manias. One was that Burma had to be ordered and organised, and the other was his hatred of Indians. During the first coup the army was proud of themselves for having cleaned up Burma in some ways and that gave them the confidence to try again. What were the reasons behind pushing Burma to “order itself” once again?
I think in the 1950s you had two things. On the one hand, you had the now lost tradition of Burmese cosmopolitanism, internationalism, the desire to be part of the world, an interest in world affairs, to be a good citizen of the world. And that links into one of the good legacies of colonialism, the development of an educated class that is relatively liberal in outlook and that cared and was intellectually interested in the rest of the world. But for the army in the 1950s, including Ne Win, the focus was on the internal stuff and they were the ones actually fighting the communists and the ethnic rebels and for them the disorderliness was a civil war. But also these party politicians were often corrupt, and it was the army that was going from village to village town to town restoring order, defeating local militia and warlords. They got sick of that having to deal with party politics, just fighting each other or looking for money or personal profit. Their vision was of a state that was cleansed of that kind of politics. That could fight the civil war.
It doesn’t seem like the British were ever that interested in Burma, except as a strategic territory between India and China.
It was a strategic add on to India, for its defensive purpose. There were many companies that made money there on oil and other things. But it was never central to the British empire. An important comparison is with Malaysia and Singapore. Because the British in a very conscious decision in the late 40s 46, 47, that their future in the east lay in Malaya and Singapore. The plantations, Singapore as a strategic asset. And Burma being the most destroyed country in WWII outside the Russian and Japanese theatre and poor wasn’t really worth the effort of holding onto and rebuilding. And so it as better just to quit and so that’s why they did. The interesting counterfactual question would be, if the British had stayed on in Burma another ten years and it was a British army or a British Ghurkha army rather than a Burmese army that defeated the communists as in Malaya, and like in Malaya and Singapore, the British invested in health and education and created a welfare state, what would Burma look like today? If the British then left only in the late 1950s? These are things you can’t really say them in Burma because the idea was the earlier the independence the better, but it’s an interesting thought.