Thant Myint-U: The unbearable burden of history

The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century
By Thant Myint U
Norton, 288 pp

In all my years of writing and journalism, the only time I recall ever being turned down for an interview at an arts event was when Thant Myint-U, pre-eminent historian on Burma and grandson of U Thant, third Secretary-General of the United Nations (1961-71), snubbed me before his appearance at the Irrawaddy Litfest in 2014.

I had taken a year’s leave of absence from my job in Canada, partly to spend a few months in Burma with my husband who was born and raised in Karen State. While living with him in Rangoon, I paid our living expenses by working as a sub-editor for a local non-state newspaper. I also began early drafts of my first novel, gathering impressions of a country that had beguiled me for decades but which I’d never been to—despite piles of books read, interviews with Shan refugees while living in Thailand, a master’s thesis on exiled “indy” media, and, of course, a Burmese spouse—until we finally landed there in September 2013.

When I found out about the Irrawaddy Litfest, an annual gathering of Burmese and foreign authors held in the former capital of Mandalay each February, I decided to attend. Having scanned the list of invited authors and seen Thant Myint-U’s name, I then registered for a media pass and contacted festival organizers to request an interview with him: three years into the post-dictatorship era, I wanted to know what his thoughts were on the current state of Burmese society and democracy. The next day, a publicist got back to me with a surprisingly terse e-mail: Myint-U, she said, had declined my request. No apology or explanation. Nothing about being fully booked or not doing interviews generally. Just a hard “no.” When I mentioned this to my Burmese colleagues in the newsroom, no one seemed surprised.

“You’re not from the New York Times,” shrugged a young reporter, assuring me his comment was aimed more at Myint-U than at me.

The rejection stung. For one thing, I admired Myint-U’s writing. With two of his first three tomes on my bookshelf, I not only respected the pragmatism of his long view of political progress but also appreciated his gift for vivid, non-academic storytelling and saw him as an important voice of reconciliation and understanding between Burma and the West. There was also more than a hint of class envy: while I was a two-year-old being raised in bourgeois suburbia on the sleepy west coast of Canada, Thant Myint-U came into this world at the end of January 1966 as a scion of one of Burma’s wealthiest exile families in New York City. A child of privilege born into the upper-crust elite, he was surrounded from infancy by cultural, business and political movers and shakers. Raised to be ambitious, goal-oriented and achievement-driven—and with a blue-blood pedigree that guaranteed him an Ivy League education—he knew his only possible road was a purpose-driven life marked by academic clout, diplomatic connections, and global influence.

Following that road, Myint-U sailed through degrees at the best schools (BA at Harvard, MA at Johns Hopkins, PhD at Cambridge) before becoming a Trinity (Cambridge) research fellow. He then spent several years at the United Nations, serving multiple posts as policy wonk and advisor to peacekeeping missions. By 2014 he had been living in the country of his ancestors, now known as Myanmar, for three years and was heading up charities such as U Thant House and the Yangon Heritage Trust. Now well positioned between American and Burmese perspectives, he had more insight than anyone else on the planet into how Western assumptions about human rights collide with Burmese realities on the ground. Seeing myself as better informed on these matters than your average Western lay person, I had lots of questions for him.

It is always disheartening to be reminded of one’s unworthiness of a more important person’s time. But six years later, having read The Hidden History of Burma and learned the extent of Myint-U’s hands-on involvement with the governing of Myanmar while I was living there, it’s fair to say that I’m fully cured of whatever resentment I’d harboured for him since Mandalay. For in revealing the kind of company he kept (consulting with Obama, Prince Charles, and multiple foreign ministers, hanging out with Bono, keeping Burmese government and Army officials on speed dial), and some of the critical issues he was tackling (from anti-poverty campaigns to ceasefire negotiations between government and ethnic armies), the book makes clear just how deeply embedded in Burmese affairs Myint-U was by the time I was looking him up. I didn’t have a clue who I was actually dealing with, so really, I didn’t have a hope in hell of ever sitting down with him.

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Thant Myint-U

In his second book, The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma (2006), Myint-U positioned himself as an exiled historian: someone with deep knowledge of Burma then and now, but who remained out of the fray as an overseas observer. His storytelling was top-notch. Weaving tales of royal dynasties from bygone centuries with dramatic accounts of foreign encroachment, from Portuguese traders to British colonial rule and the devastation of World War II, he painted a haunting portrait of a once prosperous country that, since the 1962 military coup, had descended into a socio-economic and political malaise from which it had yet to recover.

By this point he had stopped supporting economic sanctions and tourist boycotts, dismissing this Western strategy as a destructive force that was only hurting ordinary Burmese people while empowering the dictators. By taking this stance, he knew he was flouting conventional wisdom. But he also knew he was right (his 1992 conversion happened around the same time that Than Shwe, the most brutal and intransigent of the dictators, took power), and he made the case more forcefully in Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia (2011). Among other things, that book revealed how mutual economic interests and competition for regional influence tend to preclude human rights in deals reached between countries that never prioritize the latter. (So, the West is boycotting? Fine! Let’s call on Beijing or New Delhi.)

As I read his latest book, I couldn’t help calling it The Hidden History of Thant Myint U. For while his earlier works mixed personal memoir with historical narrative, the private information he shared in them was, for the most part, safely steeped in the past. For this volume Myint-U sheds his mask of objectivity by placing himself directly in the action, clearly establishing his role as a player in many of the events since 2007 that he describes. While his diplomatic background qualified him for this work, his interventions into Burmese domestic and international affairs were also born of frustration: for years he could see what well-meaning, Western supporters of boycotts never could: that the number of people in Burma suffering from poverty and other problems was too great, and their plight too urgent, for politics to be limited to elections and democracy; that contact with decision-makers needed to happen regardless of who was in power. But for Western liberals who’d spent decades oversimplifying Burmese politics as being all about The Lady (Nobel Prize-winning prisoner of conscience Aung San Suu Kyi) versus the Generals, such thinking was a tall order. After 2010, there was a new problem: the U.S. and European Union were far too optimistic about the opening up of Burma during its transition from military dictatorship to quasi-civilian rule. Salivating neoliberals wanted in on the action.

Despite their mistrust of his Western-education, career and connections, Myint-U ironically had an “in” with the generals: his opposition to sanctions and boycotts. After their first meetings in the new jungle-based capital of Naypyidaw, where the generals lectured him on history and complained of being misunderstood, Myint-U began a marathon round of shuttle diplomacy on the regime’s behalf. Traveling to Washington, Ottawa, London and EU capitals and meeting with foreign ministers, he tried but failed to get discussions going about easing sanctions. (“No one wanted to rock the boat,” he says. “Burma was just not important enough. Showing solidarity with the democracy movement was politically expedient. Results didn’t matter.”)

After Cyclone Nargis he met with Admiral Keating, the U.S. naval officer in charge of the Western relief effort, to help speed up humanitarian aid. Later he flew to Washington to speak to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then returned to Bangkok to meet with the Thai prime minister and the head of the UN regional economic commission. During one stretch in 2009, he piled up the frequent flyer points by logging a dozen trips between Rangoon and Naypyidaw and a dozen more in Asian and Western capitals. After the first post-dictatorship elections in 2010 (won by the pro-Army party), President Thein Sein, a former general who had most recently served as prime minister, appointed Myint-U to the National Economic and Social Advisory Council. He also named him one of four advisors to the peace process with ethnic border armies, which led to a key role in Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement talks.

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In focussing his narrative on themes of race, capitalism, and democracy, Myint-U covers a lot of ground. Concerned about climate change and its future impacts on Burma, he sounds the alarm about promoting a growth-at-all-costs approach to development, not only in terms of environmental degradation but also for the odds of raising already high poverty and child malnutrition rates. He speaks to ordinary Burmese citizens about their experiences in the global economy (a young woman sex trafficked to China, a young man enslaved on a Thai fishing boat), and notes the many ways that endemic corruption, a multi-billion-dollar illicit drug economy, and large-scale theft of local resources (such as the jade industry in Kachin State), along with never-ending border skirmishes, have prevented so many people in Burma from living lives of prosperity and dignity.

This being his first book in nearly a decade—and knowing that readers would be looking for his position on Rakhine State and the Rohingya Muslims, a subject about which he is seldom quoted—it’s no surprise that race is one of the three major subjects of Hidden History. Anyone sniffing about for authorial Bamar Buddhist biases, however, will come up empty: the Western-born-and-bred Myint-U clearly comes out against the ethnonationalist, neoconservative strain of Theravada Buddhism that has paralyzed public discourse among the majority Bamar culture since 2011.

The notion of Burma as a society of racial hierarchy is nothing new, he says, but goes back to British colonialism. Nor did the question of Rohingya identity and belonging begin with the violence in 2012: twenty years earlier, to cite just one example, some 200,000 Rohingyas also fled to Bangladesh. Says Myint-U: “Few, if any, in the incipient democracy movement thought much about these people’s rights.” The difference in the post-dictatorship era has been the factor of social media in stoking old prejudices. Regarding Facebook’s role in spreading anti-Rohingya racist hate in Burma, we learn that the company employed only one Burmese language speaker (and no one from any of the country’s ethnic minority languages) to maintain 18 million new users.

Myint-U includes touching examples of Burmese Buddhists who defied the mob mentality: an Arakan Buddhist woman and her Rohingya neighbour who stayed in touch on Facebook after the latter was forced to flee to Qatar, and Abbot U Vithudda of Meikhtila, who gave refuge to 800 Muslims in his monastery while the city was aflame with anti-Muslim riots. Such courageous dissenters will remain voices in the wilderness, however, as long as there is no vision of Burma as a multiracial, multicultural society. This much is evident in the widespread acceptance of nationalist monk organizations like Mabatha—the Association for Protection of Race and Religion—which advocate for laws regulating the marriage of Buddhist women and Muslim men. For that matter, notes Myint-U, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, an insurgency group whose attacks on police stations in 2016 and 2017 triggered the Army’s massive reprisal violence in Rohingya communities, will always be regarded as a threat to “Burmese values” among the Bamar majority.

In the end, Myint-U concludes that there will never be a bright future for Burma without “crafting a new and more inclusive identity, one not tied to race and one not based on a notion of uniting fixed ethnic categories.” This, of course, will play well among the Western NGO set. The bigger challenge will be convincing Burmese government, academics and media to embrace a non-racist vision of their country.

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Aung San Suu Kyi at the Irrawaddy Litfest in Mandalay, February 2014 (Daniel Gawthrop photo)

The elephant in the room, of course, is Suu Kyi. Earlier in their lives, when the author was a child and the world a simpler place, the adult Suu Kyi visited Myint-U’s family home in New York. During the 80s, Myint-U looked her up in Oxford a few times. Then in 1996, on his first visit to Burma since the 1988 uprising, he tried to see her while she was under house arrest, but the Army would not allow their lunch meeting to proceed. They would not meet again for another fifteen years, during the early days of post-dictatorship rule. Their one encounter at the National League for Democracy (NLD) office was friendly, with Suu Kyi suggesting they get together over a meal some time to properly catch up. But several of Myint-U’s attempts to see her again over the coming months went nowhere, he says, “likely because some around her felt that I had become too close to a presidential team she no longer trusted.”

Nowhere in the book does Myint-U come out directly and slam Suu Kyi’s leadership or declare her a spent force. He’s much too smart for that, knowing her iconic status and popularity remain undiminished among the general population. But he doesn’t exactly bail her out of her disastrous international fall from grace, either. And there are enough drive-by pokes to suggest the two are still not on speaking terms. Suu Kyi might have reason to regard the much younger Myint-U as a potential rival, rather than a partner, in building a better Burma; Myint-U, concerned that Burma is turning into a failed state, has likely run out of patience with messianic leadership devoid of hard policy initiatives.

Knowing how many Westerners worshipped her before she led government and then were shocked by her indifference toward the plight of the Rohingyas (she is notorious for refusing to mention the word), Myint-U suggests that Suu Kyi was never the exemplar of “universal” values that the West made her out to be. In her pre-1988 academic papers, for example, she described Burmese “racial survival” as being threatened by Chinese and Indian immigrants. Myint-U’s account of the violence in Rakhine State since 2016, while Suu Kyi has led the government, suggests that Burma’s once great hope for democracy really does share the same ethnonationalism as the military leaders she once opposed. Hidden History was published before Suu Kyi’s appearance at the International Criminal Court last December, when she defended the Army by denying “genocidal intent” in its violent attacks on Muslim communities that led to an exodus of 800,000 Rohingyas to Bangladesh. But Myint-U’s account of her on-the-record remarks before then suggests skepticism that Suu Kyi has the vision or even the desire to resolve the race and identity crisis in Burma.

Myint-U’s biggest beef with Suu Kyi appears to be her steadfast belief that parliamentary democracy under a strong leader is all the people need to guarantee a bright future. (That, and her frequent invocation of “the people” as a monolithic force with a single voice and collective political aspiration.) Even through the long years of her house arrest, there was no negotiating with the generals on actual problems of the day. The NLD’s only response was that democracy would fix everything once the military relinquished power. So, now that she’s in charge, how has that worked out?

Following the NLD’s massive election win in 2015, Suu Kyi circumvented a constitutional clause that prevented her from serving as president by using her parliamentary majority to create a new position, State Councillor, that made her de facto leader of the country. Among the State Councillor’s early decisions, Myint-U notes, were getting rid of advisors to the Thein Sein government, closing the Myanmar Peace Center (despite enthusiastic NLD support among many of the young staff who lost their jobs), and doing no outreach to civil society organizations, activists or exiles who might have contributed new ideas for governing a democratic Burma but instead surrounding herself with ageing yes men from the 1988 uprising.

In the end, Myint-U has nothing encouraging to say about the first term of Suu Kyi’s NLD government. The Lady has issued no policy initiatives or timetables, conducted no succession planning, and achieved no success in her attempts to reboot the peace process in the border regions. Then there’s her denial of Rohingya genocide. Despite all this—and perhaps because of the latter—she’ll probably win by another landslide in November’s elections.

“Her rule was never about government solving people’s problems,” he concludes damningly. “Her instincts were deeply conservative. Personal responsibility was paramount.”

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The idea of negotiating with military dictators or their quasi-civilian successors, as Myint-U did, might have seemed retrograde, or like a sell-out, to NLD and Western activists at the time. But the wisdom of a pragmatic, problem-solving approach in Burma becomes more apparent the longer Suu Kyi is in power and the same old problems persist. Admittedly, the question remains open as to whether Burma—a country bogged down by border disputes, endemic corruption, widespread poverty, a $50-billion methamphetamine industry, and the Army always pulling the strings—is governable at all, in any real sense. But there’s a note of optimism in Myint-U’s final words: “Burma needs a new project of the imagination.”

This only raises the question of what the author’s long-term plans might be. Having diagnosed many of the problems his country faces, and having served in seemingly every capacity but political leadership to address them, he has strong views on what needs to be done. Yet he remains outside the cut and thrust of political partisanship, even as the country starves for new and younger leadership. According to his Wikipedia page—he doesn’t mention it in the book—he became a Myanmar national in 2011, around the same time he moved to the country and began advising Thein Sein. Myanmar doesn’t allow dual citizenship, so this means that he surrendered his U.S. citizenship. That’s a pretty major decision, for someone coming from a life of such privilege in the West, and I can think of only one other person who’s done it: another Burmese person from a powerful family who was raised and educated in the West before, in mid-life, deciding to return to the land of a famous relative.

That person’s name is Aung San Suu Kyi.

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At the Irrawaddy Litfest with Wild Swans author Jung Chang.

Back in February 2014, I ended up enjoying the Irrawaddy Litfest immensely. I got to meet other authors, both from Burma and around the world, and talk about why we write. I finally met and sat down with compatriot Karen Connelly, whose The Lizard Cage remains the best novel about Burma I’ve ever read. And yes, I got to see Suu Kyi—then Opposition leader during Thein Sein’s one-term government—live and in person for the first time, at an informal lunch-hour chat with a BBC presenter. (Before the NLD leader’s capacity-size audience was admitted, the auditorium first had to be cleared of the previous event’s crowd and swept for explosives. Then The Lady made her dramatic entrance, surrounded by a phalanx of intimidating NLD bodyguards. The “chat” was confined to safe topics, Suu Kyi’s interviewer lobbing soft balls about the future of Burmese literature.)

I also attended one of Myint-U’s scheduled events, a lecture based on Where China Meets India. As expected he was an eloquent and charismatic speaker, one moment engaging us with visions of old Burma and the royal court in Mandalay, the next taking us back to present-day Myanmar and the realpolitik of a controversial dam project with China. Cutting a fine figure in a formal suit, Myint-U, with his patrician good looks and East Coast American accent, was also a big hit with the ladies.

During the Q&A session a middle-aged Western woman, evidently besotted, tried to engage him in a discussion about the importance of family dynasties and continuity in Burmese politics. As a leader then approaching sixty-nine years of age, she noted, Suu Kyi had spent decades as the democracy movement’s flagbearer without grooming the next generation of leaders. Would Myint-U ever consider stepping into the political ring himself? After all, she said: he was also from a prominent Burmese family dynasty and happened to be twenty years younger than Suu Kyi. The audience laughed warmly.

“I understand where you’re coming from,” Myint-U replied bashfully, “but really, I’m too much into history. When it comes right down to it, I’m just a history teacher.”

Stay tuned.