John Casey

Pawn or game-changer?

The British were in Burma for more than 120 years, but were never sure what to do with it. They completed their conquest in 1885, annexing Upper Burma and abolishing the ancient, semi-divine monarchy, apparently on the whim of Randolph Churchill. This was contrary to the British imperial tradition of indirect rule, and brought about a crisis of legitimacy which was never overcome. British rule was never fully accepted, even though the country prospered under the Raj, becoming the greatest exporter of rice in the world. In the short-lived democracy after independence, the rather bumbling U-Nu kept winning landslide victories in elections. But he was overthrown in an army coup which established a sort of voodoo socialism under the enigmatic General Ne Win, who proceeded to impoverish the country, while enriching himself, and cutting Burma off from most contact with the outside world. Burma became a largely forgotten country.

There things remained until the great insurrection of 1988 in which the whole of Burmese society seemed to join, until it was put down with great brutality. If Burma has gradually entered public consciousness, it is because it has been seen as the stage for one of the most prolonged struggles between despotism and the desire for freedom in the modern world.

Thant Myint-U — author of two earlier books on Burmese history — wants us to take a larger view. He is rather non-committal on the political future of Burma, indeed, rather detached. It is a main contention of the book that in concentrating on the struggle for democracy, we are victims of myopia, failing to see how the future of Burma will be determined above all by its geographical relations with China and India, and by the needs of two economies that are developing at breakneck speed.

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