Thant Myint-U states his intentions right at the beginning of this book: It is, he says, intended as a guide to Myanmar’s past, “an introduction to a country whose current problems are increasingly known but whose colourful and vibrant history is almost entirely forgotten”. It is also an attempt to understand the present in the light of the past and to bring history into the typically ahistorical analysis of the country’s current situation.
The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma: Penguin, 384 pages, Rs495
The story in The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma starts in 1885, with the last king of Burma on the throne. He is preparing for a war he knows he can’t win. The British army is advancing upon Mandalay and his choices are limited. Egged on by his wife, Thibaw decides to make a last stand.
Among the proximate causes of his plight is a book by an explorer named Archibald Colquhoun called Burma and the Burmans: Or, the Best Unopened Market in the World. Colquhoun thinks removing the king will make Burma a friend of Britain and open a road to the limitless markets of China. Randolph Churchill, Winston’s father, is among those impressed by this argument.
Things go badly for the Burmese, as expected, and the king ends up in exile in Ratnagiri on India’s Konkan coast. One of his daughters has an affair with the local durwan of the palace where the royal family is held and becomes pregnant. And so, descendants of the last king of Burma are now somewhere in Mumbai while the remains of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s family live in Rangoon. It is a fascinating little anecdote and one of many that bring the promised colour to what might have been a sedate study of Burma’s past. Like many other anecdotes in the book, it is one that relates Burma to India.
Through the country’s history, India emerges as a major influence and only one of many in a world that was far more globalized than we tend to think. “All Burmese children are taught that their history begins at Tagaung—it was here that the Sakyan prince Abhiraja had arrived from the Middle Country of India and founded the country’s very first kingdom.” Elsewhere, the author notes: “By the fourth century, many in the Irrawady Valley had converted to South India’s Buddhism, the single most important development in Burma’s long history.”
Fifteen centuries later, it was an incursion into India that led the imperial Burmese kingdom to its downfall. The Burmese king Alaungpaya had invaded and ravaged Manipur twice, in 1758 and 1764. The Burmese influence extended now to Assam. But there was another player in the field: the East India Company. They were on their way to capturing Cachar when the British declared war on them. It was the beginning of the end of Burmese independence.
Myint-U’s “guide” proceeds rapidly thereafter to the end of the Burmese monarchy in 1885 and the story of Thibaw’s fall with which the book opened. He appears to blame the collapse of the traditional order that followed the advent of colonialism for the country’s current plight. However, this view does not explain why India is not in the same condition, since the same events occurred here.
The narrative in this section is interspersed with the author’s own family history. Myint-U is the grandson of U Thant, who was secretary general of the United Nations for two terms from 1961-71. The anecdotes in the book point to a clash of values between his grandfather and Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi. One of their first clashes, Myint-U writes, was on the subject of school uniforms. U Thant argued for fostering in children a sense of individuality while Aung San held that the standardization of human life was both “inevitable and desirable”. Aung San’s views soon carried the day.
The fork that Burma subsequently took towards authoritarianism has seen the country under military dictatorship for over 40 years. Isolation and sanctions have had little impact upon the military regime in power. Myint-U argues that the policy of isolation is counterproductive and that the best way to improve the political situation in Burma is through trade and tourism. “Without isolation, the status quo will be impossible to sustain,” he writes.
His prescription differs as much from that of Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters as U Thant’s did from Aung San’s. Perhaps India’s foreign policy shift following Operations Leech and Golden Bird wasn’t so wrong after all. Now, if only they would open up the Stilwell Road again.
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