Burma, the State of Myanmar

By David I. Steinberg | Go to book overview

Introduction

Burma or Myanmar is a country in which access is limited, field work generally prohibited, information hoarded, statistics often whimsical, visitors discouraged until recently, and data often interpreted and released through myopic and controlled political lenses. Myanmar presents problems—problems of analysis and even data. Statistics are often whimsical, events are sometimes opaque, the complexity of the past clouds our thinking, information is filtered through skewed political lenses, propaganda is rife, and the future presents conundrums even for participants in the drama, let alone observers on the periphery.

Myanmar is still basically closed and secretive, knowledge and information are power and are not readily shared, and to understand these dynamics expatriate Burmese and foreigners often resort to reading the Rangoon tea leaves, much as old China watchers in Hong Kong or Kremlinologists of yore were reduced to doing on those societies. Thus to write on contemporary issues about such a country requires a degree of hubris as well as an act of faith. Writing on this state becomes an art, not a scientific inquiry, and in art we all know what we like, although objective criteria escape us. However murky our crystal balls may be, the importance of attempting to predict the future becomes critical so that present policies may deal with future realities. Dante Alighieri in The Divine Comedy, however, consigns soothsayers and their ilk to one of the lower circles of hell, although political predictions today are a growth industry. The future of Myanmar may not equate to the present, but the present will endow the future with detritus that the poor, damned prognosticator ignores at his or her peril. History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes, as Mark Twain quipped.

Here is a society important in itself, strategically situated, possessing rich and varied cultural traditions over a millennium, with extensive natural

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