Brutal, Bankrupt Burma

By Casey, John | The Spectator, March 10, 2007 | Go to article overview

Brutal, Bankrupt Burma


Casey, John, The Spectator


THE RIVER OF LOST FOOTSTEPS : HISTORIES OF BURMA by Thant Myint-U Faber, £20, pp. 361, ISBN 9780571217557 . £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Thant Myint-U has a special perspective on the history of modern Burma because his family played a role, albeit a passive one, in one of the most dramatic and wellremembered events in its history. The military-socialist dictator, Ne Win, who seized power in an almost bloodless coup in 1962, overthrowing the elected prime minister, U Nu, ran a regime that was characterised by a distrust of educated or distinguished people. Ne Win himself conceived an intense jealousy of Thant Myint-U's grandfather, U Thant, who, as Secretary General of the United Nations, was the most famous Burmese in the world. When U Thant died in 1974, Ne Win decreed that he should be buried in an obscure Rangoon graveyard, with no public ceremony. The students of Rangoon University, determined to accord him due honour, seized the coffin and held a funeral on the campus, attended by thousands, before attempting to bury him at the site of the old student union building that had been blown up during the 1962 coup. The regime's Lon Htein (paramilitary police) stormed the campus, killing dozens of students. Martial law was declared and schools and colleges closed. During the great insurrection of 1988, also led by students, and crushed with much more bloodshed, many looked back on the U Thant riots as the first serious attempt to confront an apparently unchallengeable regime.

Thant Myint-U, a boy of eight at the time, was in Rangoon for the funeral, and his memory of those tumultuous events is one of the many personal touches that he engagingly weaves into his history. But this is not a history only of modern Burma.

The aim of the book is to set the depressing story of the last 40 years of that unhappy country in the context of early Burmese history. In that way, the weirdness of the Ne Win years and indeed the character of British rule are brought into focus.

Burma has surfaced into the public consciousness in the past few years because of the 1988 uprising and its suppression by a junta that named itself, with hilarious unconsciousness of the sinister overtones, the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council); because the beautiful, fearless Aung San Suu Kyi won an (inexplicably free and fair) election in 1990, and then was detained as the election results were annulled; and because of brutalities against the ethnic minorities of Burma. Some recall how, under British rule, Burma became fairly prosperous, and was the largest exporter of rice in the world; and that under Ne Win's voodoo socialism, tempered by astrology, it became one of the ten poorest countries in the world and a net importer of rice. They also know that the regime changed the name of the country to Myanmar, a usage universally ignored in this country, except by the Economist.

The British had tried to rule Burma as part of the Indian Raj. But our rule never gained the same degree of acceptance in Burma as it did in India. The final British conquest of Upper Burma in 1885 was a wheeze of Randoph Churchill, Secretary of State for India under Lord Salisbury, who hoped it would help the Tories win a forthcoming election. …

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