Burma is once again in flames. Thant Myint U is the country’s best-known chronicler – whose many books have brilliantly mapped the contemporary history of the country. He sat down with us and explained what the current crisis is about, and what lies ahead-
Q.Why do you think Myanmar has been struggling so long to sustain democracy?
Thant: Burma is a country that has been in a state of internal armed conflict for more than seven decades. Its army is the only army on the planet that has been fighting non-stop since World War Two. It’s been fighting against an incredible array of foes, from the British and the Japanese to Washington-backed Chinese Nationalists to Beijing-backed communist insurgents to druglords to dozens of ethnic minority-based armed organizations. The British never ruled all of what is today Myanmar: they set up the administrative systems needed to make money for their companies and at the same time protect India’s eastern flank. But the uplands were left virtually alone – this is where most of the fighting has been, especially these past few decades, as the army, as an army of occupation over ethnic minorities communities, has tried to quell resistance to the new Myanmar state. It’s this big army machine that’s grown up since the 1940s that’s dominated political life. Couple that with failed economic policies, gross underfunding of health and education, half a century of self-imposed isolation, and tough Western sanctions and you have the backdrop to much of what is happening today. The reformist generals who were in charge in the 2010s tried to move things in a different direction. But it was always going to be an incredibly difficult uphill climb. I think many didn’t realize how narrow that window was ten years ago and assumed too early that things were inevitably going to move in a positive direction.
Q. Do you think this is the last straw – an event that could change Myanmar forever?
Thant: The strength and determination of today’s protest movement, the resistance to the reimposition of direct military rule, is without precedent in Burmese history. It’s been led by the new generation that grew up over these past ten years of relative hope and freedom and they have no desire to live the lives of their parents, in poverty, isolation, and under dictatorship. The economy was already in dire straits because of this past year of Covid-related lockdowns and disruptions in international trade. But the situation has become far worse these past weeks as the mix of ongoing strikes and violent repression has brought the economy to a virtual standstill. We are likely looking at the collapse of the economy over the rest of this year with the real possibility of major shortages in food and other essentials for tens of millions of people, with the worst hit being the urban poor, who have now been without income for months.
Q. Tell us more about the identity crisis within Myanmar that creates so much conflict.
Thant: Myanmar has been driven by identity-based conflicts since its inception as an independent state in 1948. The British ruled Burma in two parts: the first were the lowlands including the Rangoon and the Irrawaddy valley, which by the 20th century included Indian, Arakanese, Karen, European and Anglo-Burmese minorities. This is where the British ruled directly, made their money, and from the 1920s began to allow a degree of self-government, as in the rest of India. The second were the uplands, about half the country, where they ruled indirectly through local chiefs if at all and where missionaries converted many communities to Christianity. Burmese nationalism grew up around a desire to separate from India and become independent from Britain. It grew up in the lowlands, the home of the Burmese-speaking Buddhist people. But at independence, the new state had to deal with the uplands as well, places never before controlled from the centre. And the Burmese had to reimagine themselves as part of a multicultural society. This has never been successful. And we saw one of the consequences in 2016-17 with the violent expulsion of 700,000 Rohingya people to Bangladesh. The generals in the late 1980s changed the official name of the country from Burma (which was the name in English for the entire geographic area since long before colonial times) to Myanmar which emphasizes an ethnic Burmese-speaking identity; it’s part of a nativist mentality that denies anything other than an ethno-nationalist narrative.
Q. Burma is a very religious country, steeped in Buddhism. How much do you think this religiosity affects the current politics? Does it influence the way people vote? The way it is governed?
Thant: Burma is a multi-religious country, with substantial Christian, Muslim, Hindu and other minorities. Buddhism is practiced in Burma in many ways. For many it’s about personal ethics and psychology, rituals at the pagodas, donations to the Sangha, and perhaps mindfulness meditation. People believe in karma and seek to make merit for this life and the next. But Buddhism in Burma has for centuries also been very closely tied to state power. Buddhism and the monarchy before colonial rule were intimately connected, not least through royal patronage of the Sangha. The Buddhist kings were never peaceful kings. They were devout Buddhists who saw their principal role as the defense of Buddhism, the protection of the Dharma and the Sangha, as well as war-making and the creation of empires. Today, the question of the place of Buddhism in 21st century society has been a very important one in Burmese politics. For many there is a sense that Buddhism and the conservative values they believe linked to Buddhism are under threat. Some see Islam as a particular threat, others don’t. In general though if we look at the result of the last two elections, in 2015 and 2020 it’s extremely clear that the pull of ethno-nationalist and anti-Islamic feelings are far outweighed by a desire for greater freedom, economic progress, and democratic government.
Q.What do you think happens now? Can we use the past to predict the future of Myanmar?
Thant: Burma is on the verge of becoming a failed state. The army’s February takeover has met fierce resistance from millions of peaceful protestors. The economy is in shambles and may soon collapse. There is nothing in Burma’s history that suggests the army will back down. Several of the ethnic minority armed organizations have begun to side with the resistance and over just the past few days we’ve seen new fighting both in the far north and in the southeast of the country along the Chinese and Thai borders. We have to remember that this is a country with over two dozen armed organizations, the biggest after the army itself being the United Wa State Army, with over 25,000 troops, already controlling an area the size of Manipur, and closely connected to China. There are hundreds of militia as well and an illicit narcotics trade worth over $70 billion a year. The legacies of the past will be of little help going forward. Hopefully, the younger generation now leading the resistance will reject them and embrace a more inclusive and progressive vision of the future.
Thant Myint-U is the author of four books, and a recipient of India’s Padma Shri award and Japan’s Fukuoka Prize. His most recent book is The Hidden History of Burma which was a Foreign Affairs Best Book of 2020. Check it out here!