Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

March Books 13-14) Two Books About Burma

13) The River of Lost Footsteps, by Thant Myint-U
14) Freedom from Fear, and other writings, by Aung San Suu Kyi

A fascinating couple of books about the tragedy of Burma. Thant Myint-U sees the fundamental problems of the country as rooted in the disintegration of the structures of government immediately after the British conquest in 1885; from then on, the Burmese faced extraordinary hurdles in getting things together. The history of foreign involvement goes way back, of course, with for instance the Portuguese playing a very prominent role from much earlier than I had realised. But Myint-U really gets into his stride in the 20th century, and I found his account of the lessons the Burmese learnt from the Irish revolution of 1916-22 very interesting.

The story of Aung San is fascinating - imagine if the Germans had invaded Ireland in 1916, and the IRB, having been installed as a provisional government backed by Berlin, then did a deal with London to kick the Germans out in return for recognition as the rightful government; this is more or less what the Burmese did in 1941-48 with the Japanese. Aung San's successful navigation of his country to independence was remarkable, and reminiscent of Michael Collins in rather different circumstances. Like Collins, of course, he was killed by his own fellow-countrymen before the transition was complete, still in his early 30s.

Burma's history since the military coup of 1962 is a grim story of oppression and poverty. Thant Myint-U mingles Burma's recent history with his own life story, growing up a Burmese emigré in New York as the grandson of the UN Secretary-General. U Thant's funeral was the occasion of extraordinary displays of popular resistance, and of correspondingly awful repression. The River of Lost Footsteps takes the story up to the unmourned death of the dictator Ne Win, and hopes for increased international engagement in the issue.

Aung San's daughter comes into Myint-U's story only at the end. The first half of Freedom From Fear begins with two lengthy pieces by her on her father and on the country as a whole, and also includes two of her essays on Burmese literature. The next quarter of the book is taken up with her political statements from the brief period when she was free to make them at the end of the 1980s, and then the last section has some personal reminiscences by her friends, including to my surprise and to the editor's credit a mildly critical piece by Josef Silverstein. It falls however to a fellow student from her days at St Hugh's in Oxford to make a point in writing that is obvious when you look at the cover of the book: Aung San Suu Kyi is beautiful.

And also very brave. The editor of the book, published in 1990, was her late husband, Michael Aris, who writes with love and gratitude of the sixteen or so years they had together before she answered the call of destiny that they had both always known might some day come. She will be 63 this year; her father was 32 when he was killed (and she was only two). Her harassment and imprisonment by the Burmese state has lasted almost twenty years; her sons are now in their thirties. Politics is not an especially easy life anywhere; but this is something else. Freedom From Fear ends with Suu Kyi being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. It is an international disgrace that we seem no closer to resolving the situation in 2008.
Tags: bookblog 2008, poc

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