Recent developments in a South Asian country that, the author suggests, is unduly shackled by the past.
At the beginning of the 2010s, writes Myint-U (Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia, 2012, etc.), everything seemed to be looking up for his nation: An entrenched military government was giving up power to a civilian one, and “everybody, at least in the West, began to believe that the country was in the midst of an astonishing transformation.” Alas, Burma, endowed with some of the planet’s greatest biodiversity, is also riven by ethnic tensions and politics colored by money, much of it from the trade in opium-based drugs. In Burmese thought, writes the author, “kala” has an important role—that is, a notion of overarching ethnicity that sharply separates people into clans, tribes, groups of others. Colonizing powers reinforced this division. As the author notes, during World II, Japan backed the Arakanese Buddhists while the British armed the Muslims who are now in the headlines as the Rohingya. These groups continue to clash, with recent ethnic violence forcing untold hundreds of thousands of Burmese Muslims to take refuge in neighboring Bangladesh. The world found much hope in the freeing of former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, who became a member of parliament and then president. However, writes the author, she has since practiced politics pretty much as usual, seeking a reconciliation between her party and the all-powerful military and emphasizing “at every opportunity that she loved the army…and that she wanted more than anything to see it stronger and more respected than ever.” The conflict rages on, not just internally, but also with an encroaching China. So does economic anxiety, as the government “advocated liberalization and a welcoming of foreign investment" but refused to abandon cronyism and bureaucratic micromanagement. The author calls Burma an “unfinished nation,” and the description seems apt.
A pointed analysis of a country that, though much in the news, remains a mystery to most outsiders.