Former UN Secretary-General U Thant’s grandson traces the little-understood history of modern Burma, arguing that present trade sanctions by Western powers are the worst possible policy for bringing democracy to the already-isolated dictatorship.
A Cambridge Ph.D. and veteran UN officer, the author grew up in a Burmese compound in Riverdale, N.Y., amid a family with ties to Burma’s government that date back to the 1880s. He first visited Burma in 1971, at age 5, to help bury his maternal grandfather, who led the UN from 1961 to 1971. This vivid and well-told history opens in the watershed year 1885, when the British seized Burma, abolished the monarchy and made the country part of British India. The trauma transformed Burmese life and fostered a pervasive feeling of humiliation—the author highlights an incident in Rangoon when an elderly Englishman tapped young U Thant on the shoulder with a cane to force him to give up his seat on a bench. Somehow, the British view of Burma as undisciplined morphed into the Burmese self-perception that they were unsuited to democratic government, says the author. The book’s main focus is on the modern era, especially the time since World War II, which devastated Burma and led to independence and the still-ongoing civil war. Foreign interventions (by the U.S., Thailand, the Soviet Union, China) worsened the chaos. Since 1962, a military dictatorship installed by the late General Ne Win has ruled, weakening institutions and isolating Burma from the world community. Hampered by past failures and a misplaced penchant for utopian thinking, the Burmese must open up to different ideas and build new institutions if they are ever to achieve democracy, says the author. Further isolation by the West will not help.
With wide interest in Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and others opposing the ruling generals, this warrants attention.