In the early 2010s, Burma was the toast of the world. As the generals appeared to be giving up power, everybody, at least in the West, began to believe that the country was in the midst of an astonishing transformation, from the darkest of dictatorships to a peaceful and prosperous democracy. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, and dozens of other world leaders, past and present, came in quick succession to be part of the celebrated change. Trade embargos were rolled back and billions of dollars in aid promised to make up for lost time. Top businessmen followed, with George Soros at the head of the flock, their private jets crowding Rangoon’s little airport, keen to invest in Asia’s next frontier market.
By 2016, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan and other celebrities were added to the mix, as tourism boomed and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, freshly released from long years under house arrest, appeared set to finally lead her country. But by 2018, the mood had turned deathly grim. A new militant outfit, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, had attacked dozens of security posts in the far west of the country, and this had been followed by a fierce Burmese army response.
In the wake of the violence, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children, nearly all from the Muslim Rohingya minority, fled to neighboring Bangladesh, bringing with them horrific accounts of rape and massacre. Burma now stood accused of genocide and crimes against humanity.
In September 2018, the United Nations Security Council met in New York to discuss possible responses and listened to an impassioned address by the actress Cate Blanchett, who had visited the sprawling Rohingya refugee camps and who became the first film star to speak to the world’s highest security organ. New American and European sanctions were imposed, barely two years after the last were lifted, and Aung San Suu Kyi herself came under blistering criticism from once staunch allies in the human rights community for not doing more for the Rohingya. Erstwhile friends, from Bob Geldof to the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu, expressed disappointment at her inaction, and St. Hugh’s College, Oxford, which she’d attended, removed her portrait from public display and placed it in storage. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights, not wanting to go that far, kept her portrait in their “Gallery of Honorary Canadians” but dimmed the lights.
Other news was also not good. Peace talks that had since 2012 been a centerpiece of Burma’s feted reform process ground nearly to a halt and fighting flared in the northern hills. The economy, in 2014 the fastest growing in the world, faced worrying headwinds. Investment plunged, business confidence sank, and fears mounted that a banking crisis might be around the corner. In 2016, Burma was on Fodor Guides’ list of the world’s hottest destinations. By 2018, it was on Fodor’s list of top ten places to avoid. What happened?
For decades the story of Burma had been portrayed as a Manichean struggle between the ruling generals and a movement for human rights and a liberal democracy. But the old story and recent developments just didn’t add up. Had the world been misreading Burma completely?
Not long ago, few believed that anything in Burma would ever change. The country seemed to be stuck in a time warp, ruled by a thuggish junta that would stay on forever. Then things did change, with political prisoners released, media censorship ended, and Internet restrictions lifted. Opinions pivoted 180 degrees, and many in the West as well as in Asia were quick to embrace the “transition” that seemed to be underway.
In 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi became a member of parliament, then in 2015 led her party to a sweeping victory in the country’s first free and fair elections in a generation. The word “miracle” was often used to describe what was happening. Whereas before, any idea of progress in Burma had been summarily dismissed, observers now assumed that further progress was inevitable. When discordant news got in the way—a communal riot here, a clash between the army and insurgents there—it was easily swept aside as peripheral to the main story. The story was too good, a much needed tonic at a time when the Arab Spring was giving way to extreme violence.
Burma, at least, was a morality tale that seemed to be nearing its rightful conclusion. Then the morality tale came crashing down. Burma is a country of about 55 million people, squeezed between China and India but larger than France and Britain combined. More than a dozen rebel armies hold sway over large patches of the eastern uplands, together with hundreds more militias, all fighting the world’s oldest civil war.
Burma is one of the poorest countries in Asia, with one of the biggest illicit narcotics industries in the world. It is prone to devastating natural disasters (over 120,000 people died in a single day due to a cyclone in 2008) and is predicted to be one of the five nations most negatively impacted by climate change. It’s a place where education and health care systems have been starved of funds for decades, a country which isolated itself from the world for a quarter century and then for a generation came under US- and UK-led economic sanctions that were, at the time, the harshest against any country anywhere on the planet (including North Korea).
Burma was, for the United Nations and the West, the signature democracy project of the 1990s and 2000s. The question of whether democracy (in the sense most in the West would recognize, with competing political parties, a free media, and free elections) was ever really fit for the purpose was never asked, in part because democracy was what “the people” in Burma were demanding and in part because it was the obvious exit from a tyranny that no one could reasonably defend. In the early 2010s, the more the forms of democracy seemed to be taking shape, the more an assumption of progress took hold.
As the path to liberal democracy looked increasingly secure, an additional assumption grew that free markets would soon also take hold, opening the door to global capitalism. But then, as multinational companies queued up to have a look at what they hoped would be a lucrative new market, they saw in Burma a breed of capitalism already in place, well entrenched and intimately tied to China. It’s not impossible that democratic institutions will one day flourish in Burma. And it’s far from impossible that global capitalism will defeat its rivals.
It may even deliver the goods: growing the Burmese economy by leaps and bounds and reshaping Burma in the image of other Asian societies. But is the life of the 21st-century Asian consumer really desirable or sustainable? Visiting the air-conditioned new shopping malls of Rangoon, it’s clear that there’s a desire for a new way of life. It’s less clear that the Burmese—as they pose for selfies in front of the escalators and water fountains—are as yet very good at buying things they might not really need.
Burma’s story takes place under the long shadow of a particularly brutal and destructive British colonialism, one which first established the modern state as a racial hierarchy. It is a story that has consistently left ordinary Burmese people at the bottom of the heap, as development so far has meant disappearing forests, polluted rivers, contaminated food, rising debt, land confiscation, and most recently the cheap smartphones, Internet access, and Facebook pages on which they see for themselves, and for endless hours a day, the lives they will never have. Burma is also a warning.
Exactly a hundred years ago, modern politics in Burma was born as what we might today call an anti-immigration, anti-globalization movement. The country was gripped by a kind of identity politics. Under British rule, millions of people from the Indian subcontinent settled in the country. Global companies like Burmah Oil (later British Petroleum) extracted enormous sums in profit, paying little in taxes. Populist parties flirted with Fascism and Communism. Then came a long slide into nativism and self-imposed isolation. It was an understandable reaction. But decades on, the cost of withdrawal from the world has been a material and intellectual impoverishment on a scale unmatched in Asia.
That cost has included hundreds of thousands of refugees (long before the Rohingya crisis), millions more internally displaced, millions more lives destroyed. And in today’s more open political space, the challenges of inequality and climate change are being met with a cocktail of ethno-nationalism and neoliberalism. Can the future be different? Is a sharp turn in a fresh direction possible? Or is the recent violence a sign of even worse things to come?
This excerpt from Thant Myint-U’s The Hidden History of Burma has been published with permission from Juggernaut.