Thant Myint-U’s The River of Lost Footsteps is a cumulative history of Burma, beginning in the 1800s in the Court of Ava (the Burmese monarchy), continuing through what he calls the “heyday” of colonial Burma, and ending with the military dictatorship, the “longest-lasting military dictatorship in the world and its purest.” Thant covers a great deal of little-heard regional histories of Arakan, the Tenasserim, and the northern highlands of modern-day Burma.
Thant also tries to intermingle his family’s histories, though awkwardly, in the book. He spends a sizable amount of pages in modern Burmese history describing U Thant (his grandfather and UN Secretary-General) and his life. One particularly interesting part he mentions is U Thant’s burial. He describes how conflicting interests (among Ne Win’s government, Thant’s family, and students) in laying U Thant’s body to rest. Students wanted to bury U Thant at the site of what was once the Rangoon University’s Student Union (going as far as to seize the body from its resting site at the racetrack), the birthplace of the Burmese independence movement. The government initially gave orders to bury U Thant at a small cemetery, but a compromise broke through, and he was finally laid to rest at a small mausoleum off the Shwedagon Pagoda Road in Rangoon.
The River of Lost Footsteps argues that the military filled a vacuum left by the loss of a centralized monarchy, the lack of a national identity during colonial rule, a weak parliamentary government and ongoing conflicts with ethnic militias. He also compares the two military coups that occurred, the one in 1958, during which U Nu’s parliamentary government allowed the military to step in and play the role of caretaker and ruled with discipline and technocrats to the one in 1962, during which Ne Win’s loyal soldiers staged a coup and installed military rule, using misguided and uneducated military personnel to fill the upper echelons of the government. He places blame of the failing government on the exodus of Western-educated civil servants and bureaucrats (many of whom were Anglo-Burmese). In many ways, this is true.
I believe that change has to occur in the inside, in this case, the hermetically-sealed State Peace and Development Council. But, the likes of Than Shwe have been grooming the next generation of leaders to think and act like himself, writing that they “admire the military state and military-led society…and could not easily dream up anything much better.” Of course not–who would not be content with having exclusive privilege, leading lives of the aristocracy while claiming to keep Burma together? Also, many of those in the inner circle who have any notion of democratizing Burma have already been purged.
Thant also explains why sanctions and isolation do not work, in the case of Burma. Burma self-imposed isolationism for decades and is slowly emerging out of its hiding. The West may shut it out, economically and politically, but other Asian countries have been more than willing to engage with Burma, with the occasional chiding from ASEAN member nations like Malaysia. He succinctly summarizes the outcome of continued isolation: “Burma’s international isolation will only deepen through an unholy alliance between those outside who favor sanctions and inside hard-liners who advocate retreat from the global community.”
I found The River of Lost Footsteps to be a good book, although not matter-of-fact entirely, a good introduction into the entangled politics and complicated modern history of Burma. He understates many things but brings a wider perspective into resolving the issues Burma faces.