River of Lost Footsteps
Thant Myint-U (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Since the beginning of political and economic reforms in 2010, Burma has become a regular topic inthe news. Anyone who regular reads publications like the New York Times or the Economist would beable to consider themselves relatively well-informed about the rapidly changing situation in the Golden Land. However, much of the coverage of Burma is often ahistorical, and there is little public discussion about Burma before 2010, let alone before Aung San Suu Kyi. In River of Lost Footsteps, Thant Myint-U provides a detailed history of Burma over the past four centuries, all the while weaving in the story of his own family in Burma.
Indeed, Thant Myint-U is uniquely positioned to write such a history. Born in New York, his grandfather U Thant was the Secretary-General of the UN in the 1960s. Educated at Harvard, the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies and Cambridge, the author has lectured extensively on Asian and British imperial history. In the book, his mastery of the subject is quite evident, but also is a certain objectivity. Being Burmese himself and having spent summers there while growing up, he has an obvious intimacy with the country and passion for it but at the same time, he lacks the nationalistic bias that some native Burmese writers might carry.
When the book was published in 2006, Burma was struggling economically and hopes for political and market reforms were dim. However, in River of Lost Footsteps, the author is not attempting a solution to Burma’s problems, but rather looking for the “beginnings of an explanation” of the country’s plightand “a richer discussion” of its past, present and future. Thant Myint-U doesn’t set the bar incredibly high by simply looking starting a richer discussion, but he far exceeds any expectations, creating an enjoyable and accessible history of Burma.
The book is meticulously researched and detailed, though not to the point of bogging down the narrative. In fact, it is the details that really make the book. Reading Thant Myint-U’s descriptions of the Battle of Rangoon or the chaotic scenes in Mandalay as the Burmese monarchy collapsed, one could believe that the author actually witnessed these events. Indeed it is in his descriptions of these key moments that the he is able to make Burmese history come alive and where the author truly shines.
Thant Myint-U’s family history and his own experiences in the country come in later in the book and make for a pleasant interlude. While those who enjoy stricter histories or those already familiar with Burma may find the biographical portions of the book distracting, these sections do put a more human face on the history and make it more accesible to the lay reader. In addition, the book reads quickly which also makes it suitable for non-experts in the subject.
The book also succeeds in fulfilling its stated purpose. Throughout the book, Thant Myint-U identifiesa few reasons for Burma’s lack of development. Like many other scholars, he points out the British destruction of the monarchy in 1885 as a major turning point in the country’s development. Instead of keeping the king on the throne and administering Burma as a separate colony, the British ended themonarchy and turned Burma into a protectorate of India. This represented a severe break with the past,leaving the country “adrift.” Despite experiencing massive immigration and infrastructure developmentunder the British, the Japanese occupation in World War II was devastating and since its independencein 1948, Burma has been in a near-constant state of civil war and developed little.
However, Thant Myint-U does not only blame foreign pressures, but also sees an explanation for Burma’s ills in its poor history of state building. Even before the British, the author highlights the Burmese ability to make war and take territory, but not to hold it. This legacy of the Burmese warrior,and not the state-builder, is what has carried over from the “old Burma” and its effects can be seen today in Burma’s never-ending civil war. While the author does not present any groundbreaking theories for why Burma is the way that it is (or was in 2006), his explanations are satisfying in the context that he is providing them and certainly succeed in creating a richer discussion of the country’shistory and possible future.
For experts in Burmese history, River of Lost Footsteps is far too basic and will be of little aid to those pursuing a deep understanding of the country. However, for those who are just getting introduced to the country through headlines of Western publications, River of Lost Footsteps is a wonderful place to start to give a better context to the events in Burma today, and necessary for anyone hoping to become a“Burma watcher.”
This review was written by William Feinberg