Thant Myint-U is a US-born historian and the author of two best-selling books on Burmese history. He received his PhD from Cambridge University, where he wrote his dissertation on the reigns of Burma's last two kings, Mindon and Thibaw. He has taught as a Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, and worked for the United Nations, of which his grandfather, the late U Thant, was secretary-general from 1961 to 1971.
He is also an outspoken critic of Western sanctions on Burma, which he says have only served to reinforce the country's “disastrous” isolation. In this interview with The Irrawaddy, he discusses recent developments in Burma, the country's increasingly important place in the region, and the challenges that lie ahead as it appears to open up to the West and allow more space for the democratic opposition.
Question: In your new book, “Where China Meets India,” you make the case that Burma has the potential to become a major crossroads in Asia, bridging the world's two most populous nations, which for centuries were separated by a vast area of inhospitable terrain. Although this area is no longer so inaccessible, it is still beset by political instability, particularly in northern Burma and northeastern India. How much do you think this will affect Burma's prospects of assuming greater geopolitical importance in the future?
Answer: Finding a peaceful end to the armed conflicts and instability in northeastern India and northern and eastern Burma is absolutely essential if ordinary people are to benefit from Burma’s greater geopolitical importance. Burma will become geopolitically more important in any case, with the rise of China and with its emerging role as southwest China’s corridor to the Indian Ocean. As I’ve written in my book, it is already set to become an important new Asian crossroads, not only because of developments over the past couple of decades, but also because of centuries-old demographic, environmental and political processes that have finally brought both China and India to Burma’s doorstep. But if there is no real peace or good government, it’s hard to see how the new connections being made will be to the advantage of the majority of people. On the other hand, a peaceful and democratic Burma will be able to benefit immensely from its changing geography.
Q: Some have criticized your recent op-ed piece in The New York Times for describing Burma's ethnic conflicts as “brutal little wars.” Many would say that resolving these conflicts is the key to restoring stability not only in border areas, but also in the country as a whole. How significant, then, are recent “reforms” in Burma, in light of the fact that the government appears to be no closer to bringing peace to these regions, and in fact seems to stepping up its offensives against ethnic armed groups?
A: The actual sentence in my op-ed reads: “It is hard to imagine a successful and democratic transition while these longstanding and often brutal little wars continue.” I think the recent political changes and economic reforms are incredibly significant and represent the country’s best opportunity since 1962 to move in a positive direction. But, as I’ve said, progress in Naypyitaw or Rangoon cannot be divorced from progress in those largely border areas that have suffered terribly from armed conflict for decades. Democracy is impossible without a demilitarization of Burmese society generally. One of the main points I tried to make in my last book, “The River of Lost Footsteps,” was exactly that—the civil war in Burma and the rise of its military dictatorship are closely related, and that what we need are not simply ceasefires, but real peace and a new and more inclusive national identity.
Q: In your book, you say that Burma could go from being an economic backwater to a key regional player, provided it achieves its goals of restoring peace, prosperity and democracy. How optimistic are you that the country will break out of its half-century-old cycle of war, poverty and oppression in the near future?
A: It’s always good to be optimistic and it’s certainly easier to be optimistic now than a year ago.