covering burma and southeast asia
Monday, May 29, 2017


'We’ve Reached a Tipping Point in Burma'

By THE IRRAWADDY Monday, November 21, 2011


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.

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Moe Aung Wrote:

Good try. It's not Than Shwe & Co, it's Aung San. Give over. It's getting tiresome. No one's buying it and everyone can see through your constant harping on about AS and the mistake that was Panglong.

Norman Hla Wrote:
@Freeman(agree yours)Japan was brutal in China(due to fierce military resistance), not Burma. Aged Bama says ruling of Japan,British is “Good century”(Khit Kaung), not U Nu&bama militares. GeneralAS gained to make use of British&Japan alternately, finally ethnics as Daddy’s syndrome(Tocharian-blamed UK).Karen used right Daddy’s syndrome initially.But “GeneralAS Kyat equal right ” persuaded British miscalculation upon after his dead(AS)&shameful Bama-nization(U Nu,militaries). Blaming daddy China,US,UK is naïve. No ethnics languages-taught in high schools/Uni(my “ethnics”means their long suffering). Karens(1.3million population) were well educated during British(Bumese&Eng:Languages-Rangoon university-20%karens although British favored Burmese).Karen might be more sincere to British and hardworking. If Bama isn’t good(history&now) , need best father( daddy syndrome) or immediate than shwe step-down(human life-short). Bilat(UK),Chinese,US, India,Singapore pyans-help Burma speedy,not by greedy bama.

kerry Wrote:
The area between China and India was not inhospitable terrain, Sir: It was (and is) the Tibet.

Your relations with China are 'interesting' and sanctions have clearly worked.

What the military want is an old paradigm. No-one should have dealt with them.

How Burma approaches 'Development' is surely something that the people of Burma should decide, once they are out of the awful yoke of brutality that has kept them on the ground, and have real and fair elections.

All views are important to consider. There are no 'experts'. Interests are clear but so is the heart of the people.

Okkar Wrote:
Who killed Bogyote? He himself! He did not heed the warnings form the intelligence officers. He ordered the guards to leave. He, not only killed himself, but also killed other ministers as well. Aung San destroyed the nation.

Free Man Wrote:

On the other hand, we should also try to understand why the Karens, in general, found that their lives were relatively better under the British rule, especially in the respect of education, culture, economy, and law and order. In fact, the Karens were not the only ones who held this view. What would we do if we were in the shoes of the Karens? What would we do if we were the Karens living under a war-like, Burmese, super-Buddhist, feudalistic rule which treated us as serfs, banned us from getting monastic education, grabbed our tilled land at will, constantly waging wars, etc.?

The root cause of the country's problem is nowhere but within ourselves. And they are a lack of parallel thinking and empathy, ignorance, greed, incorrect pride, emotions, the desire to dominate others, our fear of the truth, etc.

Free Man Wrote:
Pauk Khung Thar: "Damned Brit servents. Who licked Brit toes? Who gave up lives for fleeing white Brits from advancing Nippon troops in WW2?.......... Now is time for all to discuss constructivly."

Agree that we should discuss the problem constructively. But what you have said is contradictory.

I assume that you are basically talking about the Karens here. (FYI - I HAPPENED to be born into the Karen Christian community; therefore, I WAS a Karen Christian.) Let's look at the problem fairly and objectively for the sake of peace and harmony in our war-torn country? We know why some of us accuse the Karens of being the British stooges, spies, etc. We know why some of us hate the Karens. We know how it was like living under an exploitative and oppressive foreign ruler with a different physical outlook, language, culture and religion?

Free Man Wrote:
RichardEquine wrote:

"The civil war began with the Karen rebellion in 1948 as well as the communist uprising. Joint Karen-Communist offensives almost overthrew the democratic government of U Nu in 1949. It's true the insurgencies got worse under Ne Win, but the civil war was started by ethnic rebels who wanted separation from democratic Burma."

Inaccurate facts. Unobjective and unfair assessment of the problem.

Pauk Khaung Thar Wrote:
To Erik

I don't know what you are talking about..... You change name and so on?

Do you ever heard Laozi(Lao Tsu)? Laozi was a teacher of "BUDDHA".

Laozi said "the one who calls idiot to other is a real idiot". So Erik, think what have you become?

Norman Hla Wrote:
By NEHGINPAO KIPGEN Friday, November 25, 2011(Irrawaddy)wrote”Prior to achieving independence in 1948, Burma's then leader Gen Aung San was fully aware that a unified Burma could not be established if equality was not guaranteed for all ethnic nationalities, who were ruled under different administrative units by the British colonial administration.With the assassination of Aung San and his colleagues in July 1947, the dream of equality or autonomy disappeared in Burmese politics. Burma’s first post-independence civilian government of Prime Minister U Nu failed to address the minorities' concern, and successive military governments have attempted to forcefully suppress it”Comment-U Nu signed Ne win to kill Karen leader instead dialogue. In history,Mon ruled Burma first. All ethnics are not belonged to Bama(autonomy).Without Federal, PA is rubbish. Killing ethnics by bama army in their lands is foreign invasion but UN is sleeping and witnessUK is silent(unethical, irresponsible). Above is more to Richard Equine&TMU.

tocharian Wrote:
Burmese seem to care a lot about who your daddy or grandaddy is (was). Such a medieval and oligarchical society, full of patronage and nepotism, ruled and controlled by the top 1%. ASSK likes to talk about "freedom from fear". What Burma needs is freedom from corruption, coercion, chinese and above all this silly obsession with "who's your daddy" syndrome (not to mention what kind of degrees you have from which universities etc.) During the colonial days it was called "Bilat pyan" (someone who went to England!).
My Burmese ancestors were poor peasants!

Norman Hla Wrote:
To,RichardEquine: The National League for Democracy and most appear to be willing to form a Federation of Burma and to have discussions with the SPDC but only inclusive with all the other ethnic groups. Others still wishfully think the Karen people should have their own country. And so it continues. Meanwhile an entire society, which was and could be self-sufficient and contribute globally, is dying. In 1995, a small splinter group of the Karen (The Karen Buddhist Army) working with the SPDC accelerated the Karen decline. The DKBA is involved in drug trafficking. The current Karen National Union (KNU/KNLA) has many Buddhists within its ranks. Few seem to know the percentages.Again in 2007 another splinter group was divided from the majority and with SPDC and DKBA help more Border territory was lost.What is your(Richard) comment upon this information?

Norman Hla Wrote:
Richard Equine:Information( see 2 websites) about Karen is correct or not. Do you agree Karen rebellion in 1948 is their right or not? Burmese communist jointed with Karen rebellion. Burmese communist (might)thinks Karen has right to get own independence(see Karen claims-2websites)Did General AS get angry upon lack of Karen’s signature in Panglong agreement although attending meeting(General AS might have already accepted that Karen has their own right for their land –independence)?It is a big issue now. If Karen’s claim is right, the invasion of bama armies for decades is illegal and UN should take action accordingly.The first main culprit for all ethnics’ suffering is due to coward, selfish British colony who will not and do not come out to act as a witness for this history and important judgment for UN. Just says all witnesses are dead except probably you and it is the dirty “British colony divide and rule”(see India, Pakistan).

Norman Hla Wrote:
Richard Equine” The Karens are believed to have settled in what today is Burma/Myanmar in the 6th and 7th century BC. Their oral history suggests that they migrated from Mongolia via the Gobi desert to southern China, Yunnan Province then Tibet and on down into the area now known as Burma/Myanmar and Thailand. They have, historically been separate from and treated as inferior to the Bamar/Burman majority. They have a history of suffering.(See “Unlike the Burmans who wanted freedom from the British, the Karen sided with the British from the beginning of the Japanese invasion to the end of WWII. Despite promises of support in the founding of a Karen Nation the British ignored and neglected the Karen when Burma was given its independence in 1948. My questions are:Why did Karen need to sign Pinglong agreement?Why was General AS accused of cleansing Karen ethnics by British media?

JustinBomber Wrote:
I'm so glad to see that Dr.TMU appeared in the front row at the Green growth forum in Yangon. Our country is in urgent need of
experts like him who actually have the vast experience on the international affairs and of course not so called random refugees in the guise of political dissidents. It was great to see Mr.Harn Yawnghwe visited as well. Once more NLD's decision
to re-register is a right thing to do at the right time. Meanwhile the army has just reached a ceasefire agreement with some major insurgent groups. As Dr.TMU said we've reached a tipping point now.

Erik Wrote:
Pauk Khung Thar Wrote:

"Panlong... Panlong .. in short that contract(agreement) caused division between our own ppl. Bo Gyoke was assassinated. Who killed Bo Gyoke? You should know the master brain was not U Saw. Damned Panlong! Panlong was dead together with Bo Gyoke."

Myanmar Idiot, is that you? Why'd you change your name? Finally get the boot? Good. (BTW, your English has really improved.)

Pauk Khung Thar Wrote:
UTMU is great.

But Panlong... Panlong .. in short that contract(agreement) caused division between our own ppl. Bo Gyoke was assassinated. Who killed Bo Gyoke? You should know the master brain was not U Saw. Damned Panlong! Panlong was dead together with Bo Gyoke.

Damned Brit servents. Who licked Brit toes? Who gave up lives for fleeing white Brits from advancing Nippon troops in WW2?

Don't make Panlong as an excuse for self greed, and desire, and to become a dictator of ethnic minority.

Now is time for all to discuss constructivly.
Life if short. You only live 60-70 years.

RichardEquine Wrote:
NormanHla wrote: My comment is that the civil war is and was created by bama military rulers who refuses to make obligation of Panglong agreement after death of General AS.

The civil war began with the Karen rebellion in 1948 as well as the communist uprising. Joint Karen-Communist offensives almost overthrew the democratic government of U Nu in 1949. It's true the insurgencies got worse under Ne Win, but the civil war was started by ethnic rebels who wanted separation from democratic Burma.

The Karen never signed Panglong, which was signed by Shan sawbwas, Kachin duwas and Karreni chiefs, all hereditary leaders. Hardly a democratic document.

Norman Hla Wrote:
In China and US issue, I agree with your point that China is geographically close to Burma but balancing is more important for Burma(all and than shwe know those logic). Only democratic elected government can do above policy with demilitarization( also see above your statement), not by military than shwe( step down at once). US did and do a big brother and police in the world since after world war 2. Is there any real peace in the world with the result of its poor economy(see history)? China is struggling to be superpower now. Do you worry that China will become big brother and police in future ? Nobody know “wait and see” and it might partly depended on the Chinese culture and their social and political learning(risk and benefit to be big brother). Colonization is started by (Europe-British, Germany, Italy) and (Asia-Japan). Now, Is it Americanization and then Chinese-nization in future?

Norman Hla Wrote:
TMU wrote that “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” My comment is that the civil war is and was created by bama military rulers who refuses to make obligation of Panglong agreement after death of General AS. Over the last 2 decades of just ethnics ceasefire agreement(designed by Khin Nyunt), do you see ethnics invade Rangoon and Mandalay?. Bama military rulers(lack of ethics and morals so lack of democracy) are the main culprit for civil war, not ethnics. TMU should make clear your above statement.TMU wrote that"Democracy is impossible without a demilitarization of Burmese society generally." This statement supports my above comment on you. However, you are sincere that you want to help Burma with your expertise(historian) for the time being, not in the field of politics(DASSK).

thein Wrote:
Totally agree with Tocharian.

Moe Aung Wrote:
Bama Gyi,

Very funny.

Tine Chit Thu Wrote:
@ Maung Maung Kyaw "Myanmar should grab this opportunity to ride the Chinese dragon. Grow as the Chinese dragon soar..." you are such an ignorant piece of shit. You must be a true Chinese blood sucking maggot. I dare you, why don't you tell the people in Burma in person what you've said on here and they'll beat you to death. Take a look at Burma on Google earth and you'll can see how much China has taken from our forest and lands.

Khin Wrote:
Thant Myint O is a good writer and a good speaker. But he does not has good heart like Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi and other Burmese Students who sacrifice for Burmese. Since 1988 he is grooming himself to become a leader. Be careful opportunist.

Rangoonwriter Wrote:
Haha - just look at the difference between small minds like "Tocharian" (mistranslated Mrauk-U! Included too much about his family! Doesn't now the R in Rakhine!) and the big picture issues important for future of Burma that Thant Myint-U is trying to present us. I feel sad that there are Burmese liked Tocharian, who don't really know how to contribute to discussion but only criticize. I am also sure he doesn't know that he is doing anything wrong.

kyaw Wrote:
Surely, to avoid conflicts of CHINDIA, and innovate diplomacy and new economic and political developments in Myanmar, Burma is at the crossroads. America is letting Asean and India, even futile UN organizations control Aid and Finance for Myanmar. However, both Europe, USA and Asean must admit Myanmar and her peoples are unique, independent and must choose and design her own economic and civil destiny.

Bama Gyi Wrote:
To achieve glory and to recapture the territories we have lost, Burma needs a war-mongering dictator king like Bayint Naung and absolute monarchy, not a wimp like Thein Sein or democracy or constitution.

tocharian Wrote:
Thant Myint U is overrated. In one of his books, he translated Mrauk-U:, one of the older Rakhaing cities as "monkey's eggs" (myauk u.). That's like translating his name to be Iron Horse Egg (Than Myin: U.). His knowledge of the Burmese language is not too strong (he doesn't know that Rakhaing people pronounce the letter r (ra-kauk) correctly! Besides most of the content of his book "The River of Footsteps" is just a repetition (I wouldn't quite say plagiarized) of well-known works on Burmese history, except that he adds a lot about his "noble" ancestry (his grandfather, great-great grandfather etc.). Big Deal!

Naw Wrote:
"Democracy is impossible without a demilitarization of Burmese society generally." Nice word.

We were used to be taught and encouraged to have blood of Bayintnaung when young, instead of universal love on all Burmese ethnics and people. Look at statues of historical fighters at top of the hill in the square of NayPyidaw. This is Burma where idiots ruled since '62.

Maung Maung Kyaw Wrote:
Finally, a true statesman who talk sense.
Fear not the Chinese. For the matter of fact, the Americans, are more frightening...

He is right that negative views of China in recent years could be tragic for both countries; frankly more tragic for Myanmar. Only those who have little confidence in themselves or of the Myanmar people or those who have very little substance between the ears would be so fearful of the Chinese.

Myanmar should grab this opportunity to ride the Chinese dragon. Grow as the Chinese dragon soar...

Myanmar needs someone with global experience and vision, someone confident, could measure up in the global arena; someone like U Thant Myint to be part of the new leadership. Ever since I read his 'The River of Lost Footsteps' years ago, I felt that he is the one. It will be his calling, the best son of Myanmar perhaps to fulfill U Thant's unfulfilled dream.

To be brutally honest, ASSK just doesn't have it. She is but another Corazon Aquino.

Myanmar Patriots Wrote:
Prospects are very good.

Pity U Win-Aung of late and ex-Prime Minister Khin-Nyunt. Treason does not pay.

Moe Aung Wrote:
He made a lot of very good points. Burma's "emerging role as southwest China's corridor to the Indian Ocean" like the Pan-Asian Highway for trade has to be better than a giant pipeline just to siphon off oil and gas for China's exclusive energy needs.

These "brutal little wars" are brutal but not little for the ethnic groups. It sounds like a chauvinistic slip of the tongue.

Amen to "what we need are not simply ceasefires, but real peace and a new and more inclusive national identity", not a name change.

His view on what China's role should be in the long term for mutual benefit and friendship between the peoples is spot on.

Best still "I fear that we might achieve some kind of democracy before long but that it will be the wrong kind of democracy, where where wealth remains highly concentrated, demagoguery dominates discussion, and where a corrupt gangster-style politics triumphs over everything else. This is far from an unlikely scenario."

Venus Wrote:
Although I haven't read TMO's first book, I'm greatly impressed his view points and analysis on his last book. But from this interview: To my understanding is that
"If Burma is seen as increasingly important" implies that it is because of previous government's nuclear ambition and US's interest in Naval Base to spy on China, but not because of its natural wealth as all natural wealth have already been gone for long and being exploited. All of them and us, including US, DASSK, and exiled intellectuals have wasted their time for many decades instead of engaging to step forward.

Any way, it is good sign to see all Burmese brain storming today, and it's good to read this interview.

Zl Wrote:
The US should approach Burma cautiously. The best solution would be for the US to send environmentalist, approach both Burma and China to see if the dam they've stopped building could be a benefit for Burmese people, if not how it should be modified to benefit all! This way, no bad feelings arises and both US and China, will be considered to be a key role players in a global view.

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