BOOK REVIEW
River of No Return
By KO KO THETT JULY, 2007 - VOLUME 15 NO.7

Burma’s Famous Waterway Gives a New Biographical-History Book Its Title

The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma by Thant Myint-U, Faber and Faber: 2007, P361

When Rudyard Kipling first saw the Irrawaddy River in 1889, he wrote: ‘I reflected that I was looking upon the river of lost footsteps—the road that so many men of my acquaintance had travelled, never to return, within the past three years.’ 

That colourful phrase, “river of lost footsteps,” provides the title of a semi-autobiographical version of Burma’s history, by Thant Myint-U, author of the scholarly and elegantly-written The Making of Modern Burma (Cambridge University Press, 2001). 

In his latest book, targeting a general readership, Thant Myint-U collages his memoirs, travelogue and genealogy against Burma’s historical background. 

In the late 1820s, the first Anglo-Burmese war dealt an initial major blow to the Konbaung dynasty.  It was then that scholars and Buddhist monks at the court of Ava began to revise and update U Kala’s Chronicle of Burmese Kings.  The result was The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma, an endeavor Thant Myint-U finds “a fitting thing to do, when the future seemed unclear, the present had become so painful, and the lessons of the past needed a more proper accounting.”  This could well have been Thant Myint-U’s own intention.

One chapter o­n the foundations of Burmese civilization can be seen as the historian’s endearing attempt to put the Glass Palace Chronicle back into the hearts of Burma readers.  He confirms the “antiquity of the chronicle tradition” by testing it against research showing that the Irrawaddy valley civilization dates back as far as the Old Kingdom in Egypt, which existed 3,500 years ago.

Using a big picture approach, Thant Myint-U shuttles between past and present, personal and political, local and global and sets Burma in the midst of world affairs.  In a style reminiscent of G E Harvey‘s classic History of Burma and A T Q Stewart’s The Pagoda War, he vividly describes the ups and downs of the ancient Burmese kingdoms. 

In the mid-19th century, King Mindon realized that he had to “adapt to [an] increasingly European-dominated and fast-changing world.”  The author points out that Mindon’s modernizing reforms parallel those in other contemporary kingdoms around the world—Japan’s 1868 Meiji restoration, the modernization of Siam by King Mongkut and of Egypt by Mehmet Ali. 

The reforms in Burma failed because of British insistence o­n liberal trade, palace intrigues, and the Qing dynasty’s ethnic cleansing of Panthays in Yunnan. The ill-fated reforms inevitably led to the loss of sovereignty during the reign of Mindon’s successor Thibaw. 

The Burmese anti-colonial resistance following the country’s annexation into British India in 1885 is seen in comparison with present events in Iraq. “The people of this country have not, as was by some expected, welcomed us as deliverers from tyranny,” lamented a British officer, whose words may sound familiar in the Iraq context.   

In the autobiographical pages of the book, Thant Myint-U weaves his memoirs into more recent events he experienced. Perhaps he wishes his readers to see his life in contrast with Aung San Suu Kyi’s.  He is the grandson of the late UN secretary-general U Thant, so both he and Suu Kyi, direct descendants of famous Burmese statesmen, are acutely aware of their identities.  Both grew up in the West and received an excellent Western education.  The similarities end there, however. Their worlds and their approaches to Burma are poles apart now. 

Thant Myint-U recalls that, by the time he went to Trinity College at Cambridge University in 1991, the o­nly other Burmese he knew at the whole university was Pascal Khoo-Thwe, who would become the author of the celebrated memoirs From The Land of the Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey.  At the turn of the 20th century, he notes, there were dozens of Burmese students at Cambridge and there was even a Cambridge Burmese Association. 

Unlike Suu Kyi or Pascal Khoo-Thwe, Thant Myint-U didn’t experience the 1988 uprising. Having missed his “chance to be a part of things and to help,” he went to the Thai-Burmese border instead and stayed with student rebels who were there “not to flee the Burmese authorities but in a desperate and ill-placed hope that the West would arm them and help them overthrow the Rangoon government.”

Thant Myint-U’s handling of subjects outside his own world are top-down, detached and, at times, even slightly disdainful. But his book nevertheless brims with interesting anecdotes.  He makes clear that it is “not meant as a book for experts or primarily as a commentary o­n today’s problem but as a guide to the Burmese past, an introduction to the country whose current problems are increasingly known but whose colourful and vibrant history is entirely forgotten.” 

In the last chapter, nonetheless, the historian ventures into the near future, comments o­n the Burma problem and paints a grim picture.  If the country remains isolated—meaning if the West does not buy his recommendation of engagement with Burma—he predicts a return to the ‘‘anarchy and the conditions of 1948.’’

Ko Ko Thett, a Burmese researcher, studies world politics at the University of Helsinki

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