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Historian gives inside view of Myanmar's bumpy journey

New book by former adviser Thant Myint-U brings difficult transition to life

American-born historian Thant Myint-U had front-row seats to Myanmar's opening up and uncertain transition toward democracy.     © Getty Images

YANGON -- As Myanmar embarked on an uncertain transition toward democracy after the flawed elections of 2010 there were relatively few people in the country who could offer advice on the process of change. One of them was Thant Myint-U, a former United Nations official with experience in the war-torn Balkans and Cambodia, and a grandson of former U.N. Secretary-General U Thant.

A historian with degrees from Harvard and Cambridge universities, Thant Myint-U's unflappable character and reasoned opinions helped to guide the legions of diplomats, journalists and aid workers streaming into a country that had been largely closed to the outside world for more than three decades.

Born and raised in America by his Burmese parents, Thant Myint-U moved to Yangon in 2010 looking for ways to make himself useful. Like many others living outside Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, he wanted to contribute to the remaking of the country after the rise to the presidency of a mild-mannered general called Thein Sein, who offered the first real sign that the army was willing to share power since taking over in the early 1960s.

From 2011 Thant Myint-U, wearing a starched shirt, a finely woven longyi traditional costume and polished brogues, cut an elegant profile in the hotel lobbies and coffee shops of Yangon that became frenetic hubs for endless workshops and meetings on the long-awaited transition.

There was a febrile air of excitement in those days. Thant Myint-U helped connect outsiders to a small group of reformers in government and to the civil society actors helping them. It was not so much that he knew the country well -- he had barely lived there. It was more that he believed, as he says in his new book, "The Hidden History of Burma," that "a door that no one thought would ever open was being unlocked."

Thant Myint-U's grandfather U Thant rubbed shoulders with the global political elite during his tenure as U.N. secretary-general.

Ever since he was allowed back into Myanmar in the mid-1990s, Thant Myint-U had been an advocate of engagement to encourage change. He was uneasy with the sanctions imposed by the West, not only because of the harsh humanitarian consequences but, as he puts it: "I felt that anything that pulled the country out of its shell was a good thing, including the right kind of trade, investment and even tourism."

His belief in engagement stood in marked contrast to the principled stance much of the world displayed toward Myanmar over the long years of harsh and secretive military rule. Almost a decade since the current transition gained momentum, the military shows little sign of giving up the reins of power; violence and human rights abuse still prevail, and the international community is again clamoring for sanctions.

At first, things seemed to be going well. Thein Sein's transition government included a number of retired generals who embraced the need for change and were willing to listen to ideas. Thant Myint-U was invited to meet Soe Thane and Aung Min, two of the key ministers managing the reform process in Thein Sein's government. "We have read your books and articles," they told him. "We have been isolated all our lives. We need new ideas, new knowledge. Please let us know what you think we should know." It was, recalls Thant Myint-U, a disarming introduction.

The transition government of President Thein Sein, top, a retired army general, included ministers such as Soe Thane, bottom, who were open to change and eager to receive advice from Thant Myint-U.      © Reuters

Thant Myint-U was not the only expatriate Burmese drawn back to the country in this period. In "The Hidden History of Burma," he offers a revealing picture of the small group of professionals who helped to establish a nongovernmental organization called Myanmar Egress. Led by the charismatic Nay Win Maung, the Egress team started preparing position papers for the generals interested in change. The group's influence on the early phases of the transition was critical.

Somewhat privileged with well-connected families, this group of former students from the 1980s came together in 2006 to establish Egress with a view to influencing the regime. They held seminars, wrote short papers and bombarded the generals with advice. As Thant Myint-U writes, "They played pivotal roles in the politics to come."

The first two years of the Thein Sein government from 2011 gave everyone cause for optimism. The economy started to open up, ordinary people had access to cheaper cars, mobile phones and affordable consumer goods. Labor laws were framed and ethnic minorities that had been battling the army for decades were invited to peace talks.

 A monk shops for a used mobile phone at a street market in Yangon in 2012, when Myanmar's economy was starting to open up.   © Getty Images

Finding himself in the middle of this evolving vortex of change, Thant Myint-U took up various roles ranging from advisory positions to establishing an organization to protect Yangon's architectural heritage. He became an adviser to Thein Sein. He sat in on meetings with foreign dignitaries, who streamed in to visit Naypyitaw, the capital, to experience the transition. He recalls a weary minister opening a meeting with a foreign visitor with a few words, before turning to Thant Myint-U and telling him to continue the conversation by telling the foreigner "whatever he wanted to hear."

It was all a bit too good to be true. For it was not so easy for the country to shed its past and embark on a new trajectory toward freedom and stability. To some extent, the transition made things worse: Economic liberalism promoted more inequality, not less, and new political freedom ultimately fueled racial and religious conflict.

"This freedom, rather than giving way to progressive agendas, was reviving older anxieties around race, religion and national identity," Thant Myint-U writes. The heart of the matter, he argues, was "a state that still did not control its territory and a society divided on who belonged and who did not. Both were colonial legacies."

As a historian, Thant Myint-U has long argued that Myanmar is a prisoner of its past. The traumatic loss of sovereignty and its proudly Buddhist monarchy to British rule in the late 19th century left the country effectively decapitated. At independence in 1948 Myanmar inherited a society geared toward colonial divide-and-rule policies, deeply torn between a majority ethnic-Burman center and multiple ethnic minorities on the geographic periphery.

British travelers and their Burmese guards, circa 1887. Thant Myint-U has long contended that Myanmar is a prisoner of its past.   © Getty Images

After decades of sclerotic military rule, which did little to change the situation, the more enlightened military reformers under Thein Sein struggled to establish a vision of a peaceful, unified democratic nation. "The peace process did nothing to address questions of identity, and how Burma should see itself as a multiracial and multiethnic country," he writes.

Though Thant Myint-U is reluctant to admit it, the fault lies in the army's refusal to give up power. This became apparent with the election of a new government in 2015 led by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. While the election was free and fair, and the NLD secured a majority in parliament, the army retained a quarter of the seats and a veto over any changes to the constitution.

Nearly four years since assuming power, Suu Kyi has struggled to establish firm leadership, prevented by the army from becoming president and blocked in her efforts to negotiate a peace agreement with insurgent ethnic minority armies. Suu Kyi's image dimmed in the eyes of the world when an army-led cleansing operation in the western state of Rakhine drove more than 700,000 Muslim Rohingya into neighboring Bangladesh.

Thant Myint-U argues that if de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, top, is serious about bringing peace to the country, including ending the plight of the Muslim Rohingya, bottom, the "conflict economy" that feeds off illicit trade in jade, drugs and other items must be dismantled.   © Getty Images

No longer advising the government, and watching cautiously from the sidelines, Thant Myint-U sees a wall of challenges facing the country. He argues that if Suu Kyi is serious about peace, the "conflict economy" that feeds off illicit trade in items such as jade and drugs must be dismantled. To address the racial problems, the deepening economic divide must be bridged through equitable development.

Pondering the question of why the momentum of the 2015 election did not translate into peace, development and a more equal society, he concludes that "politics and the weight of history got in the way."

"The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century" by Thant Myint-U is published by W. W. Norton.

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