Thursday, 12 April 2012

Myint-U: Where China Meets India

Thant Myint-U (2011) Where China Meets India, Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia Faber & Faber, London; 358 pp.; ISBN 978-0-571-23963-4

Historian Thant Myint-U is the author of The River of Lost Footsteps (2006), in my view the best introduction to Myanmar’s sad history and why its despotic military rulers are so driven by xenophobia and delusion. In this new book, Myint-U looks at Myanmar in a broader regional context and asks how it might prosper, nestled as it is between the large emerging powers of India and China. The question has particular relevance for Myanmar, but it is also one that faces the other countries of mainland south-east Asia, and ASEAN as a regional bloc.

Part One of the book looks at the historical background, sweeping quickly over ancient times and focusing very much on the European colonial period and its impact on the diversity of people and networks in the region. We tend to forget how today’s populations are often the outcome of peculiar theories on the part of colonial administrators and the cold, commercial imperatives of colonial enterprises. It is sobering to see how much of a rich traffic in people and ideas was lost with the advent of modern borders.

The middle section of the book takes us to the borderlands with China and shows how towns and communities there are dealing with the size and dominance of Chinese production and marketing. Chinese ascendancy in many parts of northern and north-western Myanmar resembles patterns in northern Laos and northern Thailand, if more advanced. Myint-U’s account is full of interesting details but tends towards the descriptive and, at times, nostalgic. I wanted to learn more about the coping strategies of these border peoples and how they manipulate the new cultural divide. There are some hints, but I felt like imitating Oliver Twist.

The third section of the book moves to the other border – with India. Whereas the Chinese province of Yunnan on the eastern side of Myanmar is strongly integrated into the Chinese state, the north-east of India is fractured by separatism, poor communications and a diversity of cultures that the Indian state has failed to manage well. The geography of the border here is such that interaction appears far weaker than on the Chinese side. There is some discussion of Bangladesh, but given the cross-border tensions over Muslim communities in Myanmar and the influence of these well down into southern Thailand and Malaysia, more analysis of the relationship with Bangladesh would have been welcome.

Myanmar’s undoubted potential, squandered over decades by incompetent military rulers, has long been a topic of academic and journalistic discussion. Myint-U adds more in-depth and personal observations to this body of work, but there are no simple answers from his side. Given his earlier work, I was expecting some exposition of the principles on which Myanmar might negotiate with the two giants that squeeze it from either side like two fat suitors with roaming hands in a darkened cinema. But in the end the book raises more questions than it answers. Perhaps that was the author’s intent.

The recent froth and bubble over elections and a ‘new dawn for democracy’ in Myanmar will ensure that international focus on the country continues to grow. The US and its camp followers are likely to increase their presence and we will see aid programmes, foreign investment and tourism all increase. This will please other countries in ASEAN who have long been embarrassed by Myanmar’s behaviour, despite their public support. But will they be so pleased if Myanmar prospers by enriching its own people rather than exporting them as cheap illegal labour to its neighbours?

There will be many repercussions from the changes under way in Myanmar. Thant Myint-U’s works are an invaluable guide and asset in understanding this country, and I would recommend reading The River of Lost Footsteps in addition to this newer book in order to gain a well-informed perspective.

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