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January 10-16, 2007

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'The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma'

The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma
(By Thant Myint-U; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 361 pages; $25 cloth)

An isolated, mysterious country ruled by a military elite that pursues its own vision of autocratic socialism and stifles dissent. No, it's not Korea; it's Burma/Myanmar. This nation of more than 50 million, sandwiched between Thailand, China and India, has been riven by civil war, insurgencies and ethnic uprisings since World War II. In 1962, Army Gen. Ne Win led a coup that has clamped down on the country ever since; despite economic hardships, the government stays afloat by selling oil to China and other countries that do not participate in sanctions against the junta. Without the high-profile human-rights activism of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma would probably be off the world's radar. In The River of Lost Footsteps, Thant Myint-U, the grandson of 1960s U.N. Secretary-General U Thant, sheds much-needed light on the history of his native land. As with many nations, a once-glorious realm succumbed to Western imperialism with catastrophic results. In the late 19th century, after a quick campaign, the British annexed the country. It was the beginning of decades of disaster: "The new Burma, British Burma, would be adrift, suddenly pushed into the modern world without an anchor to the past." Burma finally won its independence in 1948, only to succumb to a quixotic military regime headed by the enigmatic Ne Win, whose sometimes eccentric decisions, which Thant is at a loss to explain, whipsawed Burma from despotism to brief spasms of democracy. By the time of his death, in 2002, a "whole new Burmese army had already come to the fore," and democracy remained a chimera. Thant has more than a historian's interest in his subject; the funeral of his grandfather, in 1974, turned into a mass protest. Thant argues that Western sanctions aren't working: "This policy of isolating one of the most isolated countries in the world ... is both counterproductive and dangerous." In his view, the military leaders are content to remain closed to outside influences, and sanctions play into their xenophobia. He concludes with a not "particularly encouraging" but realistic scenario: a process of trade, engagement, tourism and "a slow opening up of space for civil society" leading to the conditions for political change.

Review by Michael S. Gant


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