Book’s Snapshots of Two Young Lives Illuminate Myanmar’s Political, Social Ills

By Bertil Lintner 14 June 2021

Until the World Shatters: Truth, Lies and the Looting of Myanmar

By Daniel Combs

Melville House, Brooklyn and London, 2021, 386 pages. US$28.99

“Until the World Shatters” by the award-winning author Daniel Combs reads like a novel but is not. The book is a well-written account of the dreams and aspirations of two young men—an ethnic Kachin businessman called Bum Tsit and Phoe Wa, a Bamar born and raised in the countryside who has moved to Yangon to pursue a career as a photojournalist—and what Combs calls the largest natural resource heist in Asia: the murky trade in jade from mines in the far north of the country. The book was written before the Feb. 1 coup and the subsequent escalation of the civil war in, among other parts of Myanmar, Kachin State. But that makes it only more important to read it.

Before Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s power grab, people like Phoe Wa had to grapple with a government that was elected but whose understanding of press freedom was flawed to say the least, whereas Bum Tsit’s success as a businessman was conditional on contacts with corrupt military officers, at the same time as his family supported the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Now, journalists, poets and other writers are being arrested, tortured and even killed by Myanmar’s new military rulers. The introduction of a brutal dictatorship, and subsequent strikes and protests, and a deadly response from the military, have also led to a near collapse of the Myanmar economy. The survival of the junta depends to a large extent on the export of natural gas to Thailand—as well as the income from the lucrative trade in precious stones like rubies and sapphires and, primarily, jade.

Meanwhile, in response to the brutal suppression of the anti-coup movement, the KIA has stepped up its attacks and inflicted heavy casualties on the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, and captured several of its outposts. The polarization of Myanmar society, be it in cities and towns in the country’s heartland or in the frontier areas, has become so entrenched that everyone now has to choose sides. No one, regardless of nationality or even education and social status, can remain neutral in Myanmar’s political landscape with the Tatmadaw on one side of the divide and, on the other, ordinary citizens. Local resistance armies consisting of villagers armed with hunting rifles have sprung up spontaneously in many parts of Myanmar, while tech-savvy youngsters are battling the dictatorship in cyberspace. Outsmarting military censors, they are keeping the world informed about what’s happening in their country with videos, photos and statements from an abundance of civil society organizations, many now working underground to avoid arrest.

Combs, a former journalist and currently a foreign service officer in the US State Department, came to know Phoe Wa and Bum Tsit during a stay in Myanmar before the coup. Those are not their real names because he wanted to protect their actual identities; if personal safety was an issue even then, it has become a nightmare after the coup. The author lets us see Myanmar’s many political, social and ethnic problems through the lives and experiences of these two young men, and he does that with utmost sympathy for them and understanding of their choices.

Bum Tsit was born in the Kachin State capital Myitkyina in 1988, the year of a previous massive uprising against military rule. His father, a manual laborer and a gold miner, died when he was young and his mother left to work as a cook in the jade mines in Hpakant, the main area where the precious stone is found and “where money flows more freely”, as Combs puts it. Like most other Kachin families, his had close ties with the KIA and later his own brother joined the rebels.

Bum Tsit, however, went to university, became a Red Cross volunteer and, according to Combs “graduated in 2010, during one of the most profound social transformations in Myanmar’s history. After forty-eight years of authoritarian rule, a civilian party took power from a military government.” One is left to wonder if Combs today would have made the same assessment of what happened after a rigged election in 2010 made it possible for the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) to form a government. And it was hardly a civilian government; it was dominated by former military officers. Then, in 2015, the pro-democracy National League for Democracy (NLD) took part in what turned out to be a free and fair election—and scored a landslide victory over the USDP.

While it is correct to say that the government that was formed after the 2010 election did open up society in a way Myanmar had not seen since before the first military coup in 1962, it did not result in a fundamental transformation of the country’s power structure. The new USDP government did release political prisoners, press freedom was guaranteed and political parties were able to operate openly. But the constitution, enacted after a blatantly fraudulent referendum in 2008, guaranteed the preservation of the military’s power. It appointed the three most important ministers—for defense, home affairs and border affairs—and a quarter of all MPs. And for that order to change, more than the elected three quarters of parliamentarians would have to vote for such a proposal. The military remained the country’s most powerful institution and when the generals eventually got tired of having a civilian front, they staged a coup and assumed direct power over the country. The “democratic reforms” were a façade erected by the military in 2010 to lessen its heavy dependence on China and improve relations with the West.

Phoe Wa, seven years younger than Bum Tsit, was one of many who benefited from the initiatives that the USDP government took after setting up a quasi-civilian government. Determined to become a photojournalist, he moved from his home village in Mon State to Yangon where he enrolled in a journalism workshop and eventually found a job in a local newspaper. But then came the Rohingya refugee crisis and Combs “watched Phoe Wa’s journey to report the truth despite the forces working against him:  government propaganda, religious nationalist fanatics and his own spiritual doubt. As his journalistic responsibility grew, he was forced to ask himself what he was willing to sacrifice to tell the truth.”

In Kachin State, Bum Tsit, according to Combs, had “to confront the country’s most painful secret: the connection between the jade industry and the longest-running war in the world.” This is hardly correct. The war in Kachin State broke out in 1961, while communist and ethnic Karen rebels had been battling the central government since Myanmar’s independence in 1948. But it is fair to say that incomes from the lucrative trade in jade from the mines in Hpakant have attracted adventurers and fortune seekers from Myanmar as well as China, that fortunes have been made, and that Myanmar military officers have benefited immensely from bribes and payoffs provided by the mining companies. The KIA has collected tax in cash or in kind on the trade enabling the rebels to buy guns and run what appears to be a well-organized administration in the areas it controls. Individuals like Bum Tsit have also been able to prosper, but in a much more minor way than the big traders. And he never gave up his work as a social activist. According to Combs, Bum Tsit styled himself as “a humanitarian first, and a businessman second.”

It would be interesting to know where Bum Tsit and Phoe Wa are today and what impact the coup has had on their lives. If Phoe Wa was worried about the authoritarian direction in which the now ousted NLD government was turning, he can now no longer even try to work as an independent photojournalist unless he goes underground or into exile. Bum Tsit must be witnessing the dramatic escalation of the civil war in the north. The KIA has intensified its attacks on the Tatmadaw since the coup and dissidents from all over the country have sought refuge in areas it controls near the Chinese border. So the war in the north is, after all, about a bit more than capitalizing on the jade trade, which is a major theme of Combs’ book. Anecdotal evidence from Kachin State indicates that the people there have indeed chosen sides and that there is massive support for the rebels, even outside Kachin State.

Combs mixes his own observations of Myanmar as he saw it before the coup with dives into history, culture and the traditional importance of religion in society. Even if some of it may now be out of date and he might, in hindsight, have approached certain problems differently, it is still highly recommended to anyone interested in contemporary Myanmar.

Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist, author and strategic consultant who has been writing about Asia for nearly four decades.

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