Guest Column

Personal Histories Behind the Headlines of Modern Myanmar

By Mon Mon Myat 22 May 2020

It is Myanmar’s good fortune to have been the birthplace of such human treasures as UN Secretary General U Thant and national hero General Aung San, although their public successes have invited misfortunes upon their families.

Through the witness of U Thant’s grandson, Thant Myint-U, the well-known author and historian, one can clearly see Myanmar’s political landscape shaped by the delicate realities of the personal stories U Thant and his family left behind, even as Gen. Aung San’s daughter Daw Aung San Suu Kyi took a different route into activism and politics.

This review focuses on Thant Myint-U’s new book The Hidden History of Burma, (2020), but the underlying personal histories of U Thant and Gen. Aung San provide the background for the story he tells about both his personal involvement as an adviser to President U Thein Sein’s government, and his engagement with the National League for Democracy (NLD) and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Thant Myint-U recalls his childhood memory of people lining the streets from the airport in Yangon (then Rangoon) to pay respect to U Thant’s coffin draped in a UN flag. As U Thant was refused a state funeral by the Ne Win regime, the coffin was seized by Buddhist monks and students and taken to Rangoon University. Such memories are indelible for the young grandson, though the American-raised boy had only a vague idea of what was really happening. But this was just the first engagement U Thant’s grandson was to have with dramatic events in Myanmar. The events of 8.8.88 caught his attention, and he was to be involved professionally with the response to Cyclone Nargis, and the transition from military rule to semi-democracy after 2011.

The 1974, the “U Thant strike” was a significant moment for the Rangoon university students and Buddhist monks, with their sentimental attachment to a world figure such as U Thant. General Ne Win considered U Thant an enemy of the state for failing to stop former prime minister U Nu’s call (announced in 1969 via the UN press corps in New York while U Thant was on a mission to Africa) to overthrow the Ne Win government; the incident is described in another of Thant Myint-U’s books, “The River of Lost Footsteps” (p.311). The Ne Win regime’s neglect of U Thant’s funeral was disrespectful and made his fellow Burmese angry. Gen. Ne Win in turn took violent action against the students, killing hundreds and throwing many into prison. U Thant’s family, including his 8-year-old grandson, was ordered to leave the country after the quiet funeral.

Though he grew up abroad, Thant Myint-U was never far from Myanmar, as he occasionally visited Yangon. When he heard about 1988 uprising in Myanmar, he was interning at the UN when the call to rise up reached him. “I didn’t want to miss my chance to be part of the big change, so I quit my internship and flew to Bangkok,” he writes. But on the day he was going to fly to Yangon, the Yangon airport was shut down by a general strike.

The cover of Thant Myint-U’s The Hidden History of Burma.

Denied the chance to take part in the movement inside Myanmar, he instead raised money for the young Burmese who fled into the forest to escape Myanmar’s military rule. He organized advocacy campaigns in Washington and London as he sought a strong response from the Western democracies “to support the nascent democracy movement, impose economic sanctions, and shame and ostracize the new junta to the maximum extent possible.”

Because he describes the 1988 people’s uprising from the perspective of an outsider, the feelings of people from all walks of life during the uprising are missing from his book. Though Daw Aung San Suu Kyi called it “the second independence movement”, Thant Myint-U touches on the history of that critical movement as lightly as a bird’s feather.

Famously, of course, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Gen. Aung San—who was assassinated by “a jealous rival”, as Thant Myint-U describes it—was in Yangon to look after her ill mother in 1988. With her first public speech during the uprising in August of that year, her new life as a politician began. In her first personal letter to the nation in August 1988, she declared that the main goal of her participation in Myanmar politics is “to strive for the entrenchment of a political system that would be beneficial to the people.”

Thant Myint-U takes this as his starting point in writing about how ordinary Burmese see Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her sacrifice, leaving her own family for the sake of the people of Myanmar: “She was the only one steadfast and selfless enough to take down the military dictatorship.”

Relationship with the junta

In an opinion piece published in the International Herald Tribune in 1997 headlined, “Please Use Your Liberty to Promote Ours”, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi called upon “those who have an interest in expanding their capacity for promoting intellectual freedom and humanitarian ideals to take a principled stand against companies that are doing business with the Burmese military regime. Please use your liberty to promote ours.”

Calling for Western sanctions of course made Daw Aung San Suu Kyi an enemy of the generals running the state. Western governments, including those of the EU and the US, adopted sanctions including arms embargos, asset freezes, travel bans, import bans and restrictions on financial transactions.

Thant Myint-U, however, felt uneasy about his advocacy campaigns for aid restrictions and sanctions on Myanmar, partly because of “unintended humanitarian consequences.”

“I felt anything that pulled the country out of its shell was a good thing, including the right kind of trade, investment, and even tourism.”

After he wrote a PhD dissertation and a book, The Making of Modern Burma, he was allowed to visit Myanmar for the first time in eight years in 1996. When he finished his second book on Burmese history, The River of Lost Footsteps (2006), he began to see clearly that “the roots of Burma’s problem lay not just in its military dictatorship but in the peculiar nationalism that had led to war, isolation, and impoverishment.” When he began writing op-eds opposed to sanctions, “the regime grew curious” about him.

Thant Myint-U was invited to the country’s new capital, Naypyitaw, a month after the September unrest in 2007 known as the Saffron Revolution. He met high-ranking government officials who were also military generals. In The Hidden History of Burma he recalls one such meeting: “The general told me he was meeting me on the express authority of [Senior General] Than Shwe himself.” At his first meeting, he remembers thinking that the generals had little understanding of Western politics or policy-making and describes them as being “always fearful that the world was ganging up on them.”

Disaster diplomacy

Thant Myint-U describes the Cyclone Nargis catastrophe from day one, focusing on an anecdote about one cyclone-affected family out of the more than 2 million families in urgent need. But the big picture he actually presents is about the junta’s reluctance to accept Nargis emergency relief offered by the US government. Prominent news headlines frightened the generals with the threat of humanitarian intervention. With a huge expectation of regime change, local people were excited to hear the news that French and British navy vessels had joined US Navy ships in the Andaman Sea, waiting for permission to enter.

“But what was a good-faith offer of emergency help seemed to the Burmese authorities like their worst nightmares come true,” Thant Myint-U observes.

By this time Thant Myint-U had experience in judging such situations. He had worked on and off for the United Nations on peacekeeping operations in Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia. At the UN’s headquarters, he learned how international diplomacy worked and the limitations of the global institutions. He has long been aware that Western countries can act irresponsibly.

“The West was not seriously thinking of starting a major conflict in Southeast Asia. Taking responsibility for a poor country of fifty million, with hundreds of ethnicities, dozens of armed groups, and little state infrastructure other than the Burmese army itself, was never in the cards,” he explains, despite the fact that the bravado expressed in the international press seemed to make this case.

During the Nargis disaster response, Thant Myint-U asked critical questions of those who called for forceful action from the UN Security Council under the new doctrine of “responsibility to protect.”

“Was it time to use force to help the victims of Nargis?……Could it be right to use military force to speed up the delivery of aid? Did it matter that thousands of lives were at stake? Or a million lives? Using force against the Burmese military—say, to secure parts of the delta, as some were suggesting—would effectively mean war.” For Thant Myint-U, it was an ethical dilemma, and one the West understood poorly. What is more, such threats, created for the consumption of Western audiences, sent a chill through the regime, making the generals wary of the gifts proffered.

In this context, disaster diplomacy between Myanmar and the international community, which began with agreements to accept international aid, soon broke down. Later the government agreed to accept an ASEAN-led operation supported by the UN and other international agencies. This led to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Myanmar to meet with Snr-Gen Than Shwe. This was the first time a UN Secretary General had visited Burma since U Thant’s official visit in 1964. It was hoped that the natural disaster that was Nargis would be a breakthrough for Myanmar, dragging it back into the international community.

Kingmakers vs. devil’s advocate

Under military rule, Myanmar was run not only by the military regime but also by rich businessmen affiliated with corrupt army officers in something like an oligarchy.

Thant Myint-U highlights the key players in Myanmar’s political landscape around 2010, especially those who had close relationships with the generals.

One of the key players he portrays is U Nay Win Maung, “businessman, magazine publisher, and founder of think tank group Egress.” The author also offers biographical sketches of U Nay Win Maung’s founding partners, U Tin Maung Than and U Hla Maung Shwe, successful businessmen from the fisheries industry.

Egress was set up with the aim of influencing regime policy. As U Nay Win Maung’s parents were lecturers at the Defense Services Academy, he had good access to senior military officials including Thura Shwe Mann, a general who occupied the fourth-highest position in the military regime.

Thant Myint-U describes regular communications between U Nay Win Maung and Thura Shwe Mann before the 2010 elections in detail. “Shwe Mann’s son sat in Egress classes and sent taped recordings of the lectures to his father.”

U Nay Win Maung probably wanted to play a kingmaker role in the 2010 elections. His think tank Egress was heavily involved in the election campaign, while the NLD called for a boycott.

Than Myint-U observes that U Nay Win Maung was discouraged after learning that U Thein Sein was chosen as president. “I remember many discussions with him over the preceding months on likely presidential picks. None had included Thein Sein as a possibility,” Thant Myint-U explains.

Later, Thant Myint-U was invited to meet senior military men as well as U Thein Sein’s “coordinating ministers,” U Aung Min and U Soe Thane, for the first time. They asked Thant Myint-U “to be involved and give them ideas on how best to engage with the West.”

He was then officially appointed to the president’s advisory team, the National Economic and Social Advisory Council, where he began playing the role of devil’s advocate.

Thant Myint-U came to work closely with U Soe Thane, whom he credits for being “keen to bring the country as close to the West as possible.” He even joined U Soe Thane on an official trip to Norway and accompanied the president on a trip to London where he helped U Soe Thane write speeches and generate talking points.

In this context, Thant Myint-U portrays U Thein Sein as a loyal public servant. “For him, the military past was something to be proud of, not rejected. He was not seeking to overthrow an evil system. He wanted only to improve on what he saw as the decent legacy of the old regime,” he writes.

The split between President U Thein Sein and Lower House Speaker Thura Shwe Mann became serious in 2013. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been elected to Parliament in a by-election, built close ties with Thura Shwe Mann. Thant Myint-U remarks, “there was good personal chemistry, something Aung San Suu Kyi never had with Thein Sein.” The political honeymoon period of U Thein Sein and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi soon ended.

Although Thant Myint-U gained the trust of President U Thein Sein’s government, he lost the trust of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi despite a very friendly meeting with her soon after she was released from house arrest. Though he tried several times to meet her again, his attempts failed. He assumes, “likely because some around her felt that I had become too close to a presidential team she no longer trusted.”

House of cards: Peace or a play?

It is perhaps odd that the cosmopolitan Thant Myint-U became closer to U Aung Min, “an introverted former intelligence officer who spoke next to no English, had never been to the West, and who always looked for tactical advantage.”

U Aung Min told him after a meeting with the leaders of ethnic armed groups, “I may not know much, but I know how to deal with a man who has a gun in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other.”

He continued, “Aung Min’s instincts were to show that he was different from past generals and to open the door as wide as possible to outside help. My instincts were to be very careful in not allowing the global peace-building industry to gain too big a foothold. I had seen from my perch at the UN in New York too many well-meaning efforts based on far too little local knowledge.”

As a historian though, Thant Myint-U well recognizes how colonial legacies have led to territorial disputes and a divided society. Those legacies are at the heart of the problems in Myanmar’s politics, he writes.

Thant Myint-U also watched the rise of identity politics during Myanmar’s so-called transition. “This was no coincidence. In the absence of other ideologies or agendas, identity-based mobilization was an obvious way to gain political advantage. Troublemakers saw the value in setting communities against one another.”

Thant Myint-U finds that the peace process initiated by President U Thein Sein’s government had “no real strategy for how a state could be knitted together.”  Instead he saw “much use of the word ‘trust’ and a free flow of whiskey.”

He realized that “the more the peace process became the flagship of Burma’s reform drive, the more it was the men with guns who held the cards.”

Thant Myint-U was disappointed with the situation he faced after spending lot of time at the Myanmar Peace Center and “on the Beyond Ceasefire Initiative.” People in the government saw him as an outsider, someone who had lived most of his life overseas.

Thant Myint-U was in a difficult position by this time. He had earned the trust of neither the pro-U Thein Sein group nor the pro-Daw Aung San Suu Kyi group. But it should be remembered that the author is first and foremost a historian and an academic, not a politician.

Thant Myint-U has never failed to do his duty, providing an impartial view for the betterment of the nation that produced his grandfather. Myanmar is still fortunate to have the descendants of national heroes U Thant and Gen. Aung San engaged in academia and politics. Neither lost sight of the trail blazed by their predecessors, though as Thant Myint-U’s new book highlights, they have charted their own courses toward a still unseeable future.

Mon Mon Myat is an author and a PhD Candidate in the Peacebuilding Program at Payap University in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

This article refers to Thant Myint-U’s “The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century” (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2020).

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