A New York Times Critics' Top Book of 2019
A Foreign Affairs Best Book of 2020
“An urgent book.” —Jennifer Szalai, New York Times
During a century of colonialism, Burma was plundered for its natural resources and remade as a racial hierarchy. Over decades of dictatorship, it suffered civil war, repression, and deep poverty. Today, Burma faces a mountain of challenges: crony capitalism, exploding inequality, rising ethnonationalism, extreme racial violence, climate change, multibillion dollar criminal networks, and the power of China next door. Thant Myint-U shows how the country’s past shapes its recent and almost unbelievable attempt to create a new democracy in the heart of Asia, and helps to answer the big questions: Can this multicultural country of 55 million succeed? And what does Burma’s story really tell us about the most critical issues of our time?
How did Burma's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi go from Nobel Peace Prize laureate to figurehead for a regime accused of genocide? Former UN diplomat Thant (Where China Meets Asia), offers a lucid, albeit complex, answer in this essential analysis of modern Burmese history. According to Thant, the stage was set for the country's racial, ethnic, and religious divisions during 19th-century British colonial rule, when an array of cultures, language groups, and tribal identities were lumped together under an exploitative form of capitalism. With independence in 1948 came the world's longest ongoing civil war. A brutal military dictatorship seized control in 1962 until the early 2010s, when Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and won a seat in parliament. As the military junta loosened its grip on power, Thant explains, the army signed accords with rebel groups, creating a framework in which violence improved the odds of political settlement. That model, and the government's failure to craft a "new and more inclusive" national identity, Thant writes, influenced the rise of the Muslim Rohingaya resistance movement and ensuing military crackdown and refugee crisis, in which Suu Kyi has refused to intervene. Thant briskly synthesizes insider accounts, news reports, and academic research to make his authoritative case. This perceptive chronicle is vital for understanding Burma's transition to democratic rule and sobering future prospects.