Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Reviewing ‘The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma’ by Thant Myint-U

It is good to see a new book being written about a country that in recent decades has been shrouded in mystery and beset with violence. This is a serious and interesting book with ample footnotes, based largely upon the author’s academic research.

The River of Lost Footsteps is an unusual book as it is written by someone who has grown up outside Burma. The author, Thant Myint-U, is the grandson of former UN Secretary-General, U Thant and as a boy he grew up in New York with his parents and grandparents and later studied at Cambridge and Harvard. His research has been enriched by listening to stories of influential people like his grandfather and his colleagues.

The writer admits that the book is ‘roughly chronological’, commencing in the 1880s and spanning to the early years of the twenty-first century. ‘Roughly chronological’ is an apt term as the author jumps frustratingly from decade to decade. While dealing with events in the early twentieth century he will pitch in a reference from a modern Lonely Planet Guide or allude to a visit he made to Burma in 1997. Structurally, the book is a disconcerting hotch-potch. Because of the author’s family lineage and special circumstances, The River of Lost Footsteps is a hybrid of research, family history and anecdotes that Thant Myint-U collected on his short visits to Burma.

The book is written “with an eye to what the past might say about the present” and the author is critical of many in the democratic reform movement whose analysis of the contemporary situation in Burma and response has been “singularly ahistorical.” He warns that “we fail to consider history at our own peril.” Having established this point the author tells his comprehensive story of Burma but the book is lacking in critical analysis, interpretive commentary and argued lines that are drawn from the historical account to an appropriate response in the way of activism and international diplomacy.

Thant Myint-U issues a controversial call to end the policies of isolation and trade sanctions towards Burma but his recommendations are neither constructed nor argued out of the long historical account.

While the author writes about the ethnic fighting in Burma since the Second World War there is a surprising and disappointing lack of information about the various people groups and the historical reasons for their hatred of the Burmese. The history of the Karen, one of the largest minority groups, is dealt with in a couple of pages and the Chin people are described in a footnote. Without such information it is impossible to understand the civil war that has been raging for decades. The author has neglected the histories of the minority peoples in Burma to his peril and the detriment of the book. He recognizes the expulsion by the military leadership of ethnic minorities from Burma but he does not convey the magnitude of the atrocities committed by the army, the ethnic cleansing and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

While The River of Lost Footsteps is subtitled ‘Histories of Burma’, it is in reality a history of Burma through the eyes of a Burmese author, looking from the outside. [Some of the book covers are subtitled: History of Burma—see the picture]. This volume would be a very different story if it was written by a member of one of the minority tribes.

Thant Myint-U, The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma (London: Faber and Faber, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 140.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front Cover of The River of Lost Footsteps.