The Hidden History of Burma

Race, Capitalism, and the Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century


  • Media: #Books #Books 2021
    • Author: Thant Myint-U
    • Status: read
    • Date: 2021-01-16
    • Tags: #history #politics #nonfiction
    • Rating: ★★★★☆
    • Idea richness: ★★☆☆☆
    • Links: Highlights, Goodreads


"In an age of reform, few have thought about what it is important to protect."

Thant Myint-U tackles the state of Burma/Myanmar, from ancient warring peoples to colonial takeover to a modern political system fighting for progress and-- just like everywhere else-- not stopping to ask what that means.

For those (such as myself), largely unfamiliar with the country outside a few new stories which were quickly brushed over, The Hidden History of Burma is an excellent introduction. The focus is more on explaining the current state of the country and crisis it faces than a deeper analysis but it is excellent for shedding light on an incredibly complex situation.

"Fear and intolerance were easy to kindle where there was a failure of the imagination."


  • Identity
  • Race
  • Democracy
  • The myth of progress
  • Colonial legacy

Things I loved...

  • Diving in with no prior knowledge and only a passing awareness courtesy of past news waves in the west (which sadly for me boiled down to a vague memory of: Aung San Suu Kyi good, Aung San Suu Kyi bad and ethnically cleansing).
  • The first half, dedicated to the history of Burma/Myanmar from mythical origins to shaking off colonial times, was fascinating and my favourite part of the book.
  • The author has a unique perspective, combining a prosperous western upbringing with his personal relationship to Burma, and does an admirable job attempting to balance the two and present views from all sides.
  • Considering the fractious political system and plethora of people and factions at play, the book never becomes too difficult to follow and the author does an excellent job keeping you straight on who is who.

Things I didn't...

  • The Hidden History of Burma is perhaps a slightly misleading title. The book is part history (in order to set the stage), part political primer, and part exploration of a modern crisis in a nation caught between superpowers and its past (though there is slightly less exploring on that part than I would like).
  • Likely due to the largely modern focus of the book and ongoing nature of the issues covered, The Hidden History of Burma felt like it was stuck between a lengthy wikipedia article/political analysis and a more in-depth thought piece looking to analyse the problems and chart potential solutions. Lots of issues are presented and more cutting opinions suggested but then more often it tapers into another presentation of the current situation. Still interesting an admirably evenhanded but I wish the author went all in on either the state of affairs or a personal analysis and deconstruction.



  • "Burma is a country of about 55 million people, squeezed between China and India but larger than France and Britain combined. More than a dozen rebel armies hold sway over large patches of the eastern uplands, together with hundreds more militias, all fighting the world’s oldest civil war."

Identity Conflict

"Personal names, places names, ethnonyms, even the name of the country, have changed or are changing. Burma is a place where identities are unstable."

  • Identity is not a fixed concept in Burma and therein lies much of the complexity of the situation. The modern country is based on lines drawn in colonial times and the new regime must face a long history of ethnic divides.
  • [[!Defining who belongs is exclusionary]]. "If some belonged, that meant others didn’t." In defining who and who isn't Burmese and trying to craft a peace process between warring ethnic armies, the country becomes more entrenched around the fractious structure of fixed ethnic groups.
  • Language shapes our thinking and how we define identities matters. In Burmese, “Race” and “nation” are synonymous and "for some “democracy” should mean nothing more or less than the supremacy of the race-based nation."
  • Burma's diverse peoples form a Plural society according to JS Furnivall. He argued in such a case where ethnic groups remain separate but interact in the marketplace, unfettered capitalism can run amok more than homogeneous countries. "Whereas in Western capitalist societies there was “production for life,” in Burma there was “life for production."
  • Outsiders struggle to understand the complexity and few international institutions want to invest in gaining a deeper understanding. This can hinder perception and aid.
  • Where outsiders see potential genocide and ethnic cleansing, insiders argue they are fighting domestic terrorists just like anyone else and cannot understand response.

[[!The Progress Myth]]

  • From dirt poor and slapped with sanctions to a military dictatorship to... democracy? The idea of progress seemed so farfetched at first that once it started to come, further progress was assumed to be inevitable. [[!Story overrides facts]]. If any news got in the way, it was dismissed.
  • [[!Progress without a solid foundation is fragile]]. "There are many reasons for Burma’s ills today, but the hollowing out of the education system alone explains much."

[[!Democracy is not an end in itself]]

  • The goal became democracy and little else. Noble, perhaps, but what about poverty and humanitarian issues?
  • Protests "rooted in the economic desperation of the poor" could be interpreted as failed pro-democracy uprisings. [[!Facts can be made to fit any story]].
  • Relentless pursuit of a single, noble-sounding goal can be dangerous. Government officials were unhappy with Charles Petrie (the UN humanitarian coordinator) because he focused on humanitarian assistance more than all-important politics.
  • Change without thinking about how the landscape can be prepared for it and make that change sustainable when it comes is fragile at best. In rural areas, many had no idea what they were voting for or what an election was. How is a robust democracy supposed to pop up in such an environment without preparation and was that the best first step?
  • No one wanted to rock the boat to pursue other paths (ex: ways to break down isolation). Burma 'just not important enough' to risk it.
  • The politics of ethics are fickle "Showing solidarity with the democracy movement was politically expedient. Results didn’t matter."
  • Democracy is not one thing. In Burma, it has become competitive politics. An "elite-level substitute for the junta over a state that is scarcely functioning and that doesn’t even control significant patches of the country".

Revenge politics

  • Transitioning from a military dictatorship to a democracy saw former political prisoners working alongside those who had imprisoned them.
  • Aung San Suu Kyi was the spearhead but could not be made the official leader. To get around this transitioning government, democracy was the top concern in name but not necessarily deed. "When the army raised objections, on the grounds that the bill was unconstitutional, her party simply overrode them. The entire bloc of army officers in parliament stood up in protest during the vote. In an ironic twist of fate, one of the army officers present accused the NLD of “bullying.” Shwe Mann, seen as a turncoat by many other generals and ex-generals, was appointed head of a special parliamentary commission, even though he had lost his own seat in the elections. When the army objected to this as well, they were overridden again."

Social media role

  • Facebook had no Burmese language moderators and news spread like wildfire. Last minute panic was the response, rather than preemptive action, when they learned UN would name them as contributing to rise of hate speech in Burma.

Colonial legacies and transition

"The modern state of Burma was born as a military occupation."

  • British colonial occupation ended Burma’s thousand-year monarchy and drew lines around what were once warring kingdoms.
  • "Burmese nationalists would blame the British for following a divide-and-rule policy. The truth was that the British took over a mixed and ever-changing political landscape and fixed boundaries to suit themselves. But by administering areas differently, they set up the fault lines around memory, identity, and aspiration that have vexed all attempts so far at nation-building."
  • "At the heart of the problems was a state that still did not control its territory and a society divided on who belonged and who did not. Both were colonial legacies."
  • "Part of the problem is that the situation is seen as a “war” requiring “peace,” as if a previously orderly society had fragmented into civil conflict and needed only to be repaired. But Burma was never whole."

Caught in the middle of superpowers

  • In 1990, Deng Xiaoping had ordered the Chinese to “hide your strength, bide your time,”
  • Burma was caught between Western sanctions and encroaching China. Turning towards one upset the other and vice versa.
  • "The leadership in Beijing started to take notice: fighting was bad, but the wrong kind of peace could be worse."
  • “We have to ask how is it that at exactly at that moment in our politics, when we were starting to return power to the people, that so much paranoia was spread, and then the first killings happened?”
  • Western sanctions and outrage added pressure but without assistance, China was there to step in.


  • "I remember a UN colleague, an experienced mediator, who told me that the peace talks that were the most successful were the ones in which the hatreds were visible and the sides trusted the process but not each other. Here, there was familiarity, but the process seemed to be lacking in a strategic direction."

Scrapbook Concepts

  • A place where identities are unstable #fragments
  • On the day of the actual burial, a throng of Buddhist monks and students, angry with the government for not giving U Thant a state funeral, seized the coffin and drove it by truck to Rangoon University. There they demanded that a fitting tomb be built, as a public monument. A tense standoff followed.
  • Under him was an Office of Strategic Studies, with five departments, which monitored the opposition and plotted strategy. Some were urbane men who spoke English and presented themselves as reformers. Others ran the torture centers. ---> Coworkers. Different Department
  • "tropical brutalist style"
  • Gun Maw (Great name for a general) #characters