The River of Lost Footsteps, subtitled A Personal History of Burma, by the former UN General Secretary U Thant’s grandson Thant Myint-U (himself a former UN worker), provides a political history of Burma from the earliest times, and brings it up until the “Saffron Revolution” of 2007, though much of what is said at the end anticipates events only now taking place like the move to a military-controlled civilian government.
But in tracing a history of Burma, it necessarily has to be a regional history also, and in later times even a world history, but one with a difference, in that it tries to show how things look like from inside Burma. This in itself would make the book worth reading, as it is such a different perspective to our standard histories.
The book opens with a chapter entitled The Fall of a Kingdom, set in 1885-6 when the last of the Burmese kings was deposed and packed off to India, and the continuity of Burmese history was decidedly broken off. Clearly Thant sees this as being a pivotal point in the history of the country, which set the stage for what was to come.
For the old aristocracy their world had come crashing down much faster. Intensely conservative, they had been trained to look to the past for examples and to see their lives and their vocations as part of a seamless heritage going back to the very introduction of Buddhism and monarchy well over a thousand years before.
In the next chapter it leaps forward one hundred years to the near-revolution of 1988, when the military Government looked to be on the brink of collapse, and eventually agreed to hold elections. In the elections that followed the Government sponsored parties suffered a crushing defeat, but the military rather than accept the verdict of the people, retained or even strengthened their hold on power.
Having set out these two events and linked them together, Thant then goes back to the beginning to show how the vagaries of history have moulded the people and especially the thinking of the military about who they are, and what their role is in the country.
In this he is quite successful, managing to outline in 350+ pages most of the salient facts about Burma’s political history and show how all this is playing out in the consciousness of the military even today.
The history of Burma is incredibly complicated, even more so than most of the countries in this diverse region, as it is hardly in any sense a real country, rather there are a variety of ethnic groups, having different traditions, religions and cultures that are hemmed in and forced together only by the countries that surround them.
Speaking about the crisis following the elections in 1991, Thant writes:
When the men in uniform looked to the past, they saw a country that tended to fall apart into little pieces and that had always needed to be melded together by force. They saw themselves in a long line of national unifiers and saw their task as unfinished.
Thant is particularly good at unravelling the history of the country in the 20th century, and manages to show not only how a promising democracy failed by the late 50s, but why it did too. In covering this period Thant also includes recollections from his family history and the role they have played in the country’s hsitory, though to be truthful these are slight and don’t really add much to the main story.
Not everyone will agree with his analysis in the final pages, and how to proceed from here, but the way forward needs to be invigorated by debate as clearly the attempts to force change from the outside through sanctions, further isolation and the like have failed miserably so far.
Nobody would have predicted that the death of a lowly fruit-seller in Tunisia would be the starting point for a region-wide revolution that, despite setbacks, still seems to be unstoppable – and nobody really knows what will be the spark that will eventually overthrow the military hegemony in Burma, but let us hope for the sake of the suffering people of that country that it is sooner rather than later.
The book is still in print and can be bought from various outlets depending on your country, or from online services like Amazon, which is where a friend of mine bought the book for me.