A History of Modern Burma by Michael W. Charney

I read A History of Modern Burma as part of the research for my current fiction project, and as histories go, I’m happy with what I learned as well as the perspective I gained from the text. Charney is clear, thoughtful, and quite balanced: he tries to at least make clear the kinds of thinking and motivation that underlied the military rulers of Burma in ages past and present, differentiating between them and their policies, as well at working to show what effect those policies had on the common people of Burma. Another point of strong interest is the role of the Buddhist monks (and Buddhism in general) in Burmese political life, something to which he returns rather often and quite illuminatingly.

That said, I don’t feel like I know any more about the culture of Burma from this book. I don’t have a clear sense of the place or its people, or even much of its history: Charney’s survey begins in the British colonial period, and it is only a couple of hundred pages long, dense and compact as the text and data are. It is a history of modern Burma, and modernity, in Burma, is inexticably political in focus there, so it’s not really a criticism to say I don’t know more about the culture: it was never the intention of the book to explore that to any great extent, obviously.

But there are some fascinating stories, such as the tragic tale of a Burmaphile British officer who, faced with a millennialist pack of Burmans stanging a revolt, had his men fire warning shots into the air. (The result being that the revolutionaries believed their magical charms and wards against bullets had worked, and charged on the British troops, and then were shot to pieces.)

There’s another wonderful story of a leader who, annoyed that Britain would not grant independence to Burma in exchange for Burmese support against the Axis, flew to Washington to seek support in pressuring Britain for the same end; failing there, he flew Westward for Burma, but landed in Pearl Harbor just after the attack, and, awed by the Japanese might that seemed to be on display there — with burning ships and a confused navy all about — decided to work with the Japanese. He struck a deal with the Japanese in Spain, but soon after was arrested by the Allies and sat in a war camp till the end of World War II.

And there are stories, over and over, of the ways in which Buddhist monks have sought to have a say in the politics and life of the nation of Burma, now called Myanmar.

But the most interesting thing, to me, is the portrayal of a society under military rule, supposedly for its own good, and just how absolutely, disastrously wrong this kind of thing can go. Reading it, I was put in mind of a recent conversation, the like of which I’ve had many times before, where an older Korean suggested that military dictatorship simply is one of those stages a society has to go through in order to achieve real democracy. I am dubious of this, of course: not only do I tend to think that the quality of democracy that emerges from a society that has been subject too long to dictatorship is, well, let’s say it’s a flower that never quite seems to bloom right, or at least doesn’t seem to do so for a very long time, but also because it seems to me not all democracies have necessarily emerged from military dictatorships. The argument smacks of a teleology that doesn’t seem to have the force of proof behind it, the same sort of fairytale just-so story that Ha-Joon Chang argues (in Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism, another book I’ve just started) that we are constantly telling ourselves about how the richest countries got rich in the first place.

In other words, the necessity of military dictatorship as a stage in democratization seems, to me, like a convenient myth we tell ourselves to justify how things have so often, in so many places, turned out in the decades since 1945. I don’t know American history all that well, of course — a problem I am going to attempt to remedy this year, starting with Jay Winik’s The Great Upheaval — but it seems to me that the United States did not need to go through a military dictatorship. Canada managed fine to transition to a parliamentary government, if (unfortunately) not without first incinerating that frightful (even if nominal) wart of rulership by the inbred pack we call the British royal family.

Leafing through the introduction to Winik’s book, indeed, gave me a certain kind of perspective on Charney’s: Burma is the nightmarish vision of what happens when modernity slaps an old-world-order in the face and a new order steps in. It is something that Winik seems to suggest could well have happened in America, but for the intersection of a number of factors, trends in history, interests in other nations, and lucky moments, ideas, and encounters. A new country stands without clear leadership, and the old leadership is untenable. The military steps in, takes over (promising it’s not forever, promising to make decisions for the good of all), and is able to make decisions that are unpopular but deemed necessary. The problem, indeed the nightmare, is that there’s neither a check nor balance in the system entire than can ensure the military knows what the hell it’s doing in making those decisions: competence at keeping a complex, changing, big, and “undisciplined” (read: non-military) society stable is something we cannot expect a military cabal to have developed, after all. So the military is faced with two tasks: teaching its society “discipline” — which, inevitably, includes obedience, a singularly military trait, and one which sits poorly in a mind possessed of the knowledge of its own democratic rights and freedoms — and enforcing its decisions, whether effective or not, whether enforceable or not, whether sane or not. Add in random ideological leanings of various kinds — an ardent and unquestioning Maoism born as much from anti-Western sentiment as from any grand socialist visions, for example — and you have a recipe for disaster.

And then, a few generations later, when the great revolution still hasn’t happened, and the military are still running the show, except these are the heirs of the failed experiment, you have two possibilities: those who have power retain it, through whatever means necessary; or those who want power badly enough, and who can win the backing of the people and organize themselves wrest it from those who have it, and remake the social order (not necessarily for the common good, mind). This is the crossroads to which Charney leads us, with the deeply corrupted military elite (and their families, allies, and friends) on the one side, and the Buddhist monks of Myanmar on the other. The monks, the monks: he returns to them again and again, and suggests that they, in the future, will be the linchpin to whatever change will eventually come like a flood to this nation that has been waiting for so very long.

Lastly, other fascinating aspect of the book is the role Charney describes being played by hill tribes and other peripheral groups in Burmese history. I won’t go into them too much, but the way that such rural groups are paid lip service, are heeded, are suppressed, and how they respond to each of these things plays much more of a role in the formation of the present siutation than I ever really imagined. Charney doesn’t go into it horribly deeply, but he does return to it, as a major theme of political importance in Burmese history. It reminds me that in the Burma (indeed, the Southeast Asia) that I am imagining in the future, I must consider how the disenfranchised will play their part. (Something Ian McDonald, too, has reminded me of all too well in his novella “Vishnu at the Cat Circus,” in the book which I shall review next.

On the whole, for anyone seeking a clear and fairly quick overview of how Burma got the way it is today in the political sense, I doubt there is a better book out there. For someone like me, writing a novel set in a future Burma, there is a great deal of history included here which is worth knowing, even if I shall have to look further afield for the cultural and fine-detail stuff of scenery and culture that a novelist needs. This is not a shortcoming in the book, of course: it’s not intended as a primer for novelists, but as a quick and clear history of Burmese politics, and at this the book performs exceedingly well.

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