Thursday, September 27, 2012

Myanmar in the middle

Where China Meets India: Burma And The New Crossroads of Asia
Thant Myint-U
Faber and Faber, 358 pages

WHEN Myanmar (previously known as Burma) is mentioned in the news, it is primarily in relation to Aung Sang Suu Kyi. As a country that was cut off from the West for many years, their living national icon (and arguably, an international one as well) served as one of the few bridges to the outside world.

Myanmar is also well known for its oppressive military regime and the devastating effects this has had on their economy. Furthermore, Malaysia has seen a large influx of Myanmar refugees looking for a better life.
For those of us who would like to see a silver lining in Myanmar’s sad situation, Thant provides us with one in this book.
Where China Meets India serves as a journey into Myanmar, through the eyes of a Myanmar-born man who has lived outside of his country for many years. Nevertheless, Thant has kept abreast with developments in Myanmar, but in his book, he has chosen to focus more on the positive aspects of the situation.
This is where China and India come in. A look at the world map shows us that Myanmar serves as an important link between these two Asian giants. The resources from Myanmar could prove valuable to both countries. Yet, being in that situation is not ideal, either. Myanmar could easily be taunted on a rope by the two superpowers and dropped when results are not being produced.
The book is part-travelogue and part-history, with analyses of possible future directions for the country. We see the contradictions, for example, in the north-eastern region known as Lashio, where the closeness in geography to China has contributed to its success.
The truth of this success, however, is questionable, as it is also an area monopolised by drug lords, who gain many benefits from being close to China. Interestingly, while the book does criticise certain actions taken by China and India, Thant criticises policies, not the people.
While he tackles the big issues, the author also enriches the book with anecdotes, mythology and personal stories of the Myanmar people. Some may think that this reduces the validity of the arguments proposed in the book. I, however, believe it gives genuine insight into the lives of individuals who are isolated from even their neighbouring countries.
Despite this “silver lining” approach, I do believe Thant could have taken the book a step further by addressing the human rights issues faced by Myanmar. I found it difficult to keep the plight of the Myanmar refugees out of my mind while reading this book, and feel the lack of exploration of these issues is a major oversight. The book could have been an eye-opener for those who are passionate about human rights but not fully aware of the ongoing issues in Myanmar.
One can also question the feasibility of some of Thant’s proposed solutions. As someone who was educated outside Asia, it is difficult to say whether his solutions have considered the complexities of Asian culture.
That said, the amount of work Thant has put into researching these three countries is commendable. It is clear from his writing that he is optimistic about Myanmar’s future, and as a reader, you can’t help but feel the same way. There is clearly a lot of passion behind Thant’s words, and it is for this reason that I am now motivated to seek out Thant’s other book on Myanmar, The River Of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History Of Burma.
The conclusions that Where China Meets India draws may need to be reassessed in the near future. Myanmar has been making some progress in its relations with the United States and Britain, and as a result of their recent general elections, many changes seem to be on the horizon. However, for anyone who has an interest in the Asian region and how its economy serves to fuel many of its issues, this book is worth a read.