Given Myanmar’s history of oppression — first by British colonizers, then under a homegrown army cabal — every free election is remarkable.
The nation has spent roughly five of its seven decades under totalitarian military rule. Only four years ago did its most famous living person — Aung San Suu Kyi, a political icon long backed by the United States — take control through a widely celebrated election.
There are huge caveats. Aung San Suu Kyi and her party are in charge of day-to-day governance. But by law, they can’t really temper the military, which keeps busy enriching generals through extractive corporations — gem mining is a favorite — and trying to crush Indigenous guerrillas.
Since independence from British rule in 1948, minorities in the mountains and along the coast have struggled to defend their native turf from army subjugation. Those who have their own mini-armies can succeed. Those who don’t — such as the Rohingya, a Muslim group — suffer ethnic cleansing and apartheid.
On Sunday, Myanmar will hold its second major election since the end of totalitarian rule. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party is once again riding a wave of popular support. But there is less celebration this time, in the West at least, given her defense of a military purge against the Rohingya — one so vicious that some in the United Nations calls it “genocide.”
This election is a moment to take stock of Myanmar, a country former US President Barack Obama in 2012 hailed as a wondrous success story, pecking Aung San Suu Kyi on the cheek, calling her a “hero of mine.”
But where is the country headed now? The World asked Thant Myint-U, a historian and author of “The Hidden History of Burma: Race, Capitalism and The Crisis of Democracy in the 21st Century.” He spoke to Patrick Winn, The World’s Southeast Asia correspondent.
Patrick Winn: Myanmar is having an election this Sunday — during a pandemic. And in certain parts of the country where there are insurgencies, people won’t even be able to vote. That’s not ideal. But given Myanmar’s history, do you think it’s remarkable that the country is even having an election?
Thant Myint-U: We have to remember that this is a country that was under military dictatorship since 1962. And as recently as 10 or 12 years ago, it was still under a pure military dictatorship. Very few people could have imagined that elections — or anything close to free and fair elections — would have been held, much less elections in which Aung San Suu Kyi, who was then a political prisoner, would be able to contest and win. In that way, the country has made tremendous progress. It is much freer, despite many problems, than it has been in generations. So, despite all the problems, I think the country did move in the right direction. Whether it continues to do that or will be able to face all these incredibly complex challenges, especially around ethnic conflict, I think that remains to be seen.
Outside the country, after the military violently purged this Muslim group, the Rohingya, Aung San Suu Kyi got a ton of grief. And the narrative went from “she’s an angel” to “she won’t stand up to army genocide.” But if she had done what all the Western diplomats wanted and stood up for the Rohingya — which wasn’t a terribly popular position inside the country — might she be on shakier ground in this election?
She might be on slightly shakier ground in the sense that there are people who feel strongly on this issue in an extremist way. She might have lost some support from those quarters. But I think that, for the vast majority of Burmese people, for them, this is not a priority issue. We have to remember this is a country with tens of millions of extremely poor people who suffer from very little education, nothing in the way of government services, who are struggling to get by day to day. What happens with the Rohingya in that part of the country — which is really a small corner of the country on the border with Bangladesh — it’s not the basis on which they’re going to vote for her. Or for someone else.
Among her supporters, she is still well-loved. What binds them to her?
They see her first and foremost still as the heroine of the democracy story. As the person who helped lead the country out of a military dictatorship, into a future that, they hope, will be better. I think it’s not even about how much better that future is. Or what specific policy she’s undertaking. It’s about her as a person — as the first leader that they trust.
In big parts of the country, especially near the borders, there are Indigenous armies fighting the central government for control. And in some places, the Indigenous armies are in control, running their own little governments. These conflicts seem to boil down to race and power. I’m wondering if you see racial division as the fundamental problem in Myanmar.
I don’t think it’s the fundamental problem. But it’s one of a few fundamental problems. On one hand, you have this story that began after World War II. With independence — when Burma became independent in 1948. The Burmese-speaking Buddhist majority suddenly kind of found out they were in a country with many minority peoples, especially in the uplands, up near China and India. And that these were people with very different histories and had never been part of a Burmese kingdom. And so this effort to bring these people into — to forcefully integrate them into a single Burmese nation — I think has been basically been a failure since 1948.
There are many local communities who still resist. But the other story is the Burmese people themselves believe they are an Indigenous people under threat. When they look at the map, they see themselves as a smaller people next to 1 1/2 billion people in China. And 1 1/2 billion people in the Indian subcontinent. And that they are under threat. So, they need to integrate the others. And that has been a big problem with Burmese politics, especially when it has spilled over into armed conflict, which it has, on and off, since 1948.
Myanmar suffers from something that has plagued a lot of postcolonial countries, especially in the Middle East, where a foreign empire, in this case British, came in and tried to glue together multiple civilizations and drew a border around them and said: “Hey, you’re all in the same country now, like it or not, hash it out.” Was it structurally primed for conflict?
Yes, in the sense that, when the British decided to quit Burma in 1947, they were leaving behind incredibly weak institutions. Plus an economy that had been completely destroyed. And on top of that, these ethnic fractures and this absence of any history of the Burmese majority being part of the same polity with people on the periphery. That being said, I think the country could have pulled together. It could have moved in a much better direction, in the 1950s and ’60s and afterwards, if it hadn’t been for recurring outside intervention.
I mean, just as the Burmese civil wars were winding down in the 1950s, Chinese nationalists supported by the United States [who were fleeing communist victory in China] essentially invaded the country. And they created this entire war landscape in the east of the country. These were troops loyal to Chiang Kai-shek [the ruler of Taiwan] who was supported by the Americans for many years. Then, in the late 1960s, when that war started to die down, the Chinese communists from Beijing supported yet another invasion into Burma. So, I think we have to remember that there’s also a long history of foreign intervention. And it’s kept these conflicts going a long time — conflicts that are intimately tied with global illicit industries. Like the production and trafficking of methamphetamine.
Myanmar is next door to China — a rising China with a very strong interest in your country. What does China want from Myanmar?
What China wants, first and foremost, is to prevent what they saw as a nightmare scenario developing about five or six years ago, where there was a Myanmar which was still fractured, but which was suddenly embraced by the West. And was embracing the West in turn. And there was this real possibility that Western governments, the United States in particular, would not only have a great relationship with the Myanmar government but would also have relationships with ethnic armed organizations, these insurgent groups we’ve been talking about, right on the Chinese border. I think their No. 1 goal is to prevent that. Beyond that, I think their feeling is that Burma, or Myanmar, is likely to be in conflict for a long time. And they want to be a big brother to all of the armed groups — both the army itself and these ethnic armed organizations so they can make sure the fighting doesn’t spill into China. Or affect China in any negative way.
I realize the United States has a really murky record in Myanmar, from some pretty outrageous CIA meddling in the 1950s to the heavy sanctions in more recent times. But if you were approached by a State Department that you believed to be sincere, and they say, “Thant Myint-U, what could we do differently?" Would you have a good answer for that?
Yes. I think the US and the West and the international community more generally has to focus on underdevelopment in Burma. If the goal is to have a genuinely peaceful, democratic Burma that is sovereign and will not come under the domination of any country — if that is the strategic aim — then front and center has to be the kind of economic development that will help the vast majority of people.
That economic development cannot be a neoliberal prescription of opening all markets, opening up the country to any and all trade, and just leaving the market alone and hoping for the best. There has to be a much more strategic economic development plan. For at least five or 10 years. Just to get the country away from the deeply problematic situation it’s in right now. This incredibly unfair economy with huge inequality and towards something better. That question — what would be a realistic but also an effective and progressive economic agenda in Burma? That has to be front and center for anyone who wants to see a sovereign, democratic Burma that will not come under foreign domination.
Do you feel the West still exoticizes Myanmar? Or projects fantasies about what they want it to be — instead of looking at it as it is?
That’s always been the tendency. It’s a place very few people know. It was isolated for decades. It wasn’t like Thailand or Singapore or Vietnam — to which millions of Americans had been and had contacts and experiences. So, you could paint any kind of picture you wanted. And over the 1990s and 2000s, this very specific picture of a country in a Manichean struggle, between one lady and a junta of military generals, became the only way in which people thought about the country.
So, I think the complexity of the country is often completely lost. But I don’t think anyone romanticizes it now. After the Rohingya violence of 2017 in particular, people are kind of unsure how to think about this country. And how these different stories are meant to connect to one another. And I think there’s enormous concern about the plight of the Rohingya in particular. I think unless people start to delve into the complexity of the country, there’s no way the outside world can even begin to think about helping Burma. And it’s a country that’s going to need a lot of help in the years to come.
I worry that these dark subjects have come to totally define the country, forcing it to play this role in the popular imagination as a place where mostly bad things happen. That’s pretty unfair. What gives you hope for Myanmar in the 21st century?
This is a country that is politically freer, much freer, than at any time since the 1960s. This is a country that is now under very few sanctions, and it’s much less isolated than it has been in half a century. The average age is 28. You have a whole generation of young people who’ve been educated in a much less isolated place. At least thousands at the elite level have traveled and gone to higher education abroad. It has tremendous economic potential. It’s right next to China and India. If it was able to harness that potential, it could become not only richer — but also a place with tremendous cultural assets and tremendous natural assets. It’s one of the greatest biodiversity hot spots anywhere in the world.
The key is to break free of the old romanticizing narratives. And think about this as a poor country that needs to develop urgently. If outside help can focus on those issues, then anything is possible. It just has to be linked to issues of discrimination and the kinds of racial conflicts we talked about before. But with the right push over these next few years, and with a generational shift towards this much younger generation, a lot will be possible.
Your grandfather was an important statesman, the first Asian to become secretary-general of the UN. He passed away about 45 years ago. If he were to see Myanmar today, what might surprise him?
A lot would surprise him because in some ways, the country is facing the exact problems he knew so well. When he was working in the Burmese government in the 1950s — when he was a spokesman for the government, an adviser to the prime minister, they were so hopeful at that time. That they would break free and become a modern, industrialized country by the 1970s or ’80s. So, in that way, he’d be deeply disappointed because of his time in New York as secretary-general, he came to really believe that a big problem in the world was a narrow kind of nationalism. That only a sense of global citizenship would be able to cope with problems he saw even in the 1960s — environmental protection, underdevelopment, conflict — and that we really had to think globally.
On the border with China, there is this army — the United Wa State Army — and it’s the largest independent army in Asia, controlling more territory than Israel. They’re essentially running their own government. And they say they want to remain in Myanmar under a model of “One country, two systems,” as we see with Hong Kong under China. This is a nation within a nation — and I feel it’s often ignored. How do you see it influencing the country in the years ahead?
It’s almost impossible to imagine any other country where you’d have a nation within a nation, as you say. A nonstate army of 20,000 to 30,000 troops supported by armor and anti-aircraft weapons, supported directly by a big country next door — in this case, China, with whom they have very close ties.
And to not have that as the centerpiece of everything, mainly because Myanmar has so many other challenges to deal with. Unless you understand the United Wa State Army, you really don’t understand much about Myanmar today. It is the situation that really animates many of the Burmese army’s own paranoia and fear — especially about having China next door. It’s not just one group holding lots of territory with this big army. It’s also an arms supplier and supporter of smaller insurgencies, a smaller armed ethnic organizations, that are actively fighting the Burmese army. It’s a big strategic problem. But for any country to have another army within its country, supported by a big neighbor like China, it would be seen as an existential threat. In a way, it’s a sign of how dysfunctional the country has been for such a long time.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.