Cockett, a former correspondent for The Economist, has traveled to every corner of Myanmar (also known as Burma) to uncover the roots of its troubled condition. The Burmans, the majority ethnic group (who are mostly Buddhist), live on the country’s central plain. They are surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped ring of “hill tribes,” many of which are Christian and which are classified into 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. This picture is further complicated by the legacies of the British colonial period, when the country experienced an influx of Hindus and Muslims from various parts of India, as well as Chinese merchants, Iraqi Jews, and others seeking commercial opportunities. Faced with so much ethnic and religious diversity, postindependence military regimes tried to “purify” the country through assimilationist education and language policies, exclusionary citizenship laws, and a military-dominated economic model, all of which have only exacerbated divisions. Cockett’s lucid analysis of these complexities makes clear his affection for the country. But he evinces little hope that the current quasi-military regime or the opposition can overcome these conflicts and make Myanmar anything more than a “stunted democracy.”
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