Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know

In This Review

Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know
By David I. Steinberg
Oxford University Press, 2009
256 pp. $74.00
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Steinberg gives a pointed briefing on what ails Myanmar (also called Burma) and finds the causes mostly in history. The kingly past bequeathed a zero-sum concept of power; the colonial era, irrational borders and a toxically unequal distribution of wealth among ethnic groups; and postindependence military rule, a decline in state capacity and a turn to predation. The international environment is also damaging: as former Prime Minister U Nu said, the country is "hemmed in," between China, India, and the distant but looming United States, "like a tender gourd among the cactus." This has caused successive leaders to close off Myanmar from the West and lean toward China. As in other predatory states, an advantaged military caste, in this case comprising four percent of the population, lives off everyone else. Many want to join, but few are chosen; once admitted, the price of survival is loyalty. The layering of ethnic, economic, and legitimacy crises has trapped the country in a tragedy with no near-term resolution, to which the U.S. policy of unremitting sanctions has contributed nothing productive.