Just a few years ago, Myanmar (also called Burma) was widely seen as an international success story. In March 2011, after half a century of military rule, a quasi-civilian government led by the former general Thein Sein came to power and embarked on a remarkable campaign of political and economic reforms. Over the next year and a half, the government released dissidents, lifted press censorship, let the democratic icon Aung San Suu Kyi reenter politics after spending years under house arrest, and opened peace talks with more than a dozen rebel groups. President Thein Sein’s administration also took important steps to rationalize an economy distorted by decades of autarkic socialist policies and harsh Western sanctions.

On the foreign policy front, Myanmar spurned China, its overbearing patron, by suspending unpopular infrastructure projects, and it moved to improve relations with the United States and the West. In late 2011, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Yangon. Shortly after, Barack Obama made the first-ever visit to Myanmar by a sitting U.S. president, touting “the power of a new beginning.” As liberalization proceeded, Western countries lifted sanctions, and Myanmar rejoined the world. Aid and investment flooded into the country, along with a parade of luminaries—from the financier and philanthropist George Soros to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair—eager to participate in a seemingly historic transformation.

Myanmar’s democratic transition reached its apex on November 8, 2015, when Aung San Suu Kyi led her party, the National League for Democracy, to a staggering victory in national elections. The following March, Thein Sein handed over power to the new administration. It was the first peaceful transfer of power in Myanmar since 1960. A country once mentioned in the same breath as North Korea had seemingly flipped onto the right side of history.

Then the story darkened. On August 25, 2017, a militant group calling itself the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army launched a string of attacks on military outposts across the northern reaches of Rakhine State. The Burmese army responded with a merciless series of military operations—a campaign of ethnic cleansing that emptied villages of Rohingya Muslims. By the end of the year, some 700,000 Rohingya had fled into neighboring Bangladesh. Terrified refugees told of rape, torture, arson, and extrajudicial killings by Burmese soldiers and Buddhist vigilantes. Two Burmese Reuters journalists who reported on the atrocities were arrested and charged with breaching Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. A UN fact-finding commission later concluded that the military’s campaign amounted to possible war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. 

Rohingya refugees en route to refugee camps in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 2017
Rohingya refugees en route to refugee camps in Palang Khali, Bangladesh October 2017
Jorge Silva / Reuters

As this humanitarian crisis unfolded, many outside Myanmar looked to Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate who had won praise for her years of opposition to Myanmar’s military dictatorship, for a solution. But she declined to condemn the military’s actions, displaying an indifference that seemed to border on complicity. Aung San Suu Kyi’s moral stock plummeted. By the end of 2017, pundits and journalists were calling for her Nobel Peace Prize to be revoked. The undergraduate college at Oxford University where Aung San Suu Kyi had studied took down a portrait of her that had hung by its main entrance for almost 20 years. Amnesty International stripped her of its highest honor. For her former admirers, the low point came in December 2019, when she appeared at the International Court of Justice, in The Hague, to defend Myanmar against accusations of genocide. Here was a world-famous icon of peaceful democratic struggle speaking up for the very generals she had battled since the late 1980s.

For outside observers, this lurching trajectory is hard to comprehend. But as the historian Thant Myint-U writes in his incisive new book, The Hidden History of Burma, the vacillating international perceptions of Myanmar—from pariah state to democratic success story and back again—say more about Western hopes than they do about Burmese realities. In fact, Thant Myint-U argues, for all the positive changes that swept the country between 2011 and 2015, more open politics did little to heal long-standing ethnic and sectarian cleavages. Myanmar’s recent story is as much about continuity as it is about change.

THE END OF HISTORY

With its maroon-robed monks, golden-spired pagodas and mist-shrouded hills, Myanmar has always been an easy country to romanticize. In the nineteenth century, British writers depicted it as a land of innocents slumbering under the yoke of incompetent Oriental despotism. This image was peddled for political gain, including by the British press to justify the overthrow of Burma’s last king, Thibaw, in 1885.

In more recent times, a different kind of reductionism has skewed Western understanding. In 1988, the Burmese army brutally repressed nationwide pro-democracy protests, killing thousands of demonstrators. In the aftermath, Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as a figure of heroic opposition to military rule, and in Western eyes, the country’s struggles coalesced into a morality play: on one side was a clique of wicked generals and their cronies; on the other, a beloved icon leading her people in their struggle for human rights and democracy.

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi
R. Vecchio Imprints

One reason that this narrative was powerful is that it reaffirmed the prevailing ideological assumptions of analysts and politicians in the West: that the world was moving inexorably, if sometimes haltingly, in the direction of liberal values. Amid the disappointments of the Arab Spring, Thant Myint-U observes, Myanmar’s apparently frictionless progress offered a much-needed tonic, a reassurance that history was still moving in its preordained direction. But this view of Myanmar failed to consider its tortured political, social, and economic conditions. It disregarded the endemic civil wars that had raged for seven decades along the country’s mountainous periphery, as well as the racial and religious tensions that underpinned them. It also overlooked the challenges posed by the country’s gaping economic inequalities, the result of rapacious crony capitalism layered on top of the failed economic policies of an earlier age.

Thant Myint-U, a writer, historian, and conservationist, offers perhaps the definitive account of Myanmar’s halting transformation over the past decade. Thant Myint-U is well placed to tell this story. His grandfather U Thant was a leading figure in Burmese politics in the years after the country won its independence from the United Kingdom, in 1948, and later served as secretary-general of the United Nations. An author of three previous books on Myanmar who taught for several years at Cambridge University, Thant Myint-U also enjoyed a ringside seat to the events he describes, acting as an unofficial intermediary between Western officials and Myanmar’s junta during the early years of reform and later as an adviser to Thein Sein. These experiences have allowed him to piece together a detailed narrative of a crucial period in Myanmar’s history, enriched with anecdotes and interviews with key players.

Myanmar’s apparently frictionless progress offered a much-needed tonic for the West.

In Thant Myint-U’s telling, there was more to Myanmar’s opening in 2011 than a simple liberal conversion. Thein Sein’s reforms had many interconnected motivations, but the one common denominator was Burmese officials’ growing shame and embarrassment at the extent of their country’s dysfunction. By the early years of this century, Myanmar was the poorest country in Asia. Its estimated GDP per capita was little more than half those of Bangladesh and Cambodia and less than half those of Laos and Vietnam. Harsh sanctions imposed by the George W. Bush administration strangled aid flows and stamped out most legitimate business enterprises, concentrating economic power in the hands of corrupt tycoons and meth-peddling warlords. Shut out from much of the global economy, the Burmese junta became heavily reliant on trade with and investment from China, whose suffocating economic presence and flows of migrants into northern Myanmar stoked popular anxiety. By pursuing a carefully graduated political opening, the junta hoped to institutionalize the military’s legacy and accomplishments and restore a semblance of balance to Myanmar’s domestic and foreign policies.

What emerges from The Hidden History of Burma is a sense of just how contingent and uncertain that reform process was. Although the most dramatic changes took place after Thein Sein took office, moves toward reform had begun much earlier, although few outside the country gave them much credit. In particular, Thant Myint-U emphasizes the importance of Cyclone Nargis, which slashed through the Irrawaddy Delta in late April and early May 2008. It left more than 100,000 people dead in Myanmar and devastated large parts of the delta. By exposing the fragility, paranoia, and dire capacity of the Burmese state, Nargis created the conditions in which Myanmar could begin to pursue a new path. Thant Myint-U points out that this progress relied on individuals within the government and civil society bravely pressing their advantage at key junctures. One such moment came in September 2011, when the government suspended the Chinese-backed Myitsone Dam project in northern Myanmar, which had become the subject of fierce public opposition. In Thant Myint-U’s analysis, the ebullient public reaction to the dam’s suspension catalyzed the reform process by giving Thein Sein the political capital necessary to move ahead with further liberalization.

NATURE VS. NURTURE

The apparent ease with which the reforms unfolded led many outside observers to overlook the depth and complexity of Myanmar’s challenges. Thant Myint-U argues that these challenges, including the sectarian tensions in Rakhine State, have roots in the colonial era, when the United Kingdom, after seizing Burma in a series of conquests between 1824 and 1885, rearranged the nation’s ethnic and racial hierarchies in order to best extract profit. In 1929, George Orwell wrote that the British were “robbing and pilfering Burma quite shamelessly.”

Importing institutions and methods from their Indian colony, the British put different parts of the country under separate forms of administration and favored certain ethnic minorities over the ethnic Burman majority. They also imported hundreds of thousands of Indian immigrants from the British Raj, who, arriving with little more than the rags on their backs, squeezed the livelihoods of the Burmans. “Burma was born as a military occupation,” Thant Myint-U writes, “and grew up as a racial hierarchy.” This inequity of colonial rule created the fault lines of race and identity that would overwhelm the country after independence.

Military rule was as much a symptom of Myanmar’s problems as a cause.

This is the “hidden history” of the book’s title: Thant Myint-U describes how modern Burmese nationalism was bent on righting colonial imbalances, restoring a lost martial tradition, and establishing the country’s own ethnic and religious identity as the organizing principle of the new nation. The problem was that before its independence in 1948, Burma had no precedent as a unified state. The British anthropologist Edmund Leach described the country as a “map maker’s fiction”: “Burma as represented on a modern political map is not a natural geographical or historical entity,” he wrote in 1963. “It is a creation of the armed diplomacy and administrative convenience of late nineteenth-century British Imperialism.”

Almost from the moment of independence, Burma collapsed into a raft of civil conflicts pitting the military and the central state—dominated by ethnic Burmans—against ethnic rebels and communist insurgent groups holding territory along the country’s periphery. This chronic instability provided the justification for the military coup in 1962, which further inflamed the insurgents’ desire for autonomy. The fighting has never stopped.

Seen in this light, military rule was as much a symptom of Myanmar’s problems as a cause. As the political scientist Mary Callahan has argued, army control was simply one solution—however baneful and self-defeating—to a centuries-old challenge of building a state in outlying regions that had rarely, if ever, been under effective central control.

FEAR AND LOATHING IN RAKHINE

By 2011, then, Myanmar’s problems went far deeper than a simple absence of democratic elections. During the reform period, many Western observers and policymakers seemed to believe that all good things go together—that free elections and markets would push Myanmar’s remaining challenges toward resolution. But as Thant Myint-U writes, “There was also little thought given to what landscape could best prepare the country for democratic change and make change sustainable if and when it ever came. . . . And there was no thinking about whether democracy itself was really the best initial exit from military dictatorship.”

In practice, the sudden appearance of freedom of expression and competitive politics stoked “older anxieties around race, religion, and national identity.” These anxieties were particularly anguished in Rakhine State, where the Buddhist Rakhines nurtured grievances against the Burmese state dating back to the Burmese conquest of the Rakhine kingdom of Mrauk U in the late eighteenth century. Rakhine nationalists also pitted themselves against the Rohingya, many of whose ancestors had emigrated from Bengal under the British and who were widely seen as illegal immigrants eroding Buddhist culture and identity. Many ethnic Burmans shared Rakhine fears of the Rohingya as part of a wider paranoia that Myanmar was on the verge of being overrun by Muslims. These concerns were amplified by Facebook, which rose to prominence in Myanmar in 2014, functioning as a potent multiplier of racial and religious tropes. In March 2018, the United Nations reported that Facebook posts “substantively contributed to the level of acrimony and dissension and conflict” in Rakhine.

Aung San Suu Kyi addresses supporters in Rangoon (Yangon), July 1989
Reuters / Stringer

From the beginning of the crisis in Rakhine State, Aung San Suu Kyi’s response was muted. On September 19, 2017, she broke her silence in a speech, insisting there had been “no clearance operations” against the country’s Muslim minority. Addressing the tribunal in The Hague in late 2019, she said that the crackdown had been a necessary response to the threat posed by Rohingya militants. Although Aung San Suu Kyi admitted that some soldiers may have used excessive force or violated international humanitarian law, she argued that this was an issue for Myanmar’s justice system, not the international court, to handle. Amnesty International later referred to Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments as “deliberate, deceitful and dangerous.”

The Rohingya crisis revealed a side of Aung San Suu Kyi’s character that had long been concealed from view. As the journalist Peter Popham has argued, Aung San Suu Kyi’s mystique had originated from her absence. Confined for years by the junta to her family’s crumbling home on Yangon’s Inya Lake, with only fleeting connections to the outside world, she became a blank screen on which people abroad could project their hopes. Hidden from view were the prejudices and proclivities that Aung San Suu Kyi shared with many of her fellow ethnic Burmans, as well as a character that tended toward apparent rigidity and intolerance of criticism. By 2018, it was apparent that Western observers didn’t know Aung San Suu Kyi as well as they once might have imagined.

Western observers didn’t know Aung San Suu Kyi as well as they once might have imagined.

Myanmar’s failure to resolve its ethnic and religious tensions has international implications. As the United States and other Western countries have reimposed sanctions, Aung San Suu Kyi and her government have turned, just as the old military junta did, to China. Since 2017, Beijing has used its veto power in the UN Security Council to shield Myanmar from international scrutiny over the Rohingya crisis, while offering support in economic development and peace negotiations. In January, Chinese President Xi Jinping paid the first state visit to Myanmar by a Chinese leader in 19 years, promising infrastructure financing through the Belt and Road Initiative. China has taken advantage of Myanmar’s growing alienation from the West to push forward projects that serve its own interests, such as creating a land corridor from China to the Indian Ocean that will reduce Chinese dependence on oil imports that come through the Strait of Malacca. 

To be sure, China’s gains in Myanmar remain fragile. Popular resentment of its investment and migrants is widespread among the public and within the political establishment. Yet with no immediate end in sight to Myanmar’s structural problems, relations with the West are likely to remain difficult—and China is only too happy to play the role of the deep-pocketed, sympathetic partner.

UNFINISHED NATION

Have the hopes raised by the reform period been entirely dashed? For Thant Myint-U, any future progress will depend on structural change in both institutions and perceptions. He argues that “the core strategy of the state since independence—of seeing Burma as a collection of peoples with the Burmese language and culture at the core—has failed, and will continue to fail.” 

Thant Myint-U argues that instead of immediate political liberalization, Myanmar should have focused on introducing “radical measures” to fight discrimination, such as creating a robust media, building inclusive state institutions, and setting up a welfare state. Going forward, he concludes that Myanmar needs “a new story that embraces its diversity, celebrates its natural environment, and aspires to a new way of life.” If this recommendation seems nebulous, it is because it speaks to the depth and intractability of so many of Myanmar’s challenges.

This prescription also suggests that Myanmar will continue to confound the West. Thant Myint-U’s conclusion implies that Washington and other Western governments need to jettison any hope of a sudden liberal transformation, while eschewing the temptation to revert to the demonization and isolating policies of the past. Thant Myint-U is right to emphasize the need to encourage policies designed to address the issues of race and identity that lie at the root of Myanmar’s crises. But the problem with such a recommendation is that patient engagement will be all the more difficult to sustain with a country that is once again a byword for oppression and human rights violations. Until Myanmar can transcend the racial and national myths that predate the nation’s independence, its identity crisis will continue to exact a harrowing human cost.

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