Have been reading Thant Myint-U’s The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma. To be honest I haven’t been able to maintain full concentration throughout the book – especially in the passages dealing with contemporary politics – but there are some compelling old tales here that should be of interest to both the amateur historian and the engaged traveller; when you visit a place where prominent tourist attractions include big statues of very impressive-looking kings and generals from ancient and medieval times, knowledge of the back-stories helps heighten the experience.
One of the things I found intriguing was Thant’s observation that in Burma dwellings are frequently torn down and reconstructed to look as recent as possible. This is in contrast to most cities around the world, where one sees tangible pride in a sense of history; in signboards proclaiming the age and significance of a very old building, for instance. Thant says the opposite is very often true in his land, where a “Built in 1991” is more desirable than a “Built in 1921”. “One can travel the length and breadth of the country and be hard-pressed to find a single nonreligious structure more than a hundred years old.”
This might seem paradoxical for a place with such a rich history, but Burma is a complex country as this book repeatedly reminds us – full of contradictions, constantly struggling to reconcile its past with its present, “isolated yet always with the possibility of connection”. “Isolated” because of the great horseshoe-shaped arc of highlands bordering the Irrawady River valley, the daunting mountain ranges and the pestilential jungles. “With the possibility of connection” because from the earliest recorded times, people have found their way to this land, and a way to make use of it. Burma has never been completely out of things – it was, as Thant points out, a component of the Buddhist world that linked Afghanistan and the dusty oasis towns of the Silk Road with Cambodia, Java and Sumatra, with scholar-officials in every Chinese province, and with students and teachers across India – but it has had to make a constant effort to stay in touch with the outside world, especially in the last century. (The outside world, in turn, has sometimes found it convenient to forget Burma altogether.)
“There were times,” Thant notes, “when Burma and the Burmese were a part of things, engaged, learning and contributing, and there were times, like now, when the country stood nervously on the margins, looking from far away at growth and creativity elsewhere...Now the conversation was shrinking. Burma would be left largely to talk to itself.” He believes it is necessary to examine the past to make sense of present-day crises and his book begins with a landmark event in Burmese history, the British takeover of 1885 (involving subterfuge and pretext-finding of the sort that also marked the recent US invasion of Iraq) - but he then takes us back in time to the foundation of the very first kingdom thousands of years ago by an Indian prince named Abhiraja, who headed east with his people after defeat by a neighboring kingdom.
The chapters that follow give us not just an outline of a country's history but glimpses into a personal history as well – the story of some of the members of Thant’s own family over the last hundred or so years. (His maternal grandfather went from being a small-town schoolmaster to becoming the Secretary-General of the UN in the 1960s, while many of his father’s ancestors were courtiers who served at the Court of Ava for nearly two centuries.) I enjoyed the candid yet restrained way in which Thant mingles the personal with the larger picture; it makes for a friendly approach to a text that might otherwise have become very academic and alienated readers who don’t have a strong interest in the country. While his book doesn’t offer easy solutions to Burma’s problems or a clear vision for its future, it’s elegant, mostly easy to read and as informative as any single-volume history of a country can be.