Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma

Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma

HIS is my latest book, the result of five years’ worth of living and working in South-East Asia, based in Singapore. I arrived in the region in September 2010, expecting Burma (or Myanmar as most Burmese now call it) to be well out-of-bounds, as it had been for decades, and to have to sneak in only infrequently, and always surreptitiously, as all foreign journalists were required to do in those far-off days of President Than Shwe’s thuggish military regime.

But in October 2010, there were elections, albeit rigged and boycotted by the opposition, and soon afterwards Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. I paid my first visit to Burma shortly after that, and, liked many others before me, was gripped by the beauty, and pain, of this often remote country of about 50m people. Yet it was also clear that the military regime was actually intent on relaxing its grip, and people were beginning to enjoy little chinks of freedom that had been denied to them for decades. The elevation of General Thein Sein to the presidency in March 2011 speeded reforms up, and by the time Hillary Clinton, America’s then Secretary of State, visited Burma in November of that year change was in full swing.  At a time when the Arab Spring, for one, was souring rapidly, there seemed a real possibility that Burma, by contrast, was on the brink of something really extraordinary, a profound, but peaceful, political and social revolution, led by the country’s own former military rulers now all dressed up as civilians. How could this be?

The title of the book,
Blood, Dreams and Gold, is a phrase from a poem written about colonial-era Rangoon (now Yangon), then the country’s capital, written by the wonderful Chilean poet Pablo Neruda; he was also, briefly, his country’s diplomatic representative there in the 1920s. Neruda lived in Rangoon during its heyday, when it was one of the most up-to-date, prosperous and cosmopolitan cities in Asia, and possibly the world, at a time when colonial Burma was one of the richest countries in the region. Indeed, so cosmopolitan was Rangoon that a British academic and colonial administrator, J.S. Furnivall, coined the term “plural society” specifically to describe this new society, a clear precursor of today’s globalised cities such as New York or London.

The book opens with a description of Furnivall’s plural society because from within it lay the seeds of both Burma’s political liberation from colonial rule and economic decline. I have tried to chart how, and why, Burma subsequently became so poor and politically repressive under successive military regimes, and how the military’s policies also provoked the apparently ceaseless conflicts with the minority ethnic groups such as the Kachin and Karen. The second part of the book chronicles the various rebellions against military rule and the rise of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the subsequent attempts by the government to reform itself.

I travelled extensively around the country for my work, and the book is thus based on the hundreds of interviews I conducted with everyone from monks to rebel fighters, from NLD activists to government ministers, from almost every ethnic group, from Burman to Karen, from Mon to Kachin. I hope the book thus givsome idea of the almost infinite variety of life, memory, identity and hope in this extraordinarily diverse country. The argument of the book is that although this variety has been the cause of most of the country’s internal conflicts over the past 150 years or more, the very same could yet be the source of the country’s prosperity and strength in the future.


Here are extracts from some of the reviews of the book, from British and Asian sources:


“Few books on Burma attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of all the key aspects of this complex, multi-religious nation that has suffered at the hands of one of the world’s most brutal military dictatorships for over half a century and has endured civil war in one part of the country or another since independence in 1948. Most focus on one specific angle – either the life of Burma’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the struggle for democracy led by her followers in central Burma, or the plight of one particular ethnic group or another around Burma’s peripheries. Blood, Dreams and Gold is a rare exception….  It is beautifully written, evocative and informative.

Reading it in the light of Burma’s extraordinary elections last November, in which Aung San Suu Kyi and her party won such an overwhelming victory, it provides a valuable explanation of Burma’ s journey so far. It is an important counterweight to the voices of those who might be tempted to think that simply because of the election result, all is now well. Cockett shows that Burma’s path to democracy is only just beginning…..  [He] concludes that helping Burma to “embrace its extraordinary diversity” is the only way to ensure it emerges “from the detritus of the old, better, stronger and wealthier than before”.

Only time will tell whether the new rulers will have the ability, and courage, to do this – and in the meantime, anyone wanting to understand Burma today would do well to read Cockett’s book

– By Burma expert Ben Rogers in The Tablet, February 2016


“This is as much a popular introduction to Myanmar history, politics and culture, as an in depth academic study. Richard Cockett nevertheless provides a number of important insights into this beautiful but troubled country, and along the way develops an important hypothesis regarding the problems and potentials of Myanmar (or “Burma,” as Cockett maintains).

Cockett has worked for The Economist, and before that was an academic. Like Robert Taylor’s recent General Ne Win: A Political Biography (Singapore: ISEAS, 2015), Cockett frames the dilemmas and problematic history of Myanmar/Burma since independence –and possibilities for a better future – through the work of the British colonial administrator and scholar, J. S. Furnivall, and particularly his concept of the “plural society.” Furnivall, for whom Cockett provides a useful biographical sketch, argued that colonial Burma – or at least the then capital, Rangoon – was a diverse society, the sum of which was less than its parts. Plural Burma had no common national identity, but rather various ethnic communities which engaged with each other only in the marketplace (24–25, 44). For Taylor, as recently reviewed in this Journal (DOI: 10.1080/00472336.2015.1126758), Ne Win’s quarter century of dictatorial rule can be excused, in part at least, by the challenge to unify the country around a coherent and compelling national idea, transcending the divisive particularities of ethnicity or social class.

Cockett takes the “plural society” concept in a different direction, as descriptive of the large influx of migrants from South Asia (today’s India, and particularly Bangladesh), entering Burma during the British colonial period. He identifies the question of how the descendants of these people, and more recent arrivals from the subcontinent, should relate to Burma/Myanmar as perhaps the greatest challenge to a country undergoing multiple transitions. Recent waves of violence against Muslim communities have broken out in many parts of the country, not only against the much-oppressed Rohingya population in northern Rakhine State. Although the October–November 2015 election campaign, which resulted in a landslide victory for the National League for Democracy,did not feature the widespread anti-Muslim violence which some observers feared, intercommunal tensions nevertheless represent one of the most intractable problems facing the country during a period of profound, uneven and still contested transition. Cockett argues that the situation could be turned around, by embracing the multicultural richness of Myanmar’s diverse heritage.

In addition to those of South Asian origin, Myanmar is also home to several dozen ethnic minority groups (or “ethnic nationalities,” as elites within these communities prefer to be called). Cockett rightly identifies the need for national reconciliation between the Bama (Burman) majority, making up some 60% of the population, and diverse ethnic nationality groups as the key to achieving a so far elusive peace and political maturity. He cautions against the prevalent view, particularly among many Western commentators, that Myanmar under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi will necessarily be a beacon of democratic liberalism, arguing that it is “much more likely, given their shared histories, that Burma will become like Malaysia, Singapore or Thailand – authoritarian states with stunted democracies dominated by the politics of ethnicity and religion” (xiii).

One of Cockett’s favoured metaphors is Myanmar as a “fragmented mosaic,” an image which recalls the Burmese historian Tun Aung Chain’s likening of Myanmar history to a broken glass (Tun Aung Chain, Broken Glass: Pieces of Myanmar History, Yangon: SEAMEO Regional Centre for History and Tradition, 2004). Cockett’s book is full of insights, revealing portraits and impressions, which come to life particularly in the colourful and succinct descriptions of colonial era Rangoon, exemplifier of an earlier period of globalisation. Again the theme of migration from British India is prominent, as Cockett points out how the emerging Burmese nationalist movement of the 1920s came to resent Indian “immigrants,” who were often favoured by the British regime and placed in positions of authority, and administrative and financial power. He notes that “not only did the Burmese have the racism and injustice of white colonial rule to contend with, they also faced being trampled on by other, more privileged colonial subjects” (34) – processes and phenomena which were exacerbated by the Great Depression of the late 1930s. Cockett is surely right to state that “in many ways, the aggression against the Rohingya Muslims…was unfinished business from thecolonial days” (41). He provides useful snapshot comparisons with other countries in the region (44–46). Unlike in Malaysia or Singapore, successive Burmese governments failed to create the “social will” (Furnivall’s term) necessary to overcome the fragmentation of a post-colonial plural society – despite the efforts of leaders like Gen Ne Win, who sought unsuccessfully to achieve assimilation by force. As Cockett notes, Ne Win’s agenda of “race and religion” was often violently directed against non-Burman national/indigenous minorities, such as the Karen, Kachin and Shan, who experienced decades of government-backed attempts at forcing assimilation.

Occasionally, the treatment of ethnic nationality peoples and issues is a bit superficial – for example, regarding the Kachin (124–126) and Karen (133–139) – but these are minor blemishes on an otherwise useful and interesting book. On the bigger picture, Cockett is generally spot-on. His explanation of how Myanmar’s multifaceted transition got underway identifies a number of key elements: exposure to international norms, and the greater wealthand development of fellow ASEAN countries, the impacts of the 2007 monks’ protests in Myanmar (the “saffron revolution”), and the devastation of cyclone Nargis the following year, and also the importance of indigenous actors, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and the group of civil society and political activists sometimes known as “the third force,” associated with the late Ne Win Maung and Myanmar Egress (198–204). Although Marie Lall’s recently published account of these issues and years (Understanding Reform in Myanmar, Hurst, 2016) is deeper and more academically framed, Cockett nevertheless provides useful corollary arguments regarding the significance of these actors in helping to shift Myanmar away from decades of military dictatorship. In this reviewer’s opinion, he is probably correct that “Burma’s new democracy was to be the dictator’s [now retired Senior General Than Shwe] exit strategy” (207).

Although the analysis of Burma’s transitional period is not always original, Cockett nevertheless draws attention to important issues, for example in relation to the entrenched “crony elites” associated with the previous military government, who still exert great influence. He also makes good points about the continued influence of China – a neighbour which will clearly not be departing the scene. While this reviewer is mentioned in theacknowledgements to the book, it is no exaggeration to say that Cockett’s is an important contribution to a small but growing literature on Myanmar in transition – and is all the more valuable for the way that its author links this analysis with a well conveyed understanding of the country’s rich but fragmented history.”

– Ashley South in the Journal of Contemporary Asia, February 2015




“Anybody who expects that Myanmar will turn into a Western liberal democracy led by Ms Suu Kyi, or those who want to better understand the rationale and challenges of the country’s transition, would do well to read the new book Blood, Dreams And Gold, The Changing Face of Burma. It’s written by Mr Richard Cockett, until recently the South-east Asia correspondent for The Economist.

The title refers to an era when Rangoon (now Yangon) was the thriving mercantile capital of British colonial Burma. It was one of the most modern, cosmopolitan and exciting cities in the East, “a world at its zenith”, as the poet Pablo Neruda described it in 1927 when he was the Chilean consul there, “a city of blood, dreams and gold”.

Despite suffering decades of decay and neglect since General Ne Win took control, nationalised the economy and closed the borders in 1962, enough of this part of the city survives to evoke that city of dreams and gold – a precursor of the modern globalised world when it possessed one of the most modern telephone networks in the world. Rangoon had become a predominantly Indian city with many successful Scottish, Chinese and Armenian businessmen. All were attracted by oil, teak, rubber, tungsten, lead, silver, jade and much else. It was a plural society that even had a Jewish mayor in 1910. It was also a time bomb. This mercantile and cosmopolitan city largely excluded the Burmese. This plural and vital society was alien to them. They even had to learn Hindi to be able to communicate with the Indian telephone operators the British colonial administration had brought along with many other civil servants from other parts of the British Raj, of which Burma was no more than a province for many years.

This exclusion of the Burmese led to such resentment that after the protection of the British disappeared after independence in 1948, successive governments and military rulers tried hard to undo everything related to these alien aspects of Rangoon, starting with the expulsion of most of the ethnic Indian population of Rangoon. This was followed in 1962 by the nationalisation of the economy as part of the introduction of Gen Ne Win’s so-called Burmese Way to Socialism.

The process of reclamation by the Burmese is still ongoing, as we saw recently in the adoption of legislation that places restrictions on marriages between Burmese Buddhists and Muslims. Such laws are proclaimed as achievements by President Thein Sein’s Union Solidarity and Development Party in campaigning for the upcoming elections. This “Burmanisation” is most visible in the new capital of Naypyitaw. Here, you encounter a sort of fantasy retro-Burma. “Here, the military regimes have attempted to recreate the Burman kingdoms of old and to reimagine Burma as if the country’s recent history never happened,” Mr Cockett writes.

It’s as if the minorities who make up around 35 per cent of the population don’t exist. Many of the ethnic groups never wanted to be part of Myanmar but were persuaded by General Aung San, the father of Ms Suu Kyi , to join after promising them full autonomy, and in the case of the Shan, even the right to secede. Instead of autonomy, they got more than 60 years of civil war and waves of Burmanisation. Muslims have been particular targets of the Buddhist Burman majority and this has intensified in recent years with communal conflict in areas of Rakhine state where the Rohingya Muslims live and a denial of their civil rights and rights to citizenship, even if most of the Rohingya have lived in these communities for decades.

Mr Cockett’s well-researched book contains many fascinating first-hand testimonies. From Kachin warriors who fought with the British in World War II against the Japanese and Gen Aung San’s Burmese army – allied with the Japanese until March 1945 – to victims of the catastrophic drug policies that have made parts of north-western Myanmar centres of the heroin and methamphetamine trade. In some areas in Shan and Kachin, 80 per cent of young people are reported to be drug addicts. The minorities who mostly live in the hills and borderlands, versus the Burmans who mostly live in the central lowlands, is the second fault line that President Thein Sein and his reforming generals are trying to overcome.

It is a tough one. To come to a political settlement with the minorities will require the creation of a new and federal Myanmar based on some form of autonomy and equal rights for the many minorities. It will be a state that never existed. It will also require an end to Burmanisation. Much will depend on how many seats the Shan, Chin, Karen and Kachin parties will be able to win in their regions in the November parliamentary elections. The fight is not just over ethnicity and religion, but also over the economic benefits that the Burmese military and the business elite will have to start sharing with the minorities.

A good example involves jade. Global Witness estimated the illegal jade trade at US$31 billion (S$43 billion) in a report published last week. The real figure is difficult to estimate, as most of the trade takes place in an opaque world controlled by elite businessmen, smugglers, rebel groups, drug lords and elements of the military. In short, Myanmar has never been a peaceful, rich, well-functioning nation state, and one election can only be a step in its overhaul. A complex and profound transformation has only just begun. “One point of writing Blood, Dreams And Gold was to uncover just how rundown and pauperised people had become in Myanmar in the name of Burmanisation, so we have a more clear-sighted view of exactly how far the country still has to go,” Mr Cockett writes.

Indeed, Myanmar has a mountain to climb, but it remains impressive how much has been set in motion in the last four years.”

– Hans Vriens in the Straits Times, October 2015



“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.”

– Andrew Nathan in Foreign Affairs magazine, January 2016



And in a different vein, some comments from Good Read:

“An outstanding modern history of Burma, published not long before the 2015 elections. Gives all the background, though, regarding the decision making of the military junta and their gradual relinquishing of power. Plenty, too, about the ethnic tensions within the country and the near constant efforts of the Burman majority to minimize or just get rid of Burma’s ethnic minorities. Some of these hatreds go back for centuries to rival kingdoms, while others were born during Britain’s creation of a multi-ethnic colonial society. It all reverberates today.

I bought the book to prepare for a trip to Burma and it has more than done the job. The author, by the way, was a long-time writer for The Economist, so you will enjoy the book if you like that writing style. I especially enjoyed the discovery that some in the military regime watched “the West Wing” to figure out how democracy works!”


“This is an engaging and thorough account of Burma’s history and politics from the early 20th century to the present. There are excellent chapters on the commercial history of Burma and Yangon (Rangoon) prior to the Second World War. Crockett covers the complexities of relations between the Burman ruling class and the various ethnic groups very well and gives a comprehensive account of the vested and competing interests in the military/USDP and the NLD. One of the best modern books on Burma I have read.”




Cockett’s volume presents a lucid and well-informed overview of the origins and outworkings of Burma’s transformation leading up to those elections. The author amassed an impressive file of interviews as Southeast Asia correspondent for The Economist from 2010–14. With a firm grasp of the relevant scholarship, Cockett weaves these into an account of contemporary issues in Myanmar which is personal, accessible, and important.

The book is divided into two parts.

The first presents a selective historical overview of Burma since the colonial era, organised around JS Furnivall’s concept of the “plural society.” Readers who have a firm grounding in Burmese history may safely skip over the first three chapters. Each chapter in Part Two explores a theme of current interest. political Buddhism, Sino-Myanmar relations, democratic politics, and economic development are brought into vivid relief.

In his first chapter, Cockett presents a tour of Yangon tracing the social geography of the plural society under British rule. Readers new to Myanmar’s history will find this a useful device, as they explore the architectural traces of the colonial city’s ethnic quarters. Indian immigrants are in sharp focus here, due to their prominence in the city, in the colonial economy, and in the relationship of their story to the contemporary Rohingya issue. Away from this area of focus, however, there are serious distortions in the way the narrative is presented. The Chinese population is seriously downplayed, for example, and the growing but significant suburban Karen enclaves are ignored.

The next two chapters continue the historical background, focusing on postcolonial backlash against the plural society. The nationalist movements, wartime politics in the 1940s, and the policies of the military regime are presented as manifestations of that backlash. The historical narrative here is pared down to themes that reflect this nationalist agenda, emphasising xenophobia and issues of current concern. The postwar parliamentary government of U Nu, for example, merits only one sentence in the political narrative of chapter two, re-emerging briefly during a discussion of language policy in chapter three. This is not a general history, but one which narrowly serves the analysis.

Chapters four and five focus on the peace process with ethnic separatists in Kachin, Karen, and Shan States. Here Cockett weaves in eye-opening perspectives on the issues of cultural politics, Chinese investment, and illegal drugs. Alarming statistics emerge from the interviews—60 to 80 percent of people in parts of Karen State are reported to be either taking or dealing illegal drugs. These chapters conclude Part One’s narrative of plural society by drawing attention to the failure of Burmese state-building in the ethnic regions.

Part Two provides a gold mine of perspectives from Cockett’s interviews in contemporary Myanmar.  The chapters in this section are purely thematic and there are often jumps in chronology between sections.

Although many have drawn comparisons between the corruption, conflict and poverty of Burma and that of Sudan and other African nations, Cockett’s experience as a journalist in both regions lend his observations a particular weight. 

The harrowing description of conditions in rural Chin State and of the accounts of conditions for political prisoners in Insein jail are moving and important. Equally important are the accounts of Myanmar Egress as a “third force” between the military and the NLD, and of Chinese reactions to the halt in construction of Myitsone dam. Cockett has done a great service by putting these voices in print, and they will equally useful to academic researchers, students, journalists, and general readers with an interest in contemporary Myanmar.

Blood, Dreams, and Gold promises to put Myanmar on the map for many readers, and to fill a number of holes in our understanding of its ongoing political transition.

-Will Womack in the New Mandala website, December 2015


“The verse by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda that lends itself to the title of Richard Cockett’s new book on Myanmar is a whirlwind through colonial-era Yangon, then Rangoon, replete with stifling heat, betel-nut spit and ethnic divisions – a “white hotel for whites” and a “golden pagoda for the golden”.

At the time, the ruling British were encouraging the mass migration of laborers from India, the seat of their empire, sowing the seeds of ethnic tensions that would exert a controlling influence on the country well into the 21st century. It seems natural, then, that Cockett would open his study of the country and, in particular, its ethnic diversity, in a city still, as he writes, “rivaled only, perhaps, by New York for its intoxicating variety of cultures and faiths”.

Starting in Yangon, Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma, published by Yale University Press, tells the story of post-reform Myanmar in part through its geography. Cockett combines sharp political and historical insight with sumptuous description. Take this rich re-telling of a typical downtown scene:

“At head height all along the pavement hang bulldog clips or small handbags dangling from strings. They are waiting for mail. A water seller yanks on one and a bell rings in a flat far above. A shutter opens and a head peers down. The water seller gestures with a fat plastic bottle in the road. ‘Maybe tomorrow,’ says the inhabitant with a wave, and the water man pushes his barrow on down the street.”
From Yangon, the author meanders through colonial-era enclaves like Moulmein and Sittwe, before skipping up to Mandalay and the ethnic enclaves of Shan, Kachin and Karen states, all the while weaving together a narrative that draws on how the country has been shaped by the overarching themes of its history: colonialism, nationalism, independence movements and religious discord. Cockett researched the book during his four years as Southeast Asia correspondent for The Economist, from 2010 to 2014. At the time, foreign journalists were just starting to realize the significance of the country’s gradual liberalization, starting with the transition to semi-civilian government in 2011.

“It was exciting to explore and discover a country that seemed to be opening up so quickly, especially in the backdrop of the Middle East’s Arab Spring rapidly turning into winter.”

This is a book firmly of that era. In contrast to Emma Larkin’s tales of Orwellian state surveillance, Cockett roams the country without incident, talking to citizens able to speak relatively freely for the first time.
“I want to give an accessible account of modern Burma in a single volume, blending interviews and reporting with historic and political analysis,” Cockett writes in the introduction.

He has achieved that. The book touches on most of the greatest challenges facing post-reform Myanmar: the legacy of military oppression of ethnic minorities, the menace of drugs in northern Kachin state and the hope placed in Aung San Suu Kyi. The problem with writing an accessible account of modern Myanmar, a country of 51 million people, is fitting everything in. The disparate approach that Cockett takes, while making for an exhilarating read, tosses out some loose threads.”

From the Coconuts website in Yangon, December 2015


And there are more reviews and features on the book at:

A feature on the book and its author at:

Reviews in the Literary Review by John Keay:

Review  in the  Asian Review of Books at:



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Browse through my previous books, associated articles and reviews

Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma
Sudan: Darfur and the failure of an African state
Anatomy of Decline: The Journalism of Peter Jenkins
Thinking the Unthinkable: Think-tanks and the Economic Counter-revolution 1931-1983
David Astor and the Observer
My Dear Max: The Letters of Brendan Bracken to Lord Beaverbrook, 1925-58
Twilight of Truth: Chamberlain, Appeasement and The Manipulation of the Press