I AM posting up here the latest book review of Blood, Dreams and Gold, by Ashley South, in the Journal of Contemporary Asia. Not only is he a great expert on Burma, and particularly the country’s ethnic minority groups such as the Karen, but he also really gets what the book is about and why it could be important. So here, immodestly, I reproduce the review in full (and I have just posted extracts from many more reviews on the relevant book page):
“This is as much a popular introduction to Myanmar history, politics and culture, as an indepth academic study. Richard Cockett nevertheless provides a number of important insights into this beautiful but troubled country, and along the way develops an importanthypothesis 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 RobertTaylor’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, forwhom 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, asrecently 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 thelarge 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 undergoingmultiple transitions. Recent waves of violence against Muslim communities have broken out in many parts of the country, not only against the much-oppressed Rohingyapopulation 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”
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 isfull 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 isprominent, 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 fragmentationof 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, NeWin’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 thefollowing 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 thirdforce,” 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 neverthelessprovides useful corollary arguments regarding the significance of these actors in helpingto 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 retiredSenior General Than Shwe] exit strategy” (207).
Although the analysis of Burma’s transitional period is not always original, Cockettnevertheless draws attention to important issues, for example in relation to the entrenched“crony elites” associated with the previous military government, who still exert greatinfluence. 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 the acknowledgements 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 themore valuable for the way that its author links this analysis with a well conveyed understanding of the country’s rich but fragmented history.”