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River Of Lost Footsteps [Hardcover]

Thant Myintu
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Dec 25 2006
For nearly two decades Western governments and a growing activist community have been frustrated in their attempts to bring about a freer and more democratic  Burma—through sanctions and tourist boycotts—only to see an apparent slide toward even harsher dictatorship. But what do we really know about Burma and its history? And what can Burma’s past tell us about the present and even its future?

 
In The River of Lost Footsteps, Thant Myint-U tells the story of modern Burma, in part through a telling of his own family’s history, in an interwoven narrative that  is by turns lyrical, dramatic, and appalling. His maternal grandfather, U Thant, rose from being the schoolmaster of a small town in the Irrawaddy Delta to become the UN secretary-general in the 1960s. And on his father’s side, the author is descended from a long line of courtiers who served at Burma’s Court of Ava for nearly two centuries. Through their stories and others, he portrays Burma’s rise and decline in the modern world, from the time of Portuguese pirates and renegade Mughal princes through the decades of British colonialism, the devastation of World War II, and a sixty-year civil war that continues today and is the longest-running war anywhere in the world.

 
The River of Lost Footsteps is a work both personal and global, a distinctive contribution that makes Burma accessible and enthralling.
Thant Myint-U, educated at Harvard and Cambridge, has served on three United Nations peacekeeping operations, in Cambodia and in the former Yugoslavia, and was more recently the head of policy planning in the UN's Department of Political Affairs. He lives in New York City.

For nearly two decades Western governments and a growing activist community have been frustrated in their attempts to bring about a freer and more democratic Burma through sanctions and tourist boycotts—only to see an apparent slide toward even harsher dictatorship.
 
Now Thant Myint-U tells the story of modern Burma, and the story of his own family. His maternal grandfather, U Thant, rose from his job as schoolmaster in a small town in the Irrawaddy Delta to become the United Nations secretary-general in the 1960s. And he is descended on his father's side from a line of courtiers who served at Burma's Court of Ava for nearly two centuries. Through their stories and those of others, he portrays Burma's rise and decline in the modern world, from the time of Portuguese pirates and renegade Mughal princes through the decades of British colonialism, the devastation of World War II, and a sixty-year civil war that continues today—the longest-running war anywhere in the world.
"[B]rilliant . . . The River of Lost Footsteps is a balanced, thorough, and serious history, but it is also a polemic, firm in its view that the current international campaign—pursuing 'this policy of isolating one of the most isolated countries in the world'—is moving in the wrong direction."—New Yorker
"[B]rilliant . . . The River of Lost Footsteps is a balanced, thorough, and serious history, but it is also a polemic, firm in its view that the current international campaign—pursuing 'this policy of isolating one of the most isolated countries in the world'—is moving in the wrong direction."—New Yorker
 

"Mr. Thant eloquently and mournfully recites the dismal history of the last half century and, in analyzing the country’s nascent democracy movement, holds out only the slimmest of hopes for a better future. It will not come through economic and diplomatic sanctions, of that he is convinced. Trade and more engagement, especially more tourism, might let in badly needed light and air. But trying to topple the regime by isolating it would, he argues, be disastrous."—William Grimes, The New York Times

 

"Thant Myint-U's narrative is full of rich details and colorful characters like Bayinnaung, a 16th-century king who led a mighty elephant corps into battle, defeating neighboring Siam . . . If it could somehow be set on a different course, Thant Myint-U suggests, Burma could once again become an important player in Asia."—Joshua Kurlantzick, The Washington Monthly

 
"Fascinating . . . [Thant] gives us both the savory details and the cruelties of colonialism, as well as a rare for feel for palace intrigue. In the process, he suggests that isolation is in fact just what the military regime feeds on. It's in its blood."—Pico Iyer, Time

“This new book has already received a number of positive reviews, and so is most likely already on the acquisition list for many libraries, where it certainly deserves to be. Best appreciated as a popular history, Thant Myint-U’s book covers Burma’s distant past to the present day in an engaging style, with many intriguing characters and dramatic moments . . . The best chapters are those that describe Burma’s occupation by the Japanese during WW II and the postwar drive to independence. These chapters show the benefit of the author’s own long-standing research interests, and are valuable reading for anyone interested in anticolonial movements and in Japanese military activity in South Asia in WW II. The chapters covering the author’s personal history are also of general interest, offering a sense of a different Burma than the one that readers may be familiar with from newspaper accounts of the country’s current regime, and providing a more informed perspective on this now isolated place. Highly recommended.”—S. Maxim, University of California, Berkeley, Choice

"This vivid and well-told history opens in the watershed year 1885, when the British seized Burma, abolished the monarchy and made the country part of British India. The trauma transformed Burmese life and fostered a pervasive feeling of humiliation-the author highlights an incident in Rangoon when an elderly Englishman tapped young U Thant on the shoulder with a cane to force him to give up his seat on a bench. Somehow, the British view of Burma as undisciplined morphed into the Burmese self-perception that they were unsuited to democratic government, says the author. The book's main focus is on the modern era, especially the time since World War II, which devastated Burma and led to independence and the still-ongoing civil war. Foreign interventions (by the U.S., Thailand, the Soviet Union, China) worsened the chaos. Since 1962, a military dictatorship installed by the late General Ne Win has ruled, weakening institutions and isolating Burma from the world community. Hampered by past failures and a misplaced penchant for utopian thinking, the Burmese must open up to different ideas and build new institutions if they are ever to achieve democracy, says the author. Further isolation by the West will not help. With wide interest in Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and others opposing the ruling generals, this warrants attention."—Kirkus Reviews

 

"Analysis of Burma has been 'singularly ahistorical,' Thant Myint-U, a senior officer at the U.N., observes. With an eye to what the past might say ab


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From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Analysis of Burma has been "singularly ahistorical," Thant Myint-U (The Making of Modern Burma), a senior officer at the U.N., observes. With an eye to what the past might say about Burma's present status as a country in crisis, Thant Myint-U examines the legacy of imperialism, war and invasion. Recounting in a well-crafted narrative the colorful histories of Burmese dynastic empires from ancient times to the 18th century, Thant Myint-U then focuses on how, during the 19th century, the Burmese kingdom of Ava fought and lost a series of border wars with the British East India Company, culminating in a treaty that marked the beginning of Burma's loss of independence. Considering the country's longstanding global isolation in the context of its geographic and cultural singularity, Thant Myint-U interweaves his own family's history, writing extensively about his maternal grandfather, U Thant, who rose from humble origins to become secretary-general of the U.N. in the 1960s. Profiling 20th-century Burmese leaders such as Aung San, U Nu and Nobel Peace Prize–winning activist Aung San Suu Kyi, Thant Myint-U beautifully captures the complex identity of a little-understood country, concluding with a trenchant analysis of Burma's current predicament under an oppressive regime. (Dec.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

An international pariah for the past four decades, Burma has seen its profile, though not its military government's reputation, rise higher in recent years because of the saga of Aung San Suu Kyi, 1991 Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Thant contributes welcome context to her plight under house arrest, as well as to Burma's, writ large with this history. It reaches into ancient mists, establishing the origins of Burmese national traditions (in terms of revered places, admired kings, and Buddhism), and commences concretely with three wars that culminated in Britain's colonization of the country in 1885. Administratively part of British India, Burma regained some autonomy in the 1930s, but its nationalists, according to Thant, were inclined toward ideological extremism, with baleful effects: the founder of the military regime, Ne Win, sided with the Japanese invaders in World War II and in 1962 imposed a form of nationalistic socialism that suffocated the economy and isolated the country from the world community. This readable, reflective history will support revived interest in Burma. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Customer Reviews

4.0 out of 5 stars
4.0 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
The book is mainly a history of Burma, starting back in ancient times but concentrating on the last hundred or so years. It has lots of colorful anecdotes and interesting insights, connecting Burma's often violent history to people and events around the world. It's fast-paced and a very good read. The book is also part memoir and travelogue and the author weaves in the history of his own family, which served Burma's kings for hundreds of years, and the history of his grandfather U Thant who became the UN's third Secretary General in the 1960s.

The author concludes with a hard-nosed critique of present western (including Canadian) policy towards the country.

The River of Lost Footsteps is often dramatic and sometimes funny in a dry sort of way and though it's well footnoted, it's not at all academic in style.

I would recommend it to anyone who wants to read a good history about Asia or about colonialism and certainly anyone interested in Burma.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good introduction to the history of Burma. March 27 2010
Format:Paperback
The book explores the history of Burma in an attempt to explain the current situation and explores the way forward for that country. I found it to be easy to read and very informative. I highly recommend it if you are interested in Burma and Southeast Asia overall.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars class consciousness May 21 2008
By Bodomar
Format:Paperback
This is a typical book about the history of Burma written by someone who belongs to (or thinks he belongs to) the upper echelons of burmese society. The book is partly autobiographical, which is the way aristocrats tend to write history in most countries. The author tends to overestimate the "grandiosity" and "antiquity" of burmese history (the present military regime likes to do that also!). The history of most countries, including Burma, is in reality often a power struggle between small (elite) groups and is a lot more mundane than what is written in the history books. Unfortunately this "trivial" fact has substantial consequences on the economic plight of average citizens, in Burma and elsewhere.
Although biased in many ways, I do think the book is well written and informative, especially for people who are unfamiliar with the "complexities" of burmese history and society (because they tend to think of Burma as an isolated exotic place!). It is written by a young burmese author who grew up in the USA, but who is the grandson of former UN secretary general U Thant (he mentions that a few times in the book!). I was born in Burma, of humble parents, but I leave it up to authors like Thant Myint U, to write the modern "Maha Yazawin Gyi" (Big Royal History) of Burma. I certainly don't agree with everything that is said in the book.
On p.202 a burmese man says: "What made me feel sad was that we should be placed in the same category as the African" (because an english girl asked him whether burmese eat human flesh) It makes me feel sad as a burmese man to hear that kind of prejudice against Africans. Didn't we all come out of Africa?
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  53 reviews
53 of 55 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Don't forget that it's a "personal" history May 16 2008
By M633 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a well written book and a very informative one for the Western society to have a broader picture of Burma. However, as one other Burmese reviewer said, the book carries an elite view of history and lack grassroots dimension. I have no problem with highly educated elites that love Burma, as we need them to rebuild our country. In fact, being about the same age, I share a similar sentiment with the author about Burma's future.

The author spoke against economic sanctions and its ineffectiveness to stimulate transformation in Burma. While he made his point well and some other reviewers resonated with him, the author failed to study the drug history in Burma that played a major role in triggering the existing sanctions.

My father was imprisoned a few years back for his successful effort in drug rehabilitation in Burma. Can you imagine a government that would imprison someone for saving the lives of many young people, my age and younger, that buried their lives in drugs because the government didn't give them a hope for a future. It was then I happened to dig into the Amnesty International and U.S. State Department's reports to find out, with much surprise, that the Burmese government was heavily involved in drug production and that 70% of the heroin sold in the U.S. came from Burma; I thought it came from Columbia. To make the long story short, by doing business in Burma, the American companies were helping the junta and their associated drug producers turn their drug money into legitimate white money--the money that came from destroying American young people.

The drug history is an example of the grassroots history of Burma that is missing in the book. The history of unfortunate foreign encounters should not be used to justify the government's trampling of the grassroots using different forms of systematic torture, or to justify the removal of sanctions.

However, as a "personal" history, it is a good read, and we need more books and more authors like him to provide wider windows to look into Burma, so that the world can make informed decisions.
33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Very entertaining history and personal memoir Dec 17 2006
By Jayne H.L. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is really two books (or more) woven into one: 1) in part a well-written and fast-paced history of Burma, with many insights into how Burma's history intersects with global history and 2) a personal memoir and observations about Burma today, with many stories drawn from the author's very interesting family history as well.

I found the book by turns amusing and sad and generally very engaging. It's definately something non-experts can enjoy, including those without any prior knowledge at all of Asian history, let alone Burma. In a way, there is something in it for everyone, from military history, to travelogue, to political commentary, to archeology.

My only wish would be that the author spent a little more time on the present day.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Comprehensive Look At Burma's Situation July 7 2007
By Michael Lima - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
We Americans tend to forget or ignore the fact that there are deep seeded historical reasons why governments in other countries take certain positions that seem to be inappropriate. Such is the case with Burma, and the xenophobic, anti-democratic actions of its military government. Fortunately, Thant Myint-U has provided a basis for understanding the situation in Burma through his wonderful book, The River of Lost Footsteps.

Thant shows that Burma's current state is mostly the result of its very long history of negative interactions with other countries. He discusses how occupations by the Chinese, British, Japanese, and others have led to a mistrust of foreigners. This mistrust has morphed into a sense of nationalistic self-reliance, in part from several examples (augmented by nostalgia) where a strong Burmese leader has successfully led the country. Thant then discusses how the radical changes that have occurred in Burma over the last 150 years have left the country without a governing class capable of managing it. Given these factors, it's no surprise that the one governmental unit with strong structure, the military, is running the country.

Considering all the care that Thant took to show how Burma came to its current state of affairs, it was a little disappointing to see that he rushed through his conclusions. Beyond saying that the existing international response of economic sanctions won't work, he provides little in the way of possible answers as to how Burma can be integrated into the international community. That response comes across as a little too vague and diplomatic for someone who clearly understands the reasons behind Burma's present circumstances. Still, The River of Lost Footsteps is an important starting point for persons interested in comprehending Burma's situation and developing a policy for addressing its position.
23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good read for beginners on Burma Jan. 27 2007
By Enjolras - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a great introduction to Burma and its history. It is well written, clear, and sometimes funny. Furthermore, it is not too detailed for novices.

The author's main point is a good one. Discussion of Burma tends to be largely ahistorical. Few consider Burma's history when deciding policy. I wouldn't exactly consider US senators to have this level of sophistication, but it seems that somebody should, especially lobbyists. Through history, the author shows Burma as having been often isolated and torn, with little institutional capacity to govern after the British took over.

I thought the last few pages were a bit glib and not well argued. I disagree with current US policy of isolation, but the author loses his depth of understanding and seems to label the Burma lobby in the same brush as the government of Burma. The truth is, sanctions probably have relatively little effect on Burma. If the author has shown anything, it is the extent to which Burma's government isolates itself from international norms and pressure. While perhaps more aid money and business would go into the country without sanctions, much of it would not go in anyway because of the government's pervasive mismanagement and corruption (Global Fund pulled out because of misuse of its funds; Red Cross was recently expelled).

Despite these last few pages, the book is overall a great read for novices and long-time Burma watchers.
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Obligatory read for anyone interested in Burma politics May 8 2007
By Florian Burmeister - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Thant Myint-U tells the story of how Burma became the "poisoned Shangri-la", possibly the second weirdest country after North Korea. At first sight, Burma is a battle between the evil dictature and Aung San Suu Kyi. But Thant Myint-U gives us an infinitely more complicated picture, from thousands of years ago until the present day, with a civil was that has lasted for 60 years. The state-building suffered severely both when the british conquered Burma in 1885, as well as they were thrown out in 1948. But the book is more than just a story lesson. He has a clear message: Boycott is perhaps an easy answer to what to do with the country. Too easy. The dictature is extremely xenophobic, and avoids any influence from outside the country. They would not mind any boycott. Instead one should delicately try to interact more with the country. Thant Myint-U gives no easy fix, but a very sober and well-written overview. I have one minor remark: The map provided in the book should be more informative, many places mentioned in the text are not included.
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