River Of Lost Footsteps Hardcover – Dec 25 2006
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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.)
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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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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
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.