Reviewed by Jill
Blood, dreams and gold : the changing face of Burma is a study of contemporary Burma. Author Richard Cockett has studied and monitored Burma over many years. He combines historical research, interviews and his own observations to present a lucid, intriguing and sometimes awful account of the events and policies that its people have endured. There is enough of the historical to set the scene for what is inflicted on the peoples within its borders. The rest is recent Burma’s own doing, compounded to some extent by the greed of neighbours and the unintended results of sanctions. ‘Fantasy economics’, ‘parasitical, corrupt monstrosity’ (127) and my favourite, ‘incoherent mish-mash of undigested, out-of-date political and economic bunkum’ (54) – these gems will give you a sense of Cockett’s analysis. For those with a strong interest in politics, and for the thoughtful traveller, it is absorbing reading.
There are two distinct sections to the book. Part One: The plural society and its enemies traces the nation’s history. The British appropriation of Burman territory caused an influx of ethnic groups, each with its own specialisation – commerce, architecture, money-lending. The local populace benefited little, least of all the Karen, Kachin and other minorities within Burma’s borders. These structures were dismantled when the British left. The expertise mostly dispersed to other places. A tight, vertical control of resources, money, and thought was imposed. A self-inflicted decline ensued.
Cockett starts with some Burmese icons the Shwedagon, and other Buddhist topics that we all know. George Orwell surfaces of course. But it quickly gets very interesting – Pablo Neruda as Chilean ambassador, the anti-French rivalry that impelled British acquisition, Scottish prominence in commerce, infrastructure and building, a telephone system run from India, a synagogue built in the Baghdadi tradition of its architect and now with a Muslim caretaker. The current well-known animosity towards the Rohingya had its origins a long time ago. The differing treatment of the various indigenous ethnic groups continues today albeit by Burmese rather than British. There were the World War II alliances and anticipations – the Japanese as possible liberators from colonial rule. (Interestingly, Karen folklore featured a ‘white brother’ – personified in Baptist missionaries and the British – who would deliver them from the oppression of Burmans and other enemies. A folkloric ‘yellow monkey’ was supposed to deliver a similar release for Indonesia.)
There is distressing reading in this part of the book – the relentless suppression of minorities’ cultures and languages, the brutality of the majority Burman rule, the hopelessness of life in the border states, the pillaging of Karen, Shan and Kachin teak, gold, rubies and jade to satisfy a greedy neighbour while enriching army officials, the slavery and sordid futures for the young. With an obliteration of identity, a malnourished, drug-dependent and HIV-affected population, people are easily controlled. Yes – there are elements of strong resistance amongst the ethnic minorities, just as there is dissent amongst the Burman majority and the religious community. There is chilling detail on how the army structured and consolidated its power, and how the economy was distorted to pay for such a force.
Part Two: Reform, to preserve examines the growing pressure on the military leaders to change their leadership style. In 1962 Burma was one of the wealthiest nations in its region. Within fifty years it was in dire straits. Isolation and secrecy gave Burmese no means of comparing themselves with others. Cyclone Nargis exposed a government in denial. There were various ham-fisted attempts at economic control measures. Trade and communication sanctions by Western nations may have had unintended consequences (Japan maintained contact). The people were unaware of their situation and punitive controls remained strong. There was also no counterbalance to the power China had over Burma’s economy.
The young learnt to not question authority. Tertiary education was decentralised to minimise the opportunity for dissident groups to flourish. Education and tertiary education had been pretty awful for a long time. The impact of the Citizenship Act of 1982, designed to return Burma to a new beginning in a pre-colonial Burma, served to control some peoples, and elevate others, drive some abroad, and ensure control of employment. It deprived Burma of talent and drive. These, combined, will hamper Burma’s achievement of any harmony and economic growth for a long time to come.
Cockett leads the reader through a seemingly bewildering array of political groups and alliances. A low-key but determined group gradually brought about a change in thinking. Government minds were opening, and learning how to change. And the top-down, policy-driven government, beholden to astrology-informed timing, was changing. The divisions between the ethnic groups within Burma’s borders will continue for a long time. Aung San Suu Kyi may be only a partial answer to Burma’s problems, but her election is a start. The central government and several hill nations have signed ceasefire agreements. Hill state-central government infrastructure agreements are in place, some unconsummated.
Crockett has assembled material from diverse sources – the recollections of people he chanced on as a (determined) visitor, the Eurasians and minorities from northern states, and many others whose communities have been reduced. He has looked into documentary evidence. This is a blend of current observations, interviews, historical analysis, current assessments and projections. He moves easily between eras and areas. He provides a key to the ubiquitous acronyms of such political systems, and the entities themselves are introduced in the narrative. He explains his choices of nomenclature for placenames and ethnic groups. Notes will lead the reader to more detail, and a select bibliography provides further diversions.
This may not be the Burma the reader expected. And how could anyone have a realistic expectation of a country shuttered and barred for so long? It is complex. The final chapters give a rapid overview of the country’s new persona, an updated version of the old, with some structural changes. Some things don’t change. Twenty-first century communications channels perpetuate inter-ethnic discord – on the basis of real or fabricated incidents. It is another medium for political engineering. If a people are trained to accept, how can they make an informed assessment? Crockett uses Orwellian comparisons sparingly. One of these illustrates a dilemma – if Aung San Suu Kyi’s advocacy for universal human rights portrays her as a friend of Muslims such as Rohingya, is she by default an enemy of Buddhists? If she treads carefully, she risks alienating her support base.
The hills peoples are hanging on to their weapons.
By Richard Cockett
Yale University Press