Blood, Dreams and Gold – The Changing Face of Burma by Richard Cockett, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2015, 254 Pages.
Burma has witnessed in the last few years a mix of sectarian politics and socio-political reforms. Different voices have come to the fore, making the mosaic of contemporary Burma complex and interesting. The trigger for this change was the military regime embracing reforms and its citizens realizing their commercial and intellectual strength. However, Burma has struggled at times in its new image and has been hesitant in managing its extraordinary diversity and potent weaknesses in its democratic journey. Richard Cockettt tries to capture this story by looking at the three distinctive forces of British colonialism, Burmese nationalism, and the struggle for minority groups’ autonomy – all of which have shaped contemporary times. He skillfully achieves this by looking at multiple issues – ranging from the plural society prevalent in colonial Burma, to living in a controlled and repressive military regime, from the catastrophe of drugs and crony capitalism, to the plight of the Rohingyas – that give readers an engaging overview of Burma’s tumultuous yet dynamic journey.
Cockett creatively informs us of the changes occurring in the country (during both colonial and post colonial military rule) through his enchanting and vivid accounts of the cities of Yangon and Mandalay. He begins by trying to capture current tensions in Burma by contrasting the beauty of the newly refurbished Shwedagon pagoda with the dilapidated condition of the city of Yangon. History is revisited through the descriptions given of the capture of Rangoon by the Burmese kings of Ava in the mid 18th century, the Anglo-Burmese Wars, and the British invasion of the country (which resulted in the exile of the king and the destruction of local customs and identity). The nostalgic symbols of famous British architecture (in the form of the Pegu Club, High Court buildings, or City Hall), modern departmental stores (such as Rowe and Co, known as the ‘Harrods of the East’), cinema houses (including Palladium, Excelsior, Globe and Carlton), alongside offices of trading corporations and banks are riveting. Rangoon was liberal, multi-cultural and cosmopolitan with Indians and Chinese merchants/traders living with communities of Armenians, Jews and Bahais. Temples, mosques and synagogues abounded with each community living side-by-side yet separate lives, as division of labour existed along racial lines. The Burmese, who were agrarian and feudal, however, felt marginalized in Rangoon both administratively and culturally. A similar feeling permeated even amongst the Arakanese in the city of Sittwe (Akyab), which saw resentment against the Muslim immigrants / outsiders and their faith. Thus, the author draws our attention towards two critical issues which have continued to impact Burma since colonial times.
The imposition of this plural society adversely impacted the anti-colonial struggle and the post-colonial eras. While the former period witnessed anti-Indian riots in the 1930s and forced exodus of the Indians and Anglo-Burmese in the 1940s; the latter period saw the Burmese Way of Socialism under General Ne Win, the passing of the 1963 Enterprise Nationalization Law, and the emergence of anti-Chinese riots in Rangoon in 1967. Although racism affected creativity and commerce, today’s Yangon displays a surprising level of inter-faith harmony, which the Burmese authorities have been reluctant to acknowledge. This raises, according to the author, a critical question: Does commerce still unite different races? The story of the old capital is followed by that of the current capital, Naypyidaw, which was built by the military generals in a great hurry. Cockettt discusses the relevance of astrology, nats and royal symbolism important to the military regime as it tried hard to reclaim the Burmese past as purer, imperial and dominant. As a result, bills were passed which aimed to control marriage between religious communities and attempts were made to prevent Buddhists from converting outside their faith.
The author also examines the ill-effects of state sponsored Burmanisation, resulting in linguistic disenfranchisement of ethnic groups (like the Kachin, Mon, Shan) and regular politicization of place names. A range of strategies – the exclusion of local history from the school textbooks and a lack of ethnic language teachers, the creation of negative images of non-Burmans, the destruction of the higher education system, strict censorship, and the construction of uninviting and gloomy cultural museums in the ethnic minority capitals – all served just one purpose: – to sideline the alternative and parallel narratives in favour of a mainstream Burmese history. Counter-insurgency measures, brown propaganda, psy-war initiatives, and Swan Arr Shin (hired thugs and bully boys of the regime), too, were all part of this surveillance and control mechanism.
Cockett critically looks at the current condition of the Kachins and the Karens which reveal disturbing facts about the excesses and apathy of the military regime. Kachin state, a land of immense natural resources, has been ruthlessly plundered with profits being shared between Chinese business and Burmese government families. Mining concessions and developmental projects like dams have resulted in the lands of local people being taken away without proper compensation and consultation. Environmental destruction has been accompanied by the rise of local insurgent groups who have indulged in extortion and recruited child soldiers. The Kachin and the Karen areas have been deeply affected by the menace of drugs and HIV/AIDS, with people, believing that the Burmese government has encouraged the free production and use of drugs in order to politically incapacitate the youth and destroy their self-worth. The drug trade is boosted further with poor farmers continuing to see it as their best economic option, and as a result of China’s growing wealth creating a regular market for sales. Traditionally, the hill communities have always been marginalized but Burma’s prosperous areas have also been ravaged by food insecurity, landlessness, malnourishment and natural disasters.
The author finally takes us through the politically charged atmosphere of the post – 1988 era, a period which witnessed varied political experiments – from the discipline flourishing democracy and speeding of reforms under President Thein Sein to the opening up of political spaces for dialogue through organizations like the Myanmar Egress. This period also saw the use of social media with organizations like Ma Ba Tha driving a wedge between religious communities. In this phase of social turmoil and flux, the stateless and helpless condition of the Rohingyas remains sadly unresolved. The shifts in policies of China and America towards engagement along with ASEAN’s continuing role in Burma, are additional interest areas covered in the section.
The strength of this book is in its energizing simplicity – not only in terms of the way it clearly conveys complex challenges, but also in terms of the way it makes us think about the inherent paradoxes facing Burma. It showcases an enigmatic country where the lack of desire for retribution and Aung San Suu Kyi’s Gandhian thinking co-exists with violence towards religious and ethnic minorities. Dreams can be easily derailed and hopes shattered if they are founded on incessant gold-digging and mindless bloodshed: Cockett captures this thought effortlessly through his interviews with hundreds of former political prisoners, guerilla fighters, ministers and monks. It’s a good read for those who want to know the Burmese story through its living history.