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Dr. Thant Myint-U has lived and worked in New York for the past 6 years first in the UN's office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs, and later in the department of political affairs where he was the head of policy planing. He has also worked for UN peace keeping operations in Cambodia in the early 1990s and then in the former Yugoslavia including as the UN's chief spokesman in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war Dr. Thant was educated At Harvard and Cambridge University where he received a PhD in history in 1996. He was a fellow of Trinity College for 3 years during which time Dr. Thant wrote his first book, "The Making of Modern Burma" a history of the 19th century Burmese kingdom though he was born in New York City in 1966 when his grandfather U-Thant was serving as the UN secretary general. Dr. Thant has on and off in Burma as well including for a time on the border with Thailand assisting refuges and briefly as novice monk in a monastery just outside of Rangoon. In his new book, "The River of Lost Footsteps" Thant Myint-U tells the story of modern Burma in part through the telling of his own family's history we are very pleased to welcome tonight Dr. Thant Myint-U. Thank you very much and than you to the World Affairs Council of Northern California for inviting me and for all of you for coming here tonight. What I'd like to do is to talk to you mainly about Burma today but also about Burma's history and especially the ways that I think that Burma's history is important in trying to understand the situation in the country today and prospects for the country's future as well I think especially in the west and in this country over the past 15 or 20 years there has been a growing awareness and concern over the situation in Burma the are lots of accounts in the press probably more and more over the last 10 years of very serious human rights violations in the country. The persistence of military dictatorship in the country people generally know about Aung San Suu Kyi and her detention and her house arrest under which she still remains today and people I think have some vague awareness that 20 years ago in 1988 almost 20 years ago in 1998 there were large scale demonstration against the government that came very close to toppling the military dictatorship and this was followed by elections in 1990. The results of which have never been implemented. I think that people have the sense that there's a very repressive government in Burma and also a sense there are many refugees from Burma in Thailand and elsewhere who have fled persecution and fled the armed conflict in the country. And over those 15 years there's been a debate or discussion in policy circles to some extent about what the most appropriate policy response to Burma should be and there have been sanctions that have been put in place since the uprising in 1998. It was crushed mainly in a cut off of aid and this has been followed by boycotts and attempts by different companies different groups to push for divestment from Burma and then the actual sanctions law which have curtailed US trade and investment in that country since 1997 and again in 2004. But despite all of these what we see today in 2007 is a government in Burma that is probably as stable, as entrenched as ever before and perhaps no less repressive than it was in 1988 and 1989. And so the question remains of what is the best policy response to Burma and the situation in Burma today. And for me the question is how do we affect a regime change in Burma and how do we create a stable and prosperous democracy in Burma that I really don't know I really don't have a clear answer in terms of what can actually be done. But if the question is how can we actually improve things on the ground and at least prevent the worst from happening and start to move things in the right direction that I think that there are actually many things that the international community could probably do which are not being done today and I think there is need now especially after 18 or 19 years of attempted, attempts by many western countries including the Unite States to address the Burma problem of having as fresh or rethink of our approach to the country as possible. But before saying more about what I think could be done and how to think about the situation today I'd like to go back to the past and to some of the stories that are my book because again I think its not as just interesting but I think its important to understand how Burma has reached the sort of point it has both in terms of its military dictatorship and in terms of many of the other problems in the country today. I'd like to start in 1885 there are actually 3 watersheds key watersheds in Burmese history that I'd like to you think about the first is 1885 the second is in 1940's and the third is 1962 and all of these 3 watersheds in some way frame a little bit of what exists in the country today and aspects of the problems in the country today. In 1885 there had been a Burmese kingdom more or less covering the borders of the country today for about a 1000 years very, very roughly, and there had been a monarchy that had been in place for over 1000 years and there have been other institutions and social structures that it grown up over the centuries in fairly organic way with many ups and downs and many different dynasties but essentially had grown over time gradually changing and evolving up until that time. In 1885 Britain invaded or British India invaded the kingdom of Burma in November of 1885 it had already fought 2 wars against what was against once and expansionist Burmese empire and had won those 2 wars decisively but Britain had throughout the 1870's and early 1880's confronted what it saw is a sort of Burma problem of the day it was felt in the media in London that the Burmese government was ineffectual and highly repressive. There were accounts in the media in India as well as in Britain of what we would call today serious human rights violations and the general feeling in London as well as in Calcutta was that if only the Burmese government would change everything would be okay in Burma and that there was a tyrannical king at that time. That was the sort of impression that many people had and if only he could be dethroned or the government sort of overthrown then things would be very good not just for Burma but also for Britain and British trade interests in the country. And so Randolph Churchill the father of Winston Churchill who was then the Secretary of State for India believed that this would be a winning proposition for the conservative party on the eve of what were going to be general elections in 1886. And so he pushed through this war and the war everyone though would be a cheap easy war and in the beginning it was a very cheap easy war it lasted 2 weeks the government was overthrown the king was exiled. The monarchy 1000 years old was abolished, but all of a sudden the British found themselves in war that they hadn't bargained for. And even though the regime had collapsed very quickly the British found themselves in the sea of insurgency that they didn't understand. And in a way that perhaps echoes more recent examples of intervention the British really had no idea who these insurgents were. They didn't know if they were reminiscence of the old regime, they didn't know whether they were bandits, they didn't know whether they were religious figures, but it nearly overwhelmed their positions in Mandalay and other parts of the country at that time. They had to resort an extremely repressive and bloody pacification campaign that cost, that needed 4 times as many troops as was needed for the original invasion of the country in 1885, '86 they resorted to summary executions the public torture and flogging of suspected opponents the mass relocation of 10's of 1000's of Burmese villagers, and a man made famine in 1888 that finally broke the back of the Burmese nationalist resistance at that time. But when the dust had cleared and this is the important thing to remember in terms of how it affects the situation today almost nothing of the old Burma had remained not only was the monarchy abolished. But all the different royal instructions the aristocracy the local structures of government the royal agencies that had governed the countryside the gentry' families that had often held sway over various towns and villages in Burma for 300 or 400 years. All of these thing were essentially wiped away unwittingly by British policy in the late 1880's. And so Burma came into the modern under a direct military occupation. And the British found themselves without the cheap and easy option of simply popping up a new king, which is what they would have done in other parts of the British Empire in Asia or Africa At the time but instead importing wholesale a readymade bureaucracy from British India and Burma became a province of British India with the governor at the top and the normal sort of system of district administration at the bottom. And whereas in India a lot of the, even there area which were not ruled through maharajas or nizams or sultans or others were to some extent based on the collaboration of local landlords or local elite's in India. In Burma the colonial structures which were imported were much less rooted in local society they came together with a fairly repressive military and police operation that was imported in to crush guerrilla uprising and to establish colonial rule by the turn of the century and in some way that didn't necessarily have to leave a terrible legacy if some of those colonial institutions had remained and evolved and matured in a way that they did to some extent in Malaya, in Singapore, India, in Ceylon and elsewhere. But in Burma colonial route collapsed within easily within a life time But in Burma colonial route collapsed within easily in 1941 and so whereas in India colonial rule existed for in parts of the country over 200 years In guerrilla by the time colonial rule collapsed essentially in the winter of 1941 42 in the weeks after pearl harbor with the japanese invasion colonial rule had existed in many parts of Burma for only 50 or 55 years. And so you had this double legacy where traditional Burma and all the institutions of traditional Burma were gone but the colonial institutions which had come in to take its place were also still very, very fragile because of the very limited period of time that they had to root themselves in the country Colonial rule was to some extent a time of peace and stability in the early 20th century and economic growth for many people but it still laid the seed for many of the future problems for example with the depression in 1929 and 1930 you had because the Burmese peasantry were so indebted already a huge wave of landlessness which turned much of the peasantry into land less peasants by the early 1930's. You had huge influx of immigrants from the rest of India to the point that in a couple of years in the 1920's Rangoon was actually the largest immigrant port in the world exceeding New York with 2 million immigrants coming and Burma was at that time was a country of about 10, 12 million people, and so immigration on that scale in any situation would be controversial but to have it happen under alien rule made it, it was almost bound to be a huge social problem and it was and it led to inter-communal, interethnic rioting between Burmese and Indians in the late 1930's. And the third difficult legacy of colonial rule was that the British had decided to rule what is today Burma in 2 different halves. The lowlands of the country where the vast majority of the people lived and the Burmese and the Indian immigrants lived were ruled directly by the British. And when the British began to setup elected institutions from 1921, '22 onwards it only affected that part of the country. Whereas the entire mountainous area of the country which is about a third to a half of the country was ruled completely separately through local chiefs and princes and these were areas where people spoke different languages and generally had a more favorable reaction to colonial rule because they were not Burmese and had been just some extent under Burmese rule or alien Burmese rule in the 19th century. And many of these people had been converted to Christianity in the late 19 and early 20th century as well. So that set things up at least the potential for conflict once the british had left and in '41 the whole colonial order collapsed like a house of cards not in '41 but in '42 when the Japanese armies came in. At that time there was a very radical young student Nationalist Leader General Aung Sung who was then in his late 20's or about 30 years the farther of the opposition leader today Aung San Su Kyi and he and many radical students had turned to and decided it would be a good thing to look towards the Japanese as the saviors of Burma to help over throw colonial rule. And in you know, Burmese sort of intellectual thinking or nationalist thinking had moved in very radical directions over the course of the 1920's and '30 in the 1920's many young Burmese were very interested in the IRA Shin Fein for example Shin Fein's literature was all translated into Burmese in the 1920's. Communism became very influential in the 20's and 30's and fascism in the 1930's and then this attraction to the rise of militant Japan in the late 1930's as well. And so General Aung Sung and a number of these other radical student leaders had gone abroad sought of training under the Japanese and had setup an army the Burma Independence Army which marched into Burma behind the Japanese where the Japanese were invading the country at that time and they were part of the collaborationist government the puppet government that the Japanese government installed in Rangoon in 1942 and 1943 but general Aung Sung decided in March of 1945 where he saw very clearly where things were going with the war he turned sides he secretly contacted the supreme allied command in South East Asia they decided it would be good thing to arm him and his and his army as resistance fighters behind japanese lines in those final months of the war where no one assure at that time it would be the final months of the war against the Japanese. And so the important thing is that when the British came back on the scene having invaded re-conquered Burma in 1945 there were two things that were in place the first was that the country was a complete and utter economic disaster. It had been fought over twice by the Japanese and the allies every single bridge every single dockyard every single railway station factory oil field everything was gone entire cities in Burma were completely obliterated. And Rangoon itself was a shambles and all of industry in Burma was completely wiped out The second was that the country was awash with guns and filled with tens of thousands of young men who had been armed and trained during the second world war and were at that time loyal to General Aung Sung but were also gearing up for a fight. And the British at that time had a plan and their plan was like Malaya and Singapore Burma would remain under British rule in some way through the 1950's and probably into the early 1960's there would be a concentration on economic reconstruction and this would be followed by a very gradual transition to elected government and home rule in the Burmese nationalist thinking of what happened next General Aung Sung was able to organize a very broad coalition of people communists, socialists, nationalists of all different strides local militia leaders and stand firm against this attempt to re impose British colonial rule over 1946. And because he stood firm and was very stubborn and demanded that he be recognized as a provincial government the British eventually stood down and granted Burma independence in the nationalist thinking. But in fact if you look at the British record if you look at what was going on in the rest of the world the British decided to quit Burma because at that point they couldn't be bothered with Burma unlike Malaya for example and Singapore where they went on to fight and crush the local communist uprising Malaya was very important at that time for the for the defense of Britain's sterling position. Because Malaya had have very useful rubber and tin exports. The British were already deeply involved in Palestine, in India with the partition of India coming up by 1946 and Berlin and in Greece not to mention huge difficulties at home in Britain after the end of the war and Burma as an economic shambles as a potential uprising situation and Nehru had made clear by mid 1946 that Indian troops would no longer be available to crush a Burmese uprising it just wasn't worth the effort by the British and so they quit Burma. And they quit Burma at the beginning of 1948, but they quit Burma and left behind essentially a big mess Aung sung himself age 33 was assassinated in the months before independence and the coalition that he had managed to put together had fallen apart and Burma by the time that the last british troops left on the 4th of January 1948 was already at civil war several communists, one major communist party was already in rebellion the other biggest communist party the communist party of Burma would go into rebellion within a couple of months many other militia groups that went in to sort of raise the standard of revolt by the summer of '48 and the ethnic battalions in the Burmese army the Karen Kai Chen, the Chen battalions in the Burmese army who were the best trained the British trained battalions in the Burmese army themselves peeled away and went into rebellion in the following years. So that by 1949 the entire country practically was in rebel hands communist or ethnic rebel hands except for Rangoon itself. And the front-line against the rebel forces was about 10 miles out side Rangoon near where the airport is now and it was only with the indirect intervention of India and Britain in terms of airlifting supplies for 20 Burmese battalions into Rangoon that the government itself was not overrun, there were many reports at that time and CIA analysis at that time that Burma was about to become communist and we were months away from becoming the Soviet Republic of Burma. But the army fought back and with the help of these Commonwealth countries pushed back. And that core of the army that pushed back at that time were the Japanese trained part of the army under the leadership of one of Aung Sungs's deputies General Ne Win and over the course of the civil war the army eventually moved from strength to strength and gained control over the vast majority of the country by the late 1950's and early 1960's but in that process had become a big and quite tough and quite efficient military machine. In the early 1950's when the government had first gotten this sort of upper hand against different rebels, rebel troops that was when remnant forces of Chiang Kai Shek Nationalist Army had come in to Burma from china to establish itself with CIA backing and the Burmese protested to the UN that didn't work. And so they had decided at that time that they needed as big and as professional and as tough an army as possible. And to make a very long story short in 1962 the army was by far was the strongest and most efficient institution in the government and was actually already governing parts of the country because of the fragility of the colonial structure that had been left behind in 1948 and the army took over in 1962 without much difficulty. And so, in '62 you know, you had already a military dictatorship in Burma which is not a big thing in Asia given all the different military dictatorships in Asia at the time but the difference between the Burmese dictatorship and the ones in Thailand or Pakistan or Korea or elsewhere was that undertook a series of disastrous policy discissions. They decided to expel over 400,000 ethnic Indians many of whom were the business elite in the country they nationalized all industry in the country they decided to pursue only a military solution to the country's armed conflict but most importantly they decided to isolate the country completely all aid programs were shut down all foreigners and foreign advisers were kicked out all airways, air flights into Rangoon were ended. Tourists, tourism was banned completely from the country almost all foreign trade was ended and al foreign inward investment was banned completely as well and there are many reasons for this the one good reason was that this was an attempt by the military dictator Ne Win to insulate the country from both the Vietnam war next door and China's cultural revolution and preventing Burma from becoming a battlefield between China and the US in the 1960's. But whatever the reason the net results were a catastrophe both in terms of the economic decline of the country at a time when many Asian countries were finally moving ahead but also in terms of the intellectual, social and cultural isolation of the country of from the international community. So then we move almost to the present to 1988 and when the uprising happened and by that time the military had been in power for over 20 years. And no one was very happy with the situation and I think except for perhaps General Ne win himself every one wanted Burma to be less isolated to rejoin the rest of the world to have the right kinds of economic reforms that would allow it to compete with many of its neighboring countries. And the great tragedy in the way of recent Burmese history is that you had at the same time then this great upsurge of popular support for the idea for a return to democracy which has been blocked by the army and that political division in the country between the army which probably also wanted an end to isolation but wanted under authoritarian frame work and many others in the opposition who wanted to move very quickly to an elected government has frozen the possibility of the kind of consensus on a rapid movement towards an end to isolation and economic development that might otherwise have been possible. A few other things you know, again if you look at the last 15 years, what you see is first the story that most of you know of Burma as a sort of failed democracy transition or democracy transition that's been held down by a repressive army dictatorship, but there are two other storied that need to be understood in thinking about the last 15 years as well, and the first is that in 1989 completely unrelated to the pro-democracy demonstrations in the city. The Burmese government's number one battlefield enemy for 50 years for half a century the Burma Communist Party collapsed in the border regions near China and in the 60's the Chinese had practically invaded the country and set up this huge liberated area they armed to the teeth about 22,000 communist fighters and these communist fighters had posed a big threat to government for a very long time now this army collapsed in 1989 and the government agreed to ceasefires with very successful militia that took its place. And from this position then of strength the government was able to turn its guns against all the remaining different ethnic rebel groups and either pressure or persuade them into agreeing to ceasefires as well all except a couple including the Karen army on the Thai border and so even though some fighting continued especially against the Karen National Union on the Thai border in general for the very first time since the Japanese invaded in 1941 the guns have gone silent in many parts of the county. And there was at least an opportunity for an end to the civil war and third the sort of other major thing to think about over the last 15 years is also that the government did enact a number of market oriented economic reforms in the early 1990's which opened up the country for the very first time and that has transformed huge parts of the country including the capital city of Rangoon. I can go into that more during the question time but I think its important to remember that Burmese society today is completely different than 20years ago because of even this limited opening up to the rest of the world and the limited market economic reforms that have taken place that's an incredibly young society of 56 million where over half of the population is 20 or under. So in way to start to conclude you know, we have t ask ourselves first you know, what is the challenge in Burma today that we should be thinking about. And I think it's wrong to think about Burma simply as a democracy transition challenge for many of the reasons that I've hinted at in exploring its history its not an Eastern European case. It's not like Czechoslovakia or Hungary in 1989 when you could have a simple change in the top in the government, towards an elected government and everything else would fall into place very quickly. I think instead there are many different challenges in Burma if you think about this whole legacy of failed state building and usurpation of state building by the army since '62 this legacy of militant nationalism since the colonial period the armed conflict and the civil war since 1948. The extreme poverty in the country as well the lack of an elected and accountable government and all you know, underlining many of these things this long isolation from the rest of the world. I think all of these things need to be looked at together and in that way I think what we need is a shift in our paradigm in thinking about Burma and thinking about it not just as a failed democracy transition but as a post conflict situation as a war torn poor isolated young country of 56 million people with complex issues and challenges of governance where there is no magic bullet or silver bullet. That's going to change it overnight into something much better but where there's a desperate need and an urgent need for practical first steps that can unlock some of these long standing problems and it's not just a question of how do we move things forward but also a question of how do we prevent what could be a terribly slide downward towards what we might call a failed state situation, because underneath the army or alongside the army which itself is problematic and has as many problems in many different ways, almost all other state institutions are very, very brittle and very fragile. And in way withering away quite fast with the extreme poverty in parts of the country amongst certain parts of the Burmese society, the extremely frail social service systems that are there. You could easily imagine a social crises leading to apolitical crises in the country where things would fall apart at the center and if things fell apart at the center in Burma with the decentralized army regime right now, which is decentralized into more that a dozen different regional commands you could have the army splintering off into these more than a dozen regional commands. You could have may of these insurgent groups that have now agreed to ceasefires going back to a war footing and you would have a country twice the size of Iraq twice the population of Iraq falling apart between India and China and nothing no I mean there wouldn't be any wester intervention there wouldn't be any UN intervention, it would be a disaster not just for Burma it would be disaster for Asia at an incredibly important time for the region right now. And so finally I think in terms of you know, future steps in addition to having this preventive strategy in thinking of our ways in which we can at least prevent this sort off backward slide I would only argue for two additional things, the first is that I think that more than well first I think there is a need to think anew or you know, in much more fresh way about the sanctions policies that are in place. I think that especially the sanctions on multilateral assistance to the country through the World Bank and the IMF needs to be rethought. I think that there are at least two problems with the sanctions regime that's in place. The first is that by sanctions we generally just mean western sanctions the chance that China for example would actually agree to sanctions against Burma because it is not a democratic country is impossible. So what we've seen in that effect is that the replacement of western involvement in the country, western engagement in the country, western influence and business, with influence simply from the region and a certain type of trade mostly extractive trade to Burma's raw materials from China and the rest of the region is not an economy is under political economy that's in any way conducive towards the kind of changes that we would all like to see. The second is I think that even if one could get to the Chinese and the others in some miraculous situation to agree to universal sanctions everything in the history of this army government suggests that they would be stubborn enough to remain locked in their current positions, even if the rest of the country was going down the drain all around them. And so you're much more likely to get a failed state situation before you had reasonable government in Burma, reasonable army government in Burma that was actually going to agree to any sort of compromise. And I think especially that in addition to all that I think that there is an urgent need to look at the humanitarian needs in the country and there has been a very difficult debate right now or very difficult dilemma is about how to expand or attempt to expand international humanitarian engagement in the country I think its much clearer today than it was 10 or 15 years ago the extent of humanitarian needs in many parts of the country. I think it is possible for the economy or parts of the economy could have grown to some extent in the last 10 to 15 years. But there is at least a quarter or a third of the population of the country including many, many millions of children who have fallen through any safety net that might have been are in very dire states right now. And I think for whatever small leverage that remains from the outside and from the international community a lot of that should be focused on ensuring that there is the right environment and the right space so that humanitarian assistance can get to the people who need at the most it won't be easy it'll be very tough because the government is very suspicious about outside aid and will put all kinds of restrictions in place. But international humanitarian organizations have worked in equally difficult environments in other parts of the world and I think it can be done but it needs a lot of help and support, but I think I'll end it there because I think I've gone almost overtime thank you.