The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma

Nestled here and there in The River of Lost Footsteps are bits of autobiography that are beautifully, vividly expressed. Here’s how the author remembers being 22, fresh out of Harvard, and in a Burmese rebel camp near the Thailand border during a moment of revolutionary fervor in 1988: “The late morning hikes to lecture through the New England snow … the long conversations over starchy dining hall meals, the spring garden parties, my friends off to medical school or their first jobs on Wall Street all seemed many worlds away. But at least for a little while I felt a sense of purpose, a sense that I was at the right place doing the right thing.”

Much later in life, Thant Myint-U, who would go on to be a policy adviser at the United Nations, views the work of activists promoting democratic reform quite differently. “The net result,” Thant writes, of marching in the streets of Rangoon, of lobbying world leaders to impose tough economic sanctions on Burma, “may very well have had the unintended consequence of further entrenching the status quo.” The status quo being, of course, the military dictatorship that took control of this small Southeast Asian country in 1962.

Not only does Thant have a clear eye on why sanctions have been a tactical failure in inducing the army government to ease its grip, he has elegant insights into the Myanmar mindset. “These were men, for the most part, who knew no other life, had joined the armed forces as teenagers and never left…living entirely apart from the rest of society [in] a sort of military fantasy world, where everything was about making enemies.” These were men, he continues his characterization, “who could not easily dream up anything much better.”

Pro-democracy advocates in the West have missed the point, Thant implies, as the actions of crusading celebrities are incomprehensible to military sensibilities: “If Burma were a country where those in charge wanted to engage with the wider world…then a policy of sanctions might make sense.” Thant persuasively argues that going against conventional wisdom may be what’s needed – that both tourists and foreign investors should embrace Burma, not blacklist it. “What is sometimes hard to perceive from the outside,” he asserts, “is just how damaging forty years of isolation…has been to those trapped inside.”

The River of Lost Footsteps, however, isn’t merely a polemic. It’s first and foremost an exhaustive account of Burmese power struggles from antiquity through British colonialism and up to the present day. Thant catalogs roundelays of endless violence with an energy that brings to mind the shoot-outs from Fernando Meirelles’s film City of God. No sooner are we introduced to one promising young prince or soldier than he dies within a page or two, to be replaced by another short-lived up-and-comer. Those are some of the lost footsteps to which Thant’s title refers: those warriors who were once so important, swallowed up by history and forgotten.

There are family stories as well, though not nearly enough of them. As the grandson of U Thant, who served as UN Secretary-General from 1961 to 1971, Thant led an enviably cosmopolitan childhood in a New York household where, “There was always an assortment of Burmese houseguests, who stayed anywhere from an evening to many months. The UN security guards at the gate…wore uniforms of…navy blue, but inside the stone walls a Burmese sarong or longyi, even in the Northeast winter, was the more predictable sight.” Thant tells us no more of these evening soirees, yet there’s a photograph in his book of one such night. The image so tantalizes that I kept waiting for the story that surely must accompany it. It never arrives. In the picture, taken in 1970, the author’s mother, Aye Aye Thant, smiles directly into the camera; next to her, a young, solemn-faced Aung San Suu Kyi, the future Nobel Peace Prize winner who would spend the best of her leadership years in the captivity of house arrest, stands in profile. How it rouses one’s curiosity and trembles the heart in a single shot. – N.P. THOMPSON

Originally published in Northwest Asian Weekly.