The River of Lost Footsteps

Histories of Burma

By Thant Myint-U
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Hardcover, 9780374163426, 384pp.)

Publication Date: December 12, 2006

Other Editions of This Title: Paperback

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Description

For nearly two decades Western governments and a growing activist community have been frustrated in their attempts to bring about a freer and more democratic  Burma—through sanctions and tourist boycotts—only to see an apparent slide toward even harsher dictatorship. But what do we really know about Burma and its history? And what can Burma’s past tell us about the present and even its future?
 In The River of Lost Footsteps, Thant Myint-U tells the story of modern Burma, in part through a telling of his own family’s history, in an interwoven narrative that  is by turns lyrical, dramatic, and appalling. His maternal grandfather, U Thant, rose from being the schoolmaster of a small town in the Irrawaddy Delta to become the UN secretary-general in the 1960s. And on his father’s side, the author is descended from a long line of courtiers who served at Burma’s Court of Ava for nearly two centuries. Through their stories and others, he portrays Burma’s rise and decline in the modern world, from the time of Portuguese pirates and renegade Mughal princes through the decades of British colonialism, the devastation of World War II, and a sixty-year civil war that continues today and is the longest-running war anywhere in the world.
 The River of Lost Footsteps is a work both personal and global, a distinctive contribution that makes Burma accessible and enthralling. Thant Myint-U, educated at Harvard and Cambridge, has served on three United Nations peacekeeping operations, in Cambodia and in the former Yugoslavia, and was more recently the head of policy planning in the UN's Department of Political Affairs. He lives in New York City.

For nearly two decades Western governments and a growing activist community have been frustrated in their attempts to bring about a freer and more democratic Burma through sanctions and tourist boycotts—only to see an apparent slide toward even harsher dictatorship. Now Thant Myint-U tells the story of modern Burma, and the story of his own family. His maternal grandfather, U Thant, rose from his job as schoolmaster in a small town in the Irrawaddy Delta to become the United Nations secretary-general in the 1960s. And he is descended on his father's side from a line of courtiers who served at Burma's Court of Ava for nearly two centuries. Through their stories and those of others, he portrays Burma's rise and decline in the modern world, from the time of Portuguese pirates and renegade Mughal princes through the decades of British colonialism, the devastation of World War II, and a sixty-year civil war that continues today—the longest-running war anywhere in the world. "[B]rilliant . . . The River of Lost Footsteps is a balanced, thorough, and serious history, but it is also a polemic, firm in its view that the current international campaign—pursuing 'this policy of isolating one of the most isolated countries in the world'—is moving in the wrong direction."—New Yorker "[B]rilliant . . . The River of Lost Footsteps is a balanced, thorough, and serious history, but it is also a polemic, firm in its view that the current international campaign—pursuing 'this policy of isolating one of the most isolated countries in the world'—is moving in the wrong direction."—New Yorker 

"Mr. Thant eloquently and mournfully recites the dismal history of the last half century and, in analyzing the country’s nascent democracy movement, holds out only the slimmest of hopes for a better future. It will not come through economic and diplomatic sanctions, of that he is convinced. Trade and more engagement, especially more tourism, might let in badly needed light and air. But trying to topple the regime by isolating it would, he argues, be disastrous."—William Grimes, The New York Times

 

"Thant Myint-U's narrative is full of rich details and colorful characters like Bayinnaung, a 16th-century king who led a mighty elephant corps into battle, defeating neighboring Siam . . . If it could somehow be set on a different course, Thant Myint-U suggests, Burma could once again become an important player in Asia."—Joshua Kurlantzick, The Washington Monthly

 "Fascinating . . . [Thant] gives us both the savory details and the cruelties of colonialism, as well as a rare for feel for palace intrigue. In the process, he suggests that isolation is in fact just what the military regime feeds on. It's in its blood."—Pico Iyer, Time

“This new book has already received a number of positive reviews, and so is most likely already on the acquisition list for many libraries, where it certainly deserves to be. Best appreciated as a popular history, Thant Myint-U’s book covers Burma’s distant past to the present day in an engaging style, with many intriguing characters and dramatic moments . . . The best chapters are those that describe Burma’s occupation by the Japanese during WW II and the postwar drive to independence. These chapters show the benefit of the author’s own long-standing research interests, and are valuable reading for anyone interested in anticolonial movements and in Japanese military activity in South Asia in WW II. The chapters covering the author’s personal history are also of general interest, offering a sense of a different Burma than the one that readers may be familiar with from newspaper accounts of the country’s current regime, and providing a more informed perspective on this now isolated place. Highly recommended.”—S. Maxim, University of California, Berkeley, Choice

"This vivid and well-told history opens in the watershed year 1885, when the British seized Burma, abolished the monarchy and made the country part of British India. The trauma transformed Burmese life and fostered a pervasive feeling of humiliation-the author highlights an incident in Rangoon when an elderly Englishman tapped young U Thant on the shoulder with a cane to force him to give up his seat on a bench. Somehow, the British view of Burma as undisciplined morphed into the Burmese self-perception that they were unsuited to democratic government, says the author. The book's main focus is on the modern era, especially the time since World War II, which devastated Burma and led to independence and the still-ongoing civil war. Foreign interventions (by the U.S., Thailand, the Soviet Union, China) worsened the chaos. Since 1962, a military dictatorship installed by the late General Ne Win has ruled, weakening institutions and isolating Burma from the world community. Hampered by past failures and a misplaced penchant for utopian thinking, the Burmese must open up to different ideas and build new institutions if they are ever to achieve democracy, says the author. Further isolation by the West will not help. With wide interest in Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and others opposing the ruling generals, this warrants attention."—Kirkus Reviews

 

"Analysis of Burma has been 'singularly ahistorical,' Thant Myint-U, a senior officer at the U.N., observes. With an eye to what the past might say ab




About the Author

Thant Myint-U, educated at Harvard and Cambridge, has served on three United Nations peacekeeping operations, in Cambodia and in the former Yugoslavia, and was more recently the head of policy planning in the UN’s Department of Political Affairs.

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