‘At one time Burma was a thriving and prosperous regional hub; the hope is that it can eventually reclaim some of its former eminence.’
Yale author and Economist correspondent Richard Cockett spent four years living and working in Burma between 2010 and 2014, during which time he witnessed a period of critical change, as 50-years under military rule came to an end and new reforms were implemented. In the lead up to the 2015 Myanmar elections, Cockett explores why this is a significant moment for Burma – in the light of its history and recent past – themes explored in greater detail in his new book Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma.
Burma’s Past Catches up with its Future
by Richard Cockett
On November 8th Burma, also known as Myanmar, will have its first relatively free and fair general election in more than fifty years. It is a momentous event, and will surely capture the world’s headlines, even if only for a day or so. Foreign election observers have been invited in, the world’s media will be there and the cameras will be following opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s every step. It should be another significant marker in the country’s emergence from decades of economic and political isolation, at least from the West. At one time Burma was a thriving and prosperous regional hub; the hope is that it can eventually reclaim some of its former eminence.
This process of emergence, of reform, started in a serious way in 2011 with the appointment of a new president, Thein Sein. He seemed intent on dismantling much of the apparatus of cruel and oppressive military rule that his predecessors had imposed on the country since the early 1960s. Desperate to reverse the country’s long slide into pauperism and irrelevance, Thein Sein and his fellow reformers were willing to embrace political liberalisation in return for economic re-engagement with, and investment from, the West. In particular, they wanted to secure the lifting of harsh economic sanctions that had been imposed on the country since the mid-1990s. Vital to this process was the freeing of Aung San Suu Kyi from years of house arrest, and her full participation, as an MP at first, in the nation’s politics.
I first arrived in the country as a correspondent for The Economist in 2010, when the country was still in the tight grip of full military control, and then stayed in the country for extended periods during the following years as that grip was gradually, but by means entirely, relaxed over the following years. On the back cover of the book is a photograph that I took of Hillary Clinton, then Secretary of State, embracing Ms Suu Kyi at her lakeside home towards the end of 2011, thus giving America’s official endorsement of Burma’s reforms. After that, change came thick and fast; the release of most political prisoners, the abolition of most forms of censorship and more. Having been locked away in self-imposed isolation, perhaps this South-East Asian nation of more than 50m people could finally be reclaiming its place as one of the most advanced, and important counties, of Asia, nestled as it is between the regional super-powers of China and India. Ms Suu Kyi, once the world’s most famous political prisoner, could, it seemed, even end up as president. My book Blood, Dreams and Gold, tells the inside story of this attempt drastically to reform Burma, as I personally witnessed it, speaking often to most people involved. Yet the book also shows how many of the soaring expectations for the new Burma are unlikely ever to be fulfilled.
Blood, Dreams and Gold is a history of modern Burma, from the early British colonial period in the 19th Century onwards up to the most recent attempts to change the country. The title phrase (Blood, Dreams and Gold) taken from a poem by the renowned Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who was also his country’s consul in Burma’s colonial capital of Rangoon, now Yangon, during the mid-1920s. The three words capture, I think, the violence, promise and extraordinary wealth of the city when it was at the peak of its prosperity and importance, the capital of one of the leading entrepôts of the British Empire. Yet the argument of my book is that Burma had still to overcome the consequences of that colonial rule, the blood, dreams and gold of that era. The divisions that colonial rule created were never healed, the conflicts never resolved.
Richard Cockett has reported from Latin America, Africa and Asia for The Economist, and was Southeast Asia correspondent from 2010-14. He is the author of several books, the most recent being Sudan: Darfur and the Failure of the African State. He lives in London.
You can buy Blood, Dreams and Gold from Yale University Press.