Nepali Times Asian Paints
Military oblivion

During the darkest days of the king's rule, when it looked like Nepal was headed towards oblivion, there were many who said the international community would never tolerate a dictatorial monarch or totalitarian communist rule in Nepal.

Yet, there are in this day and age countries like North Korea and Burma that the international community hasn't been able to do much about.

For the past 50 years, the world has looked on as the military maintains its iron grip on Burma.

Its popular opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, won the Nobel Peace Prize and became a symbol of democratic resistance. Yet, the Orwellian State Law and Development Council is as entrenched as ever, now bludgeoning monks to death. The lesson from Burma is that the international community is made up of countries that act in their national interest. Change has to come from within.

China has geo-strategic reasons to back the junta, ASEAN and the UN are limited about what they can do and even India which last week signed a $120 million natural gas deal with the Rangoon regime doesn't want to upset the junta.

For Nepalis, Burma is a part of our historic and cultural lore. Nepalis started migrating to Burma during the British days, prospering as dairy farmers, traders and security guards. Then the war came and the British retreated to India, abandoning Burma to a relentless Japanese advance. Up to 15,000 Nepalis in the British Army died in the battle for Burma. Indians and Nepalis were driven out in the 1960s, but there are still an estimated 100,000 Nepalis in Burma.

The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma is a bittersweet history of the country by Thant Myint-U, grandson of UN Secretary General U Thant. As the title suggests, these are multiple histories of Burma interwoven with the saga of Thant's own family. The story begins in the mid-19th century and British India's preoccupation with finding a land trade route to China. They'd tried to forge a link via Nepal, but the rulers of the belligerent kingdom of Gorkha fought fiercely to keep them out.

The River of Lost Footsteps:
Histories of Burma
By Thant Myint-U
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006
384 pages, $25
Limited stock at Mandala Book Point (4227711)

It was Randolph Churchill who took Britain to war with Burma for economic and domestic political reasons to bring about regime change. Sound familiar? Burma was never the same again. Thant's great grandparents were officials in the court before the kingdom fell, and King Thibaw was sent to exile in India where he died, the subject of Amitav Ghosh's novel, The Glass House.

Thant explores with sensitivity the humiliation of colonialism and the brutality of the war years (it was the most-bombed country in Asia after Japan) and the role they may have had in the rise of a paranoid military dictatorship that made isolation the national credo. Burma's separatist conflicts are the longest running wars in the world today, and may provide proof to us here about how difficult it is to stop ethnic fighting once it starts. The 8-8-1988 uprising was so brutally crushed that it has taken nearly 20 years for the monks to march again on the streets of Rangoon.

Thant is a firm opponent of the west's knee-jerk sanctions to put pressure on the junta, despite proof it hasn't worked. Isolating an already isolated Burma perpetuates its dictatorship. Thant writes: "If Burma were less isolated, if there were more trade, more engagement-more tourism in particular-and if this were coupled with a desire by the government for greater economic reform, a rebuilding of state institutions, and a slow opening up of space for civil society, then perhaps the conditions for political change would emerge over the next decade or two."

For Nepalis, there is a lesson in all this. Our own royal military junta was an international pariah till recently and, if the political parties bungle again, how easy it will be to revert back to isolation. And all the 'international community' can do is issue statements.

Kunda Dixit

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)