There’s not much one can do with a book after you’ve read it. Its resale value is negligible, giving it away even less rewarding, and one rarely encounters a table with one leg a book shorter than the rest.
The alternative with this volume is to put it in your bag, chuck in a few clothes then catch a plane to Yangon. Within a day you’ll be roaming a land of mile-wide rivers, ramshackle highways, and dirt mountain roads through what’s left of the once impenetrable Burma jungle.
Except, of course, that it’s not the “Burma” jungle anymore. Everyone except author Thant Myint-U now calls the country Myanmar and its biggest city – once known as Rangoon – is now Yangon. He says these are not really new names but simply the Burmese-language version of the old names. As Roma is to Rome and Warszawa to Warsaw, so he sticks to Burma and Rangoon. It’s his book after all and he can call them what he damn-well likes. Just as this is my review and I’m calling them Myanmar and Yangon!
What you will actually see in Burma/Myanmar is still a far cry from much of what Thant Myint-U predicted when he wrote this book. What was barely discernible in 2011 is now staring you in the face and Myanmar, long a jungle and mountain-strewn barrier between the civilisations of The East, is visibly becoming the new crossroads of Asia.
It links the world’s biggest communist nation, China, with its biggest democracy, India; gives China a port on the Indian Ocean; even opens dreams of a Eurasian land-bridge from Shanghai to Rotterdam.
In his view the West has missed the boat, or its launch at least, as Myanmar emerges from almost 100 years of stagnation. Its economic and cultural place has instead been seized by China and to a lesser extent by India.
To see all the wonders Thant Myint-U details you’d need to travel freelance to places conventional tourists can’t even dream about. The fabled township of Mong-La, for instance in the heart of the so called Golden Triangle; once the centre of the world’s drug trade and today one of the world’s biggest on-line gambling hubs with not a poppy to be seen.
That can’t be true, one thinks. Never heard of the place! Precisely. Myanmar is choc-full of things Westerners have never heard of, far less seen. It is a phenomenon of The East. The mysterious East of which Thant Myint-U writes as only a Burmese born in America, educated at Harvard and Cambridge can write. His book is a best-seller in Myanmar and won worldwide recognition, helped no doubt by the fact that U Thant, the famous UN Secretary-General, was his grandfather and that he is currently a close adviser to Myanmar’s President Thein Sein.
Myint–U sees Myanmar’s location between China and India as its trump card with only in-fighting between Myanmar’s various warlords and Western interference being an obstacle. He couldn’t have known this when he first wrote When China Meets India but only three months ago a great conference of all the dissidents signed an agreement to settle their differences.
Now all the country needs is a George Washington and an Abraham Lincoln and the Union of Myanmar will be truly united. Come to think of it, they’ve already had their Washington in General Aung San, father of The Lady and of Myanmar itself. He was assassinated for his pains but their current President Thein Sein is fitting into the Lincoln mould beyond anyone’s dreams.
The book sees Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and their neighbours as a country in itself rather than a motley of nations. And Chindia - China and India - he says are destined to reshape world politics and rock European conceits that they and America are all that matter.
Just as intriguing is his insight on The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s famous Nobel Peace laureate who has sacrificed most of her life to bring democracy and peace to her land. Almost everything she fought for has been won. That includes her release from house arrest, a freedom that Myint hints she doesn’t quite know what to do with.
It’s not often one gets to know a country being re-born as you read, but this story is exactly that.