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the Complete Review
the complete review - history

The River of Lost Footsteps

Thant Myint-U

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To purchase The River of Lost Footsteps

Title: The River of Lost Footsteps
Author: Thant Myint-U
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2001
Length: 348 pages
Availability: The River of Lost Footsteps - US
The River of Lost Footsteps - UK
The River of Lost Footsteps - Canada
  • Histories of Burma

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Our Assessment:

B : solid, readable historical overview

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 3/3/2007 .
Entertainment Weekly B+ 1/12/2006 Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
The Independent . 23/2/2007 Justin Wintle
The NY Times . 13/12/2006 William Grimes
The New Yorker . 11/12/2006 John Lanchester
The Spectator . 10/3/2007 John Casey
Sunday Telegraph . 11/3/2007 Nicholas Shakespeare
TLS A 13/4/2007 Su Lin Lewis

  From the Reviews:
  • "His book is part personal memoir, part history and part polemic. He tells the history of Myanmar from ancient times in an accessible and engaging way. (...) Mr Thant, however, skirts three difficulties." - The Economist

  • "(A) colorful history of Burma's past and his family's role in it (.....) River is both dramatic and informative in its account of dynasties, invasions, and coups, helping Westerners understand a country that has been isolated by choice, but ignored at its peril." - Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Sandwiched between his endpaper polemics Thant Myint-U delivers his main course, a greatly engaging if at times idiosyncratically selective narrative of Burmese history from its dawn.Up until the British conquest, everything is a bit dreamy. (...) But come the British, Thant Myint-U gets into his stride. In his view, our forebears wrecked his country, principally by dismantling not only the Burman monarchy, but also an entire governing elite of lords and gentry." - Justin Wintle, The Independent

  • "The closer he draws to the present, the more spirited Mr.Thant becomes. (...) Mr.Thant needs to release his inner Paul Theroux more often. (...) 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." - William Grimes, The New York Times

  • "One of the subtlest things in The River of Lost Footsteps is the connection Thant charts between Burma’s current predicament and its colonial past. A deep sense of humiliation gave rise to a curdled nationalism that eventually made the military dictatorship possible. (...) If you are an outsider, it is easy to miss just how explosive this critique is. For the grandson of U Thant, one of the most revered figures in modern Burmese history, to criticize both the hero of Burmese independence and his daughter, by far the most popular living Burmese, is a considerable act of courage." - John Lanchester, The New Yorker

  • "Thant Myint-U ends with a gloomy prognosis. He is doubtful whether the current moves towards sanctions against the regime will work. The next generation is likely to be less educated and in poorer health than even the present one." - John Casey, The Spectator

  • "The author is good at analysing and putting into context the xenophobic mind-set of the army. (...) Keeping his passion under restraint, he makes a rich and complex history clear and fascinating. He must be congratulated for reminding us how Burma once connected to the world and how it reached its present predicament that is so wasteful, so unnecessary, so sad." - Nicholas Shakespeare, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Engaging, intimate and of broad historical scope, The River of Lost Footsteps is a wonderful introduction to Burmese history. It ends with a persuasive argument for engagement over isolation (.....) This is a book that is likely to have Burma experts nodding in agreement" - Su Lin Lewis, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The River of Lost Footsteps is, basically, a history of Burma (now also called Myanmar); author Thant Myint-U's choice of the plural in his sub-title -- Histories of Burma -- suggests some of the complexity he tries to compress into this one volume. While for the most part he proceeds chronologically, Thant does begin his account out of order, first with 'The Fall of the Kingdom' and the British take-over in the 1880s, and then a brief and more personal look at near-contemporary Burma.
       Early on Thant emphasises that he finds there's a "singularly ahistorical nature" to discussion of the current Burmese situation. The country is a relatively isolated one, not well-integrated into the world economy, with limited modernization and industrialization taking place over the past half-century and more, and run by "the longest-lasting military dictatorship in the world". Thant states:

     I wrote this book also with an eye to what the past might say about the present.
       Indeed, he argues all of Burmese history must be considered in trying to make sense of the current mess -- and in order to find a workable solution that might push Burma towards democracy (which, he believes, is the obvious aim).
       It's a tall order, and Thant is only partially successful. Condensing any nation's history into a single book is difficult, and while Thant covers most of the central basics, there's a good deal of detail and on the periphery that doesn't feel adequately handled. From certain national characteristics (what the hell is it with the Burmese and their (consequential) obsession with astrology ?) to the ethnic issues (Thant notes that the current regime categorizes ethnic groups in Burma into 303 separate nationalities, and many of the more significant ones and their specific issues get only limited attention (most notably the Shan)) a lot of important features of Burmese life and history are, at best, skimmed over.
       Thant acknowledges:
     The Burmese civil war is the longest-running armed conflict in the world and has continued, in one form or another, from independence to the present day.
       But the conflicts don't readily fit into the larger picture (and solution) Thant wants to see, and thus he doesn't consider them more closely. (Again: the space limitations obviously also have something to do with that; nevertheless, the choices he makes as to what to focus on are revealing.)
       Burmese history is certainly fascinating enough to make much of The River of Lost Footsteps an entertaining read. Thant goes through the centuries at a good clip, and covers the dramatic ups and downs of the area -- including brief imperialist glory, the spread of Buddhism, and the various foreign influences across the centuries.
       Among Thant's interesting observations is that:
The Burmese like new things. One can travel the length and breadth of the country and be hard pressed to find a single structure more than a hundred years old.
       Indeed, fabled Mandalay was, in fact, only: "built in the same year that Macy's department store first opened its doors to customers in downtown Manhattan". And even the distinctive Burmese dress -- the unisex wrap-around longyi -- "is a fairly new thing and a product of British times." Thant doesn't seem to see (or address) the irony that, given his insistence that history is so significant in understanding the Burmese condition, it's curious that Burma, more than most places, so readily moves on, embraces the new, and leaves history behind ..... (The epigraph for the first chapter does claim: "The divinity most worshipped in Burma is precedence", and Thant does make a lot out of the supposed damage caused by breaking with traditions (such as the connexion between people and rulers that (he feels) existed before the English took over), but he never reconciles these two apparently contradictory traits.)
       For all the older history, it is the past hundred and fifty years or so that, even here, is most compelling and relevant. The English mis-rule, handling Burma as an Indian appendage, and never really seeming to concern themselves much with the country in is own right, is particularly interesting.
       Comparisons with the recent Anglo-American invasion of Iraq are too appealing for Thant to ignore when he describes the overthrow of Burmese king Thibaw in 1885, and there is indeed an eerie echo in one English observation from that time which he quotes:
The people of this country have not, as was by some expected, welcomed us as deliverers from tyranny.
       Thant does a fine job of describing the changing country under the English and the Japanese, and especially the first generation of Burmese leaders and how they came to their positions: Ba U, U Nu, U Thant (the author's grand-father), Aung San (Aung San Suu Kyi's father), and U Ne Win. As he notes:
It was the boys from what were called the Anglo-vernacular schools and the nationalist schools that found their way into the history books, boys from small-town middle-class families, the sons of successful shopkeepers and rice mill owners, who rejected the high-status and well-paid careers ahead of them and instead chose the path of politics.
       Many went to study abroad -- often with the typical sense of inferiority suffered by those from the colonies when they first are confronted with mother England. A telling anecdote Thant recounts is when Ba U is asked by the daughter of an English family whether all Burmese eat human flesh:
"My spirits fell. I could not answer the question straight away. I simply stared at the girl. What made me feel sad was that we should be placed in the same category as the African."
       The post-World War II transitions pose some problems in that so much is unclear about the thinking of, especially, the military. A caretaker military government took over from 1958-60, but then handed power back -- before again launching a coup in 1962, installing the regime that has, in shadowy form, maintained power to this day (with a brief suggestion of a transition to democracy that was brutally cut off).
       Thant continues to describe the generalities fairly well, but detail -- and, especially, motivation -- is elusive. The military government remains as mysterious and mystifying as ever, and Thant does little to lift the curtain -- more interested in, for example, describing U Ne Win's retirement than the figures currently leading the way.
       Several of the sections of the book also are personal reminiscences, as Thant describes his own encounters with his parents' homeland (as well as U Thant's life in the United States). This is fairly interesting as well -- and, in the case of his grand-father's messy funeral (the first time Thant himself went to Burma), even relevant -- but it feels somewhat out of place. (Thant's personal asides are almost tentative, as if he weren't sure of how much of his personal experiences he should offer up.)
       The River of Lost Footsteps is also presented -- or will be seen -- as a prescription for the future, as Thant makes a closing plea for a different approach to how Burma is treated by the (Western) international community. He voices strong disapproval of the American and European policy of strict sanctions against the regime:
     In almost every way, this policy of isolating one of the most isolated countries in the world -- where the military regime isolated itself for the better part of thirty years, and which has grown up and evolved well in isolation -- is both counterproductive and dangerous.
       Thant does acknowledge that concerted international action has only been limited -- many countries happily go on trading with Myanmar, most notably China -- but not the extent to which that obviously skews the results of any such policy.
       Sanctions ---- especially such grossly inefficient ones as currently in place -- do harm the general population, but whether abandoning them would in any way weaken the hold of the current regime (or appreciably improve the lives of the general population) seems highly questionable. Thant believes in breaking down Burma's isolation:
reviving connections with the outside world, bringing in new ideas, providing fresh air to a stale political environment and -- in the process -- changing long-festering mentalities.
       But that pre-supposes that the isolation could be broken down in near-complete form. Yet it is the regime in charge that could choose how far to open up -- and would also enrich itself with the inflow of any wealth that would come with the lifting of sanctions. There would be a trickle-down effect -- of ideas as well as money -- but there's little reason to believe the regime could not (and would not) continue to exert as iron a hand as before. (Saudi Arabia is only the most obvious instance of a regime able to keep out all ideas (and most visitors) it sees (un)fit -- including most any (Western) notion of women's rights and democracy -- despite supposed American influence and close trade relations with the West.) And, while democracy is surely what is best for the citizens of Burma, the greater regional concern -- especially for China and Thailand (which seem happy enough dealing with the current regime) -- is stability rather than anything else.
       The River of Lost Footsteps is a good and fairly far-reaching overview of a country many English-speaking readers likely know relatively little about. There is, perhaps, not enough about the current regime (and what makes it tick), but Thant certainly offers up enough of interest and concern to make for a worthwhile read.

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The River of Lost Footsteps: Reviews: Thant Myint-U: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Thant Myint-U was born to Burmese parents in the US in 1966. He has degrees from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Cambridge, and worked for the UN (where his grand-father was once Secretary-General).

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