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Road less travelled
Exactly 50 years ago, a woman and her 15-year-old daughter settled into one of Delhi's spacious Lutyens' bungalows, one to pursue a career as Burma's ambassador to India, the other to attend school and college. The ambassador was Daw Khin Kyi, her daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi. The building, which Nehru named Burma House, is now more prosaically called 24 Akbar Road. It's the bustling headquarters of the Congress party.
Today, even though Burma shares its borders with at least three Indian states, Nagaland, Manipur and Assam, that's where our awareness and understanding of this country ends. It was not always so. In the 19th century, after the British took over Burma and started building Rangoon into a major trading port, thousands of Indians worked and lived there.
But Burma's history, as Thant Myint-U points out in this engrossing book, was scarred by war. The Japanese advance during WWII drove Indian merchants and traders out. After the British left, Burma spiralled into a vicious cycle of conflict. It seems inevitable now that the only people left standing in a wounded polity would be the generals who've run the state since.
The West has imposed sanctions on Burma, keeping it impoverished and backward without weakening the generals. They've kept Western investments, indeed even humanitarian aid, out of Burma. Nations like China have gratefully stepped into the vacuum. Today, as the economics and geography of Asia change, Burma finds itself located as far from Delhi and Mumbai as it is from Shanghai and Hong Kong. This centrality of location, between two giant rising economies, makes Burma more important than we realise.
After quelling the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, China's communist bosses looked on in horror as the Soviet Union collapsed in a heap. As east Europe splintered, they began brainstorming about the chances of similar things happening in China. One influential idea that emerged was to make all of China as prosperous as its wealthy east coast. They argued that one reason why America was wealthy and stable was it had access to two oceans, the Atlantic in the east and the Pacific in the west. Ergo, China needed to connect its landlocked interior to the warm Bay of Bengal. Beijing as Myint-U shows in this book, has set upon this task with gusto: it's building a port cum fuel storage depot on Burma's coast as well as another in Chittagong in Bangladesh.
Railroads and highways will connect these across Burma and Bangladesh to provinces like Yunnan in China. Energy and goods will no longer need to traverse the dangerous Malacca Straits, they can be dropped off at Bay of Bengal ports and travel overland to China. Chinese investments are pouring into Burma and businessmen in Yunnan are optimistic that one day, they'll be able to link to the port in Kolkata.
Yet, Burmese are wary about China and its growing influence. The region shares closer cultural and civilisational ties with India than with China. So why can't India do more to strengthen business and other links with the region? After all, centuries ago, Bodhidharma, the monk who founded the Chan or Zen school of Buddhism, travelled from the Pallava region in south India to East Asia. The Ahoms, who ruled the northeast for 600 years, were descendants of the Shan people who live in north Burma and Yunnan in China. An offshoot of the same people went on to found Thailand's ruling clans. The etymology of the word Siam can be traced back to Shan.
India's foreign policy myopia is acute, obsessing about Pakistan and the US to the detriment of all else. Despite that Myint-U is an optimist, concluding that roads travel both ways, that one day India and Burma will influence Yunnan as much as China influences the region. This is an important, finely written book that deserves to be widely read.
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