The Tribune - Spectrum

, August 11, 2002

Cursed past, blighted present
Pardeep Dhull

Burma: The Curse of Independence
by Shelby Tucker. Penguin, New Delhi. Pages XX + 282. Rs 295

Burma: The Curse of IndependenceFREEDOM from oppression has always been expensive. At times posterity has to pay the price for it. Burma, also known as Myanmar, is no exception to it. Though it achieved independence from Britain in 1948, its struggle for democracy is far from over. The country had a representative government until an army coup in 1962 dismissed it. However, in 1990 the military regime decided to hold elections due to internal ethnic strife as well as international pressure. The National League for Democracy led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for its non-violent resistance to the military, won the elections with resounding majority. But the military never recognised it. Since then, the country has remained in turmoil.

Shelby Tucker, the author of Among Insurgents: Walking Through Burma, has brought out another book on this subject, Burma: The Curse of Independence. Tucker’s first book was based on his first-hand experience of insurgency in the trouble-torn state, while the book under review discusses Burma’s past and present. The complex subject, however, is not new, as many scholars have already worked on it. The author himself admits that the book "does not intend to compete with their work," only to complement.


The first chapter of the book, "The Burmese Void," gives a brief outline of the picture of the Burmese history. The author wants to familiarise the general reader with a particular difficulty—the ethnic diversity of the state, which is the main reason behind the civil war. To understand this complex subject, he says, it is important to know the relation of minorities with each other and with the majority ethnic community—the Burmans. The next chapter deals with geographical divisions and ethnicity. Quoting various scholars, the author tries to explain the origin of the inhabitants of Burma and complications in its demography due to "cultural assimilation and cross-breeding."

One chapter deals with the British conquest of Burma and the Japanese invasion. The author notes: "British conquest of Burma arose from no premeditated plan of imperial ambition. It was an organic extension of British rule in India." However, Burmans who had invaded Asssam twice, claiming part of Bengal, were ‘responsible’ for the First Anglo-Burman War. The war ended after Burmans agreed to cede some parts to the British. The next two wars concluded with the annexation of Lower Burma and Upper Burma, respectively.

According to the author, the conditions for the civil war were in place during the early twentieth century after Burmans, who were the majority community, realised that "foreigners’ decisions" were affecting their lives. The countdown to independence began in 1931. Burma was separated from India four years later, and the statute came into force in 1937, making Burma Proper, like India, "a dyarchy in respect of nearly all internal matters with a Cabinet responsible to the governor and a Parliament elected by popular franchise." During this period, two young student leaders Nu and Aung San, the father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, shot into national fame. They intensified their struggle movement and later invited the Japanese for their help. In 1943, the Japanese granted "independence" to Burma. But ethnic riots forced Aung San to turn on the Japanese and side with the British, ultimately driving the Japanese away with the help of Allied forces.

The next two chapters discuss the rise of Burmans against the British and the role of Aung San in the freedom movement. These chapters offer the reader interesting insights into the early life of Aung San and other leaders. The author has given a brief introduction to the final pre-war phase leaders like Ba Maw, U Pu, U Saw and Paw Tun. Problems faced by Aung San after the war and his dealing with the British make for an interesting reading.

Burma’s notoriety in the world for its "indulgence" in the drugs trade is an open secret. In a chapter, "The Narcocrats," the author first gives the brief history of opium and then puts forth his argument to explain how deeply the military government is involved in this trade.

Finally, in "Whither Burma?" Tucker analyses various scholars’ observations and solutions proposed by them for devolution of power to civilian rule. He himself has suggested many remedies to solve this problem, and believes that "the military regime will not last and its end may come sooner than many Burma scholars expect." The book, written after years of painstaking research, has been successful in painting Burma’s history. The use of maps and illustrations makes it that much better. The chronological guide may be helpful to those who want to have a quick look at the subject. It is a great source for those who want to know about the past and the present of the "cursed state."