Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know


From Britain-Burma Society

Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know
by David I. Steinberg
paper back
256 pages
from Oxford University Press
ISBN-13: 978-0195390681

I am often asked by people with an interest in Burmese affairs for a concise yet comprehensive introduction to Burmese politics and history. Readable authoritative works on Burma, which are aimed at the general reader and not the scholar, are not common. Recently, we got Michael Charney’s History of Modern Burma, which remedies this deficiency somewhat, but up-to-date general reference works on Burma’s complicated and controversial political history are still quite scarce. Coming out in time for the elections of 2010, David Steinberg’s Burma/Myanmar serves as a handy guide to Burma and her troubles for anyone whose seeks to understand the trials and tribulations of this suffering nation.

As the work of a distinguished political scientist and Burma specialist, Steinberg’s Burma/Myanmar is admirably comprehensive on modern Burmese history and politics, but perhaps, a little deficient in its coverage of the arts and culture. The evolution of issues that confront the modern Burmese nation like economic chaos, clashes between the militant state and the religious orders (Sangha) and ethnic power struggles is traced through colonial times and the tumultuous post-war years prior to the Saffron Revolution of 2007 (vividly documented by Burmese video journalists in the film Burma VJ). The causes, symptoms and resolution (or non-resolution!) of Burma’s numerous social and political conflicts are documented in an accessible and easy-to-read Q&A format. For example:- Was Burma communist or socialist, and what were the ideological influences on society?”; “How was citizenship defined?”; “What is the status and role of the military in Myanmar?; What happened in the referendum on the constitution in 2008 and what are its provisions?; How will the minorities deal with the new government?

Steinberg’s description of these conflicts is even-handed and well-researched. I wish his book could be translated into Burmese for wider distribution among Burmese activists, many of whom view Steinberg as a scholar who supports the anti-sanctions approach and advocates cooperation with the Burma army in democratization. It is regrettable that the political analytical culture of the Burmese (in exile or in Rangoon) has not developed much since independence. The Burmese intelligentsia and professional classes will be key players in any future change within Burma and their political maturity should be encouraged.

For me, the most catching point in this book is the observation that the Burmese generals’ conception of political power closely resembles that of the pre-colonial Burmese court. For both, power is finite and its sharing is seen as a diminishment. ASSK and most opposition groups thought the 1990 election would entail the drawing up of a new constitution by those elected and a transfer of power, while in the event the military retained power and took some 18 years to stage-manage a new constitution guaranteeing their dominance. I myself, like many others at the time, still remember the promise made by the then SLORC leader, Saw Maung, that the army would return to their barracks after transferring power to the winner in the election.

Numerous trenchant observations and remarks appear in this book, and they testify to Steinberg’s many years of close study of Burmese affairs. The enumeration of crises facing Burma (p.10-14) should be useful to humanitarian and public policy people. The crises of fear permeating Burmese society and youths stifled through lack of opportunity is particularly worrisome. More attention should be paid to these crises by analysts within Burma and abroad. The negative consequences of these crises will reverberate long after military power has ceased.

There are some small factual errors. For example, the birth year of Aung San is given as 1911 instead of 1915. It is stated (p.97) that civilian doctors need to serve in the army for three years before obtaining a license to practice medicine. As the son of an ex-medical professor, I have never heard of this rule in Burma, and think Steinberg might have meant the requirement that newly qualified doctors should do 3 years’ government service before being allowed to practice privately. More recently, the junta cannot offer job opportunities for new medical graduates (some 2,000 a year) and has introduced a short medical license course and permitted private practice. Apart from these minor issues, Steinberg’s work should be recommended as a prescribed text to help understand Burma’s complicated multi-dimensional chaos. Current events in Burma have their roots back in King Bodawpaya’s power mania, as well as in the dominance of Buddhist nationalism, anti-Indian sentiments from the pre-war days, also in classic ‘Divide and Rule’ policy and of course, international power politics from the Cold War and beyond. In conclusion, more literature on Burma is welcome and should be published and translated into Burmese, and more Burmese and indigenous sources used.

Review in 2010 by Bo Bo (aka) Bo Bo Lansin, MA (History) (SOAS), has a background in the Burmese media and political world, and is the grandson of the late eminent writer and publisher, Ludu Daw Amar. He is known to the Burmese reading public as a biographer and essayist on modern Burmese history and literature, and currently edits a Burmese online magazine from London kaungkin and contributes profiles on famous Burmese intellectuals to Irrawaddy Burmese.

4 Responses to “Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know”

  1. 1 chanm

    I just bought it from amazon and got it quite cheap 6.50 pound only.
    thanks for recommending this book.
    have you read Benedict roger’s than shwe biography?
    is that book can be taken as good reference?
    i’m thinking of buying from amazon as well.it’s 19 pound.

    • 2 bobolansin

      Ben’s is not for academic purpose and I think you may have known most of his fact already. book review please.

      • 3 Chanm Nyeim

        thanks for reply.by the way, I used to listen to the translation of U Aung Khin about the book “Perfect Hostage” read out by himself from rfa when I was in Burma.It’s quite interesting and I would like to know the opinion about that book as well 🙂
        many thanks,

  2. 4 chan

    I mean ‘your’ opinion about the book “perfect hostage” by justin wintle 🙂

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