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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 33 New Delhi August 6, 2016

Major Contribution to understand Myanmar’s Puzzle of Plenty with Poverty

Wednesday 10 August 2016, by D. Bandyopadhyay


My Myanmar Years: A Diplomat’s Accounts of India’s Relations with the Region by Preet Malik; Sage Publications; 2016; price: Rs 495 (paperback).

Formerly, the British members of the Indian Civil Service used to write their memoires which constituted an important source of historical events. It is true that the memoires used to be coloured by the author’s pride and prejudice but when a number of memoires were read together, facts emerged correctly. It is rather unfortunate that those who succeeded the British did not generally peruse this habit; as a result one of the main sources of contemporary history is getting lost. It is good to see, unlike the domestic civil servants, Indian diplomats had left behind fairly large volume of literature recording their experiences in different countries. Usually, students of the Indian foreign policy always looked towards the West. That was natural. Being ruled by the Britishers for more then a century and-a-half, the Indians always looked towards the United Kingdom in every matter. But of late, a number of books has appeared about our neighbouring countries which is a good trend.

Preet Malik was a career diplomat and served as the Indian Ambassador in Myanmar in the early nineties. The book is partly anecdotal and partly historical in nature, providing a first-hand account of Myanmar’s political turbulence and India’s changing policy under three different governments.

Being the rice bowl of the British Empire, Burma was considered as a major country of the Empire. But the British followed the same policy as they did in India to keep the Burmans out of the administration. It will be clear from the data given in the book about the British Burman Army(BBA). “At the end of Second World War, out of twenty two thousand men that formed the BBA(British Burman Army) there were 3000 Chins, 2000 Kachins, 2000 Karens and 200 Burmans, rest being Indians and Gurkhas.”

The middle class of Burma was dominated by the Indians who had the monopoly of wholesale trade in provision, pharmaceutical, money-lending and banking apart from other professionals like teachers, lawyers, physicians and engineers etc. In the capital Yangoon (Rangoon) Indians were the largest property-owners and the largest payers of Municipal tax.

Myanmar has also various minerals including oil. Therefore, various other colonial powers cast their greedy eyes on Burma which was referred to “Suvarna Bhumi” or the golden land. Indian nationalist movement provided inspiration and guidance to the nationals of Myanmar. Myanmar attained independence almost along with India. Till the Indian foreign policy adopted the “Look East Principle”, “our neighboring countries (barring Pakistan) never figured in our policy spectrum”.

Unfortunetly, Myanmar went under the Army rule for a long long time, Army rule has the ugly feature that the uniform never parts with the power. The result of it can be seen in “Aung San Suu Kyi” fate. She won with overwhelming majority. But was not able to get any political power. The Army, which is a usurper, has not yet parted with the power it illegally acquired and it is not sure wether they will ever transfer the real power to the leader of the winning party. With an illegitimate and illegal authority in power, Mayanmar will suffer for a long time till a legitimate and real government takes over. With all the wealth both above and under the ground, the Burmans are destined to suffer from economic deprivation and poverty for a long time.

Preet Malik’s book is a important contribution to understand Myanmar’s puzzle of plenty with poverty.

The reviewer, an erstwhile administrator and expert on land issues, is currently a Rajya Sabha member representing the Trinamul Congress.