Monday, 5 December 2011



The first thing that you notice is the name ‘Burma’ that author Thant Myint-U uses, instead of the official ‘Myanmar’ in his recent book, Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia. Clearly, he doesn’t subscribe to ‘Myanmar’ which the country’s military junta had imposed in 1989. In a way, then, this New York-born, Burmese-origin grandson of former UN secretary general U Thant, rejects the ideas of the junta that had stifled democracy for about five decades.

As the title of the book suggests, Thant has studied Burma along with its two giant neighbours, India and China — the two “re-emerging” economies. Add to that the natural resources that Burma is blessed with, and you will get the picture. Like the rival colonial powers of the past, both India and China have been engaged for years in a new ‘Great Game,’ wooing Burma and its military leadership. China wants access to the Bay of Bengal via Burma, besides oil and gas — the energy for its economy; India wants to expand its ‘Look East’ policy.

As Thant rightly suggests, China has an edge over India in this regard, thanks to the booming Chinese economy. It is investing billions of dollars in the economically-weaker Burma. But will all that ‘infrastructure building’ and investments help Burma? Or the country is just being plundered by China? The author’s uneasiness is evident in this regard. Regarding India he writes: "Trade between Burma and India was growing. The two governments have talked of improving road connections, and of India building a new port on Burma’s Arakan coast. But by 2010 there was little beyond talk..." His uneasiness becomes evident again.

To the author’s credit, the book doesn’t read dreary. Beginning with the Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, he skilfully combines the ancient and modern history of the region, his travelogue and geopolitical issues. Among other places, Thant travels to Lashio in the north-eastern corner of Burma. His account is compelling: an almost independent territory has been carved out in that region by the United Wa State Army, former head-hunters, former anti-junta guerrillas, and now drug lords and allies of the junta. Thant compares this region with the rest of Burma and the capital Rangoon. “The dirt roads become Chinese highways. And much of the Wa zone is on the Chinese electricity grid, and even its internet and mobile phone grid. BlackBerrys don’t work in Rangoon but they do in the Wa area...” Stunning, vivid description of these places and a combination of ethnic militias, drug lords, sex workers, businessmen and migrant populations across the pages, make the writing colourful.

He also visits China to see how changes have been ushered in that country. He travels across India too, including Calcutta, a city that had historic connections with Rangoon. Calcutta appears to him like a “mother ship” of Rangoon. The similarities between West Bengal's capital and Burma's capital surprise and please him. The dissimilarities, like lack of freedom in Rangoon as opposed to Calcutta, make him lament. Thant also travels to the north-eastern States of India. As he travels, he analyses the local history, politics and economies, and draws connections with Burma. By and large, Thant’s analyses are engrossing, though at times his travelogue suffers factual errors: in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, it’s Mao’s large painting that hangs, not a photograph; Calcutta ceased to be the capital of British India in 1911, not a year later. But if you gloss over these errors, the overview helps in building the perspectives to understand Burma’s past, present and future.

And the future can be either that of cooperation between Burma, India and China or of rivalry between India and China, where Burma may become a pawn. Thant’s worry in this regard is understandable. He, therefore, advocates greater engagement with the Burmese authorities: the West must do away with its sanctions on Burma, or else the influence of Western democracies will get reduced to near zero, he asserts. US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has just visited Burma, the first US leader to visit the country in 50 years. Though the US is not lifting the sanctions as yet, one has to carefully observe how India and China react to this Western re-entry in Burma. Surely, Thant will watch it all.

Where China Meets India
Thant Myint-U
Genre: Non fiction / Analyses
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Pages: 358
Price: Indian Rs 699