THE ROAD TO MANDALAY WHERE CHINA MEETS INDIA: BURMA AND
THE NEW CROSSROADS OF ASIA
By Thant Myint-U (Faber & Faber 358pp £20)
DRIVING FROM LONDON to Calcutta in the 1960s was fairly straightforward. All you needed was a passport spattered with visas, a robust vehicle, and a green loose-leaf carnet de passage, obtainable from the AA in Leicester Square, which exempted your vehicle from import duty. The difficult bit came if you were continuing east after Calcutta. To enter the Indian state of Assam you had to obtain a permit that was rarely granted to self-drive foreigners, while to get from there into strife-torn Nagaland and Manipur required the sanction – and sometimes the firepower – of the Indian army. Then came Burma, the overlander’s ne plus ultra. The roads were said to be impassable, Rangoon didn’t recognise the AA’s carnet, and entry permits from India were unheard of. The only hope of driving down the Malay peninsula into Singapore was to ship your motor from Calcutta to Penang.
Strangely, little has changed in the last fifty years of accelerating globalisation. Negotiating India’s still troubled northeastern states, then Upper Burma’s indifferent roads and the paranoid travel restr ictions of Rangoon (now Yangon) is as problematic as ever. But it could soon be very different. Burma – southern Asia’s ‘missing link’, according to Thant Myint-U in Where China Meets India – is slated to become the transport nexus of the world’s most productive and populous region. Linking China to India, and Bangkok and Singapore to Dhaka and Calcutta, the spokes of this Burma-centred hub will turn the sweltering jungles on the eastern side of the Bay of Bengal into a palm-fringed corniche of transnational highways, high-speed rail links and supertanker terminals. A gas and oil pipeline from the Burmese coast is already weaving its way through the mountainous spine of Southeast Asia to Kunming in China’s Yunnan province. The roads and railways are mapped and costed; China, the prime mover, has both the money and the clout. Cruising the Naga hills on a six-lane ‘road to Mandalay’ may sound a bit far-fetched; but so did a rail link to Lhasa until the Chinese went and built one.
Beijing is in earnest. Its geostrategists favour a ‘twooceans policy’, one being the Pacific, the other the Indian Ocean. A presence in the latter is thought essential to protect China’s economic ascendancy from being throttled by the stoppage of oil shipments from Africa and the Middle East as a result of a hostile blockade of the sea lanes around Singapore: China’s President Hu Jintao has called it ‘the Malacca Dilemma’. Chinese access to Burma’s seaboard will also provide a handy outlet for the products of its rapidly developing Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. To service and protect the new Bay of Bengal sea lanes, a deep-water port, financed by the Chinese, has been constructed at Hambantota, a seaside village in southern Sri Lanka where Leonard Woolf served as a colonial agent in the early twentieth century. The Middle Kingdom, then a casualty of Britain’s maritime supremacy, now looks to be emulating it. Myint-U, the American-educated grandson of former UN Secretary-General U Thant, calmly assesses the likely impact of these developments on his native Burma. He delves into the past for some sparse evidence of the Irrawaddy basin having once served as a conduit of commerce and conquest and he travels extensively in southwest China, northeast India and along Burma’s own borderlands to explore the challenges facing the promoters of ‘the new crossroads of Asia’. Surprisingly he makes little of the physical obstacles: the colossal rainfall, precipitous terrain and seismic instability of the region. Nor does he seem too bothered by the environmental cost of all the new arteries and their potential in terms of mineral, timber and hydro-electric concessions. He is more concerned with the political consequences. In hills with as rich an ethnic ecology as New Guinea, he wonders whether more trade and traffic will foster integration or exacerbate alienation. By one count, northeast India alone is currently plagued by over a hundred insurgent militia groups, most of them up in arms on the grounds of disadvantaged ethnicity. Burma has a similar problem with the various Shan, Karen, Wa and Kachin ‘state armies’. Like the production of jade, opium and methamphetamines that finances their operations, the warlords and drug barons thrive in the overgrown, under-administered and uncertainly demarcated declivities along the Salween and Mekong rivers. Even China is careful to appease its ethnic minorities in Yunnan and Guangxi with ‘autonomous’ status and indulgent treatment. ‘Connectivity’ may be the buzz word in Delhi, Dhaka, Rangoon and Beijing but on the ground, says Myint-U, ‘there is already a connectivity of a different sort, of violence and criminality, which in the future may only g row’. The economic oppor tunities and the improved standards of living promised by the new infrastructure could seduce the insurgents and dissidents, as seems to be the case in authoritarian China, or they could excite them, as in democratic India.
Burma itself is the greatest enigma. In an otherwise confident and enthralling discussion, Myint-U seems uncertain whether recent developments, such as the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and the deeply flawed elections, represent an easing of the military’s dictatorial rule or a bid to constitutionalise it. Either way, he deplores the regime’s growing dependence on its
LITERARY REVIEW August 2011