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VINE VOICEon May 16, 2008
This is a well written book and a very informative one for the Western society to have a broader picture of Burma. However, as one other Burmese reviewer said, the book carries an elite view of history and lack grassroots dimension. I have no problem with highly educated elites that love Burma, as we need them to rebuild our country. In fact, being about the same age, I share a similar sentiment with the author about Burma's future.

The author spoke against economic sanctions and its ineffectiveness to stimulate transformation in Burma. While he made his point well and some other reviewers resonated with him, the author failed to study the drug history in Burma that played a major role in triggering the existing sanctions.

My father was imprisoned a few years back for his successful effort in drug rehabilitation in Burma. Can you imagine a government that would imprison someone for saving the lives of many young people, my age and younger, that buried their lives in drugs because the government didn't give them a hope for a future. It was then I happened to dig into the Amnesty International and U.S. State Department's reports to find out, with much surprise, that the Burmese government was heavily involved in drug production and that 70% of the heroin sold in the U.S. came from Burma; I thought it came from Columbia. To make the long story short, by doing business in Burma, the American companies were helping the junta and their associated drug producers turn their drug money into legitimate white money--the money that came from destroying American young people.

The drug history is an example of the grassroots history of Burma that is missing in the book. The history of unfortunate foreign encounters should not be used to justify the government's trampling of the grassroots using different forms of systematic torture, or to justify the removal of sanctions.

However, as a "personal" history, it is a good read, and we need more books and more authors like him to provide wider windows to look into Burma, so that the world can make informed decisions.
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on December 17, 2006
This is really two books (or more) woven into one: 1) in part a well-written and fast-paced history of Burma, with many insights into how Burma's history intersects with global history and 2) a personal memoir and observations about Burma today, with many stories drawn from the author's very interesting family history as well.

I found the book by turns amusing and sad and generally very engaging. It's definately something non-experts can enjoy, including those without any prior knowledge at all of Asian history, let alone Burma. In a way, there is something in it for everyone, from military history, to travelogue, to political commentary, to archeology.

My only wish would be that the author spent a little more time on the present day.
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VINE VOICEon July 7, 2007
We Americans tend to forget or ignore the fact that there are deep seeded historical reasons why governments in other countries take certain positions that seem to be inappropriate. Such is the case with Burma, and the xenophobic, anti-democratic actions of its military government. Fortunately, Thant Myint-U has provided a basis for understanding the situation in Burma through his wonderful book, The River of Lost Footsteps.

Thant shows that Burma's current state is mostly the result of its very long history of negative interactions with other countries. He discusses how occupations by the Chinese, British, Japanese, and others have led to a mistrust of foreigners. This mistrust has morphed into a sense of nationalistic self-reliance, in part from several examples (augmented by nostalgia) where a strong Burmese leader has successfully led the country. Thant then discusses how the radical changes that have occurred in Burma over the last 150 years have left the country without a governing class capable of managing it. Given these factors, it's no surprise that the one governmental unit with strong structure, the military, is running the country.

Considering all the care that Thant took to show how Burma came to its current state of affairs, it was a little disappointing to see that he rushed through his conclusions. Beyond saying that the existing international response of economic sanctions won't work, he provides little in the way of possible answers as to how Burma can be integrated into the international community. That response comes across as a little too vague and diplomatic for someone who clearly understands the reasons behind Burma's present circumstances. Still, The River of Lost Footsteps is an important starting point for persons interested in comprehending Burma's situation and developing a policy for addressing its position.
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This is a great introduction to Burma and its history. It is well written, clear, and sometimes funny. Furthermore, it is not too detailed for novices.

The author's main point is a good one. Discussion of Burma tends to be largely ahistorical. Few consider Burma's history when deciding policy. I wouldn't exactly consider US senators to have this level of sophistication, but it seems that somebody should, especially lobbyists. Through history, the author shows Burma as having been often isolated and torn, with little institutional capacity to govern after the British took over.

I thought the last few pages were a bit glib and not well argued. I disagree with current US policy of isolation, but the author loses his depth of understanding and seems to label the Burma lobby in the same brush as the government of Burma. The truth is, sanctions probably have relatively little effect on Burma. If the author has shown anything, it is the extent to which Burma's government isolates itself from international norms and pressure. While perhaps more aid money and business would go into the country without sanctions, much of it would not go in anyway because of the government's pervasive mismanagement and corruption (Global Fund pulled out because of misuse of its funds; Red Cross was recently expelled).

Despite these last few pages, the book is overall a great read for novices and long-time Burma watchers.
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on May 8, 2007
Thant Myint-U tells the story of how Burma became the "poisoned Shangri-la", possibly the second weirdest country after North Korea. At first sight, Burma is a battle between the evil dictature and Aung San Suu Kyi. But Thant Myint-U gives us an infinitely more complicated picture, from thousands of years ago until the present day, with a civil was that has lasted for 60 years. The state-building suffered severely both when the british conquered Burma in 1885, as well as they were thrown out in 1948. But the book is more than just a story lesson. He has a clear message: Boycott is perhaps an easy answer to what to do with the country. Too easy. The dictature is extremely xenophobic, and avoids any influence from outside the country. They would not mind any boycott. Instead one should delicately try to interact more with the country. Thant Myint-U gives no easy fix, but a very sober and well-written overview. I have one minor remark: The map provided in the book should be more informative, many places mentioned in the text are not included.
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on February 22, 2012
The River of Lost Footsteps is nothing if not ambitious. Thant Myint-U tries to tell essentially the entire recorded history of Burma while also telling the history of his prominent Burmese family. Unfortunately, Thant bit off more than he could chew.

Any good history book doesn't limit itself to a strictly chronological narrative, but The River of Lost Footsteps jumps around both far too much and with little apparent rhyme or reason. This is apparent from the start. Thant starts with a preface reminiscing about his involvement with rebels immediately after the 1988 unrest. From there he jumps backward to Great Britain's conquest of Burma in the late 19th century, before jumping forward to 1988 unrest (slightly before timeframe of preface). He then jumps backward to the dawn of Burmese history. He gets better from there, but his leaps in time are never well done, more often leading to more confusion than clarification.

Thant tends to give little context and expects a certain amount of contextual historical knowledge by the reader. Nor does Thant's narrative doesn't have the easy flow of the best history writers. The River of Lost Footsteps also lacks a readily apparent theme to tie the stories told therein together. Thant frequently hints at the more interesting or salacious events, but doesn't give enough to do more than pique the reader's interest.

The River of Lost Footsteps is a history of Burma interspersed with the personal and familial history of the author. The author's maternal grandfather was the secretary-general of the UN for many years. This is a pretty small part of the book, however.

The River of Lost Footsteps single greatest failing, however, is strange omission of the most important events in modern Burmese history. The 1988 uprising and coup are only mentioned in reference after the preface. The name change to `Myanmar' is only mentioned in passing. Thant even gets through the Afterword without using the word `cyclone.'

All that being said, Thant does cover a ton of information about a country most of the world has only a vague sense of. The portions covering Burma's interactions with the British Empire and U Nu's brief tenure as prime minister of a free Burma are particularly good.
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on October 19, 2014
This book traces the history of Burma from the earliest days up until the start of the 21st century (2005). Unfortunately, some major changes in the political scene have occurred since then. However, it provides a solid background to understand the country and its ethnic components. The author is the grandson of U Thant, a former UN Secretary General and lived a large part of his life in the US, so the book is very readable and understandable. It is indispensable to an understanding of Burma (Myanmar) today.
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on March 4, 2007
Best writing on modern Burmese politics yet to appear, should be read by all the ostriches with their heads in the sand who believe that sanctions, boycotts, embargoes and the like will have any effect on the junta.

Sanctions that target an entire country, rather than its leaders, are at best ignorantly undertaken and ultimately unethical.
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on June 22, 2012
This book is a clear and very readable introduction to Burma and its history, in which the author explains how the past has impacted on Burma's present, including explaining how Burma came to be ruled by its military, and examining the isolated and isolationist military mindset. He intersperses the history with anecdotes concerning his family and his personal experiences, which makes the book come to life.
The author touches on the myths which sustain the ruling military - harking back to Burma's great past rulers and military leaders - but fails to note any continuity with the present : much of Burma's past , like its present, was as an autocratic system dominated by the military.
And the author does not examine a different myth - that of Aung San. The conventional view is that had Aung San lived, Burma would have had a very different course. While this may be true, it is also arguable that the independence of Burma was rushed by a group of young men led by Aung San who were utterly without experience of government, in sharp contrast to, say, the leaders of the Indian independence movement, and whose only uniting policy was to get rid of the British. After WW2, as the author explains, the economy and the institutions of the country were in ruins. Yet less than three years later, the country became independent. One can compare this situation with that of nearby Malaya, which suffered much less physical destruction from the war, where the United Malays Nationalist Organisation took a further 12 years to achieve independence, during which time the economy was set on a sound footing, the institutions of democratic government established and a communist insurgency defeated.
All in all, an excellent and comprehensive attempt to explain modern Burma, but not without its blind spots.
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on October 15, 2014
Read this as preparation for a trip to Burma. Found it interesting and worthwhile. Very much written in a textbook style and very readable. I think this provides good background for the trip. I would recommend this book, but give yourself plenty of time to read slowly and thoughtfully. The map in the beginning is a great reference to help the reader understand who the various peoples are throughout the country and throughout history. The edition I have does have a more recent afterword to help bring things up to date.
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