Author: Koh Kim Seng
Publisher: Singapore: Koh Kim Seng, c2011
Call No.: SING 959.1 KOH
I do not know much about Myanmar, save what I come across in newspapers and other media channels. Needless to say, coverage over the last few years has ranged from critical to being deeply sympathetic about the plight of the Myanmese people. A large part of the opprobrium has been directed at the military/political leadership of the nation, often collectively described as the junta.
Dr Koh Kim Seng has spent many years in Myanmar as a businessman, and over time, he has cultivated an enviable network and access to some of the highest levels of government in that often isolated nation. But Dr Koh also has a natural political curiosity, and he has set himself the task of trying to shed some light on the political culture and imperatives that drive that nation. What’s more, he has managed to persuade some of these high-ranking generals to set their thoughts and explanations down, though through the veil of nom de guerre. These and more are set out in his book, ‘Misunderstood Myanmar: An Introspective study of a Southeast Asian State in Transition’.
The book, heavy with research, and references to political theory, and other scholarly studies, is not the easiest work to breeze through. But for readers hoping to gain greater insight into Myanmar, particularly its often maligned leadership, it would certainly make for an intriguing read.
The crux of the material are the interviews and conversations the author conducts with various leaders in the government. What comes across is their strong belief in the rightness of their choices, and their role in executing those ideas and beliefs. There is for example, a very strong belief that Myanmar has suffered greatly at the hands of former colonial masters, often used as a pawn in the grand sweep of Asian politics (a key concern has always been China). The junta seems to show a very strong belief that it is their almost ‘divine’ task to protect the sovereignty of the nation, and defeat any attempt, internal or external, to fracture the state.
Often, the discussions with these generals would show them to be articulate and well-informed. They would seem to accept the argument for eventual change or relaxing of political atmosphere, but only at a pace that would not threaten the unity of the nation.
That is not to say that there are no passages in the book that, while revealing the deep culture and history of Myanmar, certainly leaves a reader a little slack-jawed at the particular mindset and beliefs of these generals. For example, there is a passage about how since the generals are deemed to have high ‘karma’, even ghosts would defer to their wishes! This belief, that they are custodians of an almost divine right to guard the nation, suggest that any change in Myanmar is unlikely to happen rapidly in the near future.
In an interview, the author states his intention is not act as an apologist to the regime. Rather, he sets himself the task of providing a platform for these often enigmatic leaders to voice their thoughts. For those who hold strong ideas about the political situation in Myanmar, this work is not likely to change their minds. But in producing this book, the author has certainly added a piece to ongoing discussions about our neighbours to the north.
Contributed by Nur Hakim Low, Librarian, National Library Board