The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma

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Overview

For nearly two decades Western governments and a growing activist community have been frustrated in their attempts to bring about a freer and more democratic Burma—through sanctions and tourist boycotts—only to see an apparent slide toward even harsher dictatorship. But what do we really know about Burma and its history? And what can Burma’s past tell us about the present and even its future?
In The River of Lost Footsteps, Thant Myint-U tells the story of modern Burma, in part through a telling of his own family’s history, in an interwoven narrative that is by turns lyrical, dramatic, and appalling. His maternal grandfather, U Thant, rose from being the schoolmaster of a small town in the Irrawaddy Delta to become the UN secretary-general in the 1960s. And on his father’s side, the author is descended from a long line of courtiers who served at Burma’s Court of Ava for nearly two centuries. Through their stories and others, he portrays Burma’s rise and decline in the modern world, from the time of Portuguese pirates and renegade Mughal princes through the decades of British colonialism, the devastation of World War II, and a sixty-year civil war that continues today and is the longest-running war anywhere in the world.
The River of Lost Footsteps is a work both personal and global, a distinctive contribution that makes Burma accessible and enthralling.
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Editorial Reviews

William Grimes
Mr. Thant eloquently and mournfully recites the dismal history of the last half century and, in analyzing the country’s nascent democracy movement, holds out only the slimmest of hopes for a better future. It will not come through economic and diplomatic sanctions, of that he is convinced. Trade and more engagement, especially more tourism, might let in badly needed light and air. But trying to topple the regime by isolating it would, he argues, be disastrous.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Analysis of Burma has been "singularly ahistorical," Thant Myint-U (The Making of Modern Burma), a senior officer at the U.N., observes. With an eye to what the past might say about Burma's present status as a country in crisis, Thant Myint-U examines the legacy of imperialism, war and invasion. Recounting in a well-crafted narrative the colorful histories of Burmese dynastic empires from ancient times to the 18th century, Thant Myint-U then focuses on how, during the 19th century, the Burmese kingdom of Ava fought and lost a series of border wars with the British East India Company, culminating in a treaty that marked the beginning of Burma's loss of independence. Considering the country's longstanding global isolation in the context of its geographic and cultural singularity, Thant Myint-U interweaves his own family's history, writing extensively about his maternal grandfather, U Thant, who rose from humble origins to become secretary-general of the U.N. in the 1960s. Profiling 20th-century Burmese leaders such as Aung San, U Nu and Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Aung San Suu Kyi, Thant Myint-U beautifully captures the complex identity of a little-understood country, concluding with a trenchant analysis of Burma's current predicament under an oppressive regime. (Dec.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Former UN Secretary-General U Thant's grandson traces the little-understood history of modern Burma, arguing that present trade sanctions by Western powers are the worst possible policy for bringing democracy to the already-isolated dictatorship. A Cambridge Ph.D. and veteran UN officer, the author grew up in a Burmese compound in Riverdale, N.Y., amid a family with ties to Burma's government that date back to the 1880s. He first visited Burma in 1971, at age 5, to help bury his maternal grandfather, who led the UN from 1961 to 1971. This vivid and well-told history opens in the watershed year 1885, when the British seized Burma, abolished the monarchy and made the country part of British India. The trauma transformed Burmese life and fostered a pervasive feeling of humiliation-the author highlights an incident in Rangoon when an elderly Englishman tapped young U Thant on the shoulder with a cane to force him to give up his seat on a bench. Somehow, the British view of Burma as undisciplined morphed into the Burmese self-perception that they were unsuited to democratic government, says the author. The book's main focus is on the modern era, especially the time since World War II, which devastated Burma and led to independence and the still-ongoing civil war. Foreign interventions (by the U.S., Thailand, the Soviet Union, China) worsened the chaos. Since 1962, a military dictatorship installed by the late General Ne Win has ruled, weakening institutions and isolating Burma from the world community. Hampered by past failures and a misplaced penchant for utopian thinking, the Burmese must open up to different ideas and build new institutions if they are ever to achieve democracy, says theauthor. Further isolation by the West will not help. With wide interest in Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and others opposing the ruling generals, this warrants attention.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374163426
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 12/12/2006
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.38 (w) x 9.28 (h) x 1.16 (d)

Meet the Author

Thant Myint-U, educated at Harvard and Cambridge, has served on three United Nations peacekeeping operations, in Cambodia and in the former Yugoslavia, and was more recently the head of policy planning in the UN’s Department of Political Affairs.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
The Fall of the Kingdom

The divinity most worshiped in Burma is precedence.
—Captain Henry Yule, Mission to the Court of Ava

Mandalay, October 1885

He was anxious for the health of his wife and their unborn child. More than a few of the old courtiers had already advised him to flee to the villages of his ancestors. Others told him to give in. But his generals, severe in their lacquered helmets and green and magenta velvet coats, promised they would do their best to hold back the advance of the enemy; some even voiced confidence of final victory. They reminded him of the imposing fortifications that had been built up and down the valley, and of the royal steamships and smaller boats that would soon be scuttled to make the passage upriver as difficult as possible. Even the underwater explosives his young engineers had been busy developing would soon be ready for use. Too many soldiers were tied down fighting renegade princes in the eastern hills, but there were still enough men to put up a good fight.

The high crenellated walls of the royal city of Mandalay had been built in the days of his father for exactly this situation. The vermilion ramparts formed a perfect square and were each over a mile long, backed by massive earthworks and preceded by a wide and deep moat. If the invading army could be drawn into a long siege, he could direct a guerrilla operation from beyond the forests to the north.

The rains had just ended, and in the brilliant sunshine he could see his cavalry practicing in the muddy fields not far from the palace. But whatever his generals said, in his heart he knew that in the last analysis his little army was no match for theforce assembling just three hundred miles to the south. But what was the alternative? Surrender? His more worldly ministers, men who had traveled to the West, told him to compromise, stall for time, open negotiations. He should avoid a military conflict at all costs and agree to all their demands if necessary. But did he trust them? There were rumors that the enemy would bring his elder half brother, now eight years in exile, and place him on the throne. The kingdom would become a protectorate. Perhaps this is what his noble advisers wanted.

His wife told him to stand firm and prepare for war.

Fort St. George

General Sir Harry North Dalrymple Prendergast was born in India in 1834 to an Anglo-Irish family long familiar with service on the subcontinent. His father, Thomas Prendergast, had been a magistrate in Madras and after a long spell in India had retired to Cheltenham, gone blind, and then made a small fortune writing a series of trend-setting handbooks entitled The Mastery of Languages or the Art of Speaking Foreign Tongues Idiomatically.

Harry Prendergast himself was a distinguished soldier. During the Indian Mutiny he had fought with the Malwa Field Force. Ten years later he had taken part in the putative invasion of Abyssinia and was present when Lord Napier and his combined British and Indian army stormed and then destroyed Emperor Theodore’s mountain fortress of Magdala. More recently he had become obsessed with the idea of himself commanding an invasion of Burma, personally leading reconnaissance runs near the long frontier. And now, after years of planning and bureaucratic scheming, his dream was coming true.

His Burma Field Force consisted of ten thousand troops. It included three infantry brigades, one from the Bengal Army, one from the Madras Army, and a third brigade under the command of fellow Irishman Brigadier George Stuart White. Sailing from Rangoon, Prendergast arrived in Madras toward the end of October, just as the various parts of his new army were busy getting ready along the glacis of Fort St. George. It was to be a textbook operation. Plans and preparations would follow the latest thinking in military science, and nothing was to be left to chance. Torrential rains swept across the docks, and hundreds of Indian coolies labored to load big wooden crates, each neatly packed with supplies for any eventuality, onto the tall ships moored off the Coromandel coast. On 2 November, as an enormous thunderstorm broke over the south Indian city, the governor of the Madras Presidency, the Honorable Grant Duff, hosted Prendergast and his senior officers to a lavish dinner in honor of the coming campaign. Everything was set.

Within days, Prendergast’s fleet was gliding swiftly over the blue-green waters of the Bay of Bengal, past the mangrove swamps and jungle hamlets of the Irrawaddy Delta, reaching the frontiers of the inland kingdom on 6 November. Anchored and waiting along the banks of the river, the flotilla stretched nearly five miles long. Forty shiny new Maxim guns, the world’s first machine guns, were lifted onto the steamship Kathleen. A few years ago their inventor, Hiram Maxim (later Sir Hiram), visited the Paris Electrical Exhibition and was told by a man he met there: “If you want to make a lot of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater facility.” He relocated to London and went to work, proudly unveiling his product earlier that year. The Maxim guns had a belt that could continually feed ammunition. They could fire five hundred rounds a minute. This was their debut. Not yet on the battlefields of Flanders but to be first tried and tested on the road to Mandalay.

On 13 November a steamer belonging to the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company crossed the border from Burmese territory with news that eight thousand of the king’s troops were massing at the Minhla fort just to the north. The same afternoon Prendergast received a telegram from the India Office in London: The Burmese reply to a British ultimatum had been unsatisfactory. Prendergast was ordered to invade at once.

Lord Randolph Churchill’s War

Burma’s watershed year, 1885, separating its past from its modern age, was also a year of considerable change and ferment around the world. For the first time in a long while, Great Britain was facing increasing competition overseas from other imperial and rising powers: the Germans, the French, the Russians, and even the Americans. The United States, then under the bachelor president Grover Cleveland, had yet to acquire many territories overseas, but was well on the way toward unparalleled economic power. By 1885 American railways stretched westward to the beaches of California, and the relentless demand for steel and oil were creating fortunes for the Rockefellers and the Carnegies. It was in 1885 that the phonograph was invented, American Telephone and Telegraph welcomed its first customers, and all nine stories of the world’s first skyscraper were built in Chicago. It was also the year that the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York, together with tens of thousands of the country’s first immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe.

In February 1885 the Congress of Berlin formally parceled out the continent of Africa among half a dozen European powers in a sort of gala opening to an imperialist age that would lead to a fifth of the world’s landmass falling under colonial rule over the next thirty years. But this moment of uninhibited expansionist frenzy also contained within it the first seeds of imperialism’s eventual demise. In Bombay in the last few weeks of the year, seventy or so Indian lawyers, educators, and journalists came together to set up the Indian National Congress, the organization that one day, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru, would help take Burma, as well as India, on the path to independence.

For England, 1885 started off quite badly. For months, the slow-motion fall of Khartoum had been reported graphically over the tabloids, and the death of General Charles “Chinese” Gordon in February had set off a wave of anger, much of it directed at the Liberal government of the country’s long-standing prime minister, William Gladstone. General Gordon had won renown in the 1860s in China, where he led the multinational “Ever-Victorious Army” on behalf of the emperor against the Taiping rebels. And in 1884, having had no clear policy on the growing mess in the Sudan, the Gladstone government sent General Gordon, hoping that he could deal single-handedly with the Mahdist rebellion or at least find a way to withdraw the besieged Anglo-Egyptian garrison.

But inasmuch as distant imperial wars grabbed the headlines, the real story for many was the increasingly polarized debate over Irish home rule. Both the Liberals and the opposition Conservatives were genuinely split on the question of Ireland’s future, and recent violent unrest on the island led to new coercive measures. Charles Stewart Parnell, a politician and Protestant landowner, had become the undisputed leader of the Irish nationalist movement. And because the 1884 Reform Act had extended the vote to millions of new people, including agricultural workers in Ireland, Parnell was now a major force in Westminster politics, holding the balance of power between the two main parties. When the Liberal government fell over budget issues in June 1885, it was through the combined vote of the Conservatives and Parnell’s Irish members of Parliament. A new Conservative ministry, under the earl of Salisbury, was to govern until general elections could be held. And in this new Conservative “caretaker” ministry the man who would direct India policy, and thus Burma policy as well, was Lord Randolph Churchill.

Churchill was the third son of the seventh duke of Marlborough and the father of Winston Churchill (then eleven years old). He had been educated at Eton and Merton College, Oxford, where he had been a prizewinning pugilist, and was a rising star in the Conservative Party. For the past five years he had been an important member of Parliament, targeting not only the Liberal government of Gladstone but also his own Conservative front bench. By 1885 Churchill saw himself championing his own brand of “progressive conservatism,” declaring his support for popular reforms and seeking to challenge the Liberals for the votes of the newly enfranchised working class. He also worked hard to win over Parnell. When Gladstone’s government was defeated, many in his party credited Churchill as the “organizer of victory.” As a reward, the new prime minister made him the secretary of state for India. He was thirty-six years old.

Over the summer, with elections several months away, Churchill decided to contest the radical stronghold of Birmingham. The early 1880s had seen bad economic times in many parts of Europe, and there was a growing awareness of how poor England’s poor really were, in places like Birmingham, the smog-choked industrial cities of the north, and in London’s own East End, where Jack the Ripper would soon enjoy his fiendish murders. Churchill needed an issue. Something that would appeal to businessmen worried about shrinking profits and workers fearful of losing their jobs. Something that would promise better times and a return to prosperity.

Earlier that year the Scottish–South African explorer Archibald Colquhoun had made himself a household name. He had traversed through the unknown lands of western China and scampered along the jungle-covered middle stretches of the Mekong River. When he returned to London, he lectured widely and wrote two best-selling books: one was English Policy in the Far East, and the other was Burma and the Burmans: Or, “The Best Unopened Market in the World.” He had one message: All that stood in the way of a revival of British commerce and industry, all that kept the working people of Birmingham and Leeds from a better future, was the despotic king of Burma. Remove the king, and Burma would become Britain’s best friend. And from Burma, the riches of China, and all that meant for British commerce and industry, would be there for the asking. One of those impressed was Randolph Churchill.

Churchill was not unfamiliar with recent events in Burma. He had visited India over the cold weather of 1884–85 and would have read in the Indian papers stories about King Thibaw and his court at Mandalay. Thibaw received a lot of bad press. On the throne for less than seven years, he had succeeded his illustrious and much-loved father, King Mindon, in 1878. Though the truth was very different, in British eyes, or at least in the eyes of the European business community in India, he was a gin-soaked tyrant, together with his wicked wife cruelly oppressing his people, ignorant of the world, ruling through an incompetent and medieval court, oblivious of his people’s need for the sort of progress only a civilized government could provide.

What was true was that the Burmese kingdom was experiencing growing instability. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries Burma had been an aggressive imperial power itself, though on a fairly small scale. Its kings and war elephants and ancient artillery had marched from the Himalayas to the beaches of Phuket, overrunning the kingdom of Siam in the east and extending westward across Assam to the very borders of British Bengal. A long and bloody but definitive war between the Burmese and the British from 1824 to 1826 had brought a sudden halt to Burmese ambitions. A second war in 1852 led to the British occupation of the country’s entire coastline, and a new British Burma was carved out of the old kingdom, with its administrative base at the port city of Rangoon.

After decades of tight British controls over the country’s trade, the impact of civil war in next-door China, and the disorders generated by frantic administrative reforms, the Court of Ava was a dim shadow of what it had been in its early-nineteenth-century heyday. The economy was in shambles, made worse by a recent drought and famine, part of worldwide climate changes related to the El Niño weather phenomena. Refugees and economic migrants streamed across the frontier from the king’s territory of “Upper Burma” into the relative security and prosperity of the British-held lands along the shore. The Burmese government seemed incapable of handling the multiple crises that it faced.

Years of British machinations had also produced a lively exiled opposition, and more than one of Thibaw’s brothers were plotting to overthrow him from beyond the kingdom’s borders. That Burma was a potentially rich country no one seemed to doubt, certainly not the increasingly vocal Scottish merchants in Rangoon, eager for unfettered access to the teak forests, oil wells, and ruby mines of the interior. What seemed even more tempting was the prospect of a back door to China’s limitless markets. Perhaps Burma was the answer to Birmingham’s problems.


Randolph Churchill could not simply propose war against an independent country, even a fairly inconsequential non-European one like Burma. Commercial gain could not be the only reason. There had to be a strategic interest involved, and luckily there was, supplied by the budding relationship between Paris and Mandalay. France in the mid-1880s was still smarting from its humiliating defeat at the hands of Otto von Bismarck’s Prussian Empire and eager to prove its prowess abroad. Jules Ferry was premier of the Third Republic. Under his imperialist policies Paris began to expand its presence in what was to become French Indochina. Saigon was already in French hands. In June 1884, following a somewhat ignominious military campaign that featured more than one embarrassing setback, the Treaty of Hué formally established a protectorate over Annam and Tonkin and sealed French rule over all of what is today Vietnam. To those who wished direct access between British India and the imagined markets of China, this sudden outburst of French activity in Southeast Asia could not have been welcome. A line had to be drawn somewhere. From Vietnam, the French were pushing westward into Cambodia and the Lao principalities along the Mekong. Upper Burma would be next. French rule in Indochina was bad enough; French interference in Thibaw’s kingdom could not be allowed.

It was not really the French who approached the Burmese but rather the Burmese who were keen to embrace the French. The holy grail of Burmese diplomacy was recognition by the European powers as an independent and sovereign state. Attempts to gain direct ties with Britain had failed as the Court of Ava was told time and again that Anglo-Burmese relations would be handled by the India government at Calcutta and not (in the manner of a truly sovereign state) by the Foreign Office in London. What the Burmese hoped was that by becoming friends with the French, they could at least raise the diplomatic cost to Britain of any future expansion at Mandalay’s expense.

At the beginning of 1884 a new treaty was agreed between the Quay d’Orsay and a Burmese mission to Paris led by the myoza, or lord, of Myothit. There was to be no official alliance or military agreement, nor would a French political agent be stationed at Mandalay. There was nothing in this essentially commercial agreement about which London could really complain. But this did not stop the Calcutta press or the restless trading houses of Rangoon from spreading stories of secret French clauses. As the Burmese and the French were involved, surely there was more than met the eye.

Excerpted from The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma by Thant Myint-U. Copyright © 2006 by Thant Myint-U. Published in December 2006 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Table of Contents


Map of Burma     ix
Preface     xi
The Fall of the Kingdom     3
Debating Burma     31
Foundations     42
Pirates and Princes Along the Bay of Bengal     63
The Consequences of Patriotism     88
War     107
Mandalay     131
Transitions     163
Studying in the Age of Extremism     198
Making the Battlefield     220
Alternative Utopias     257
The Tiger's Tail     290
Palimpsest     321
Notes     349
Acknowledgments     363
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 17, 2006

    Beautifully written introduction to little-known land

    This book was a surprise. I bought thinking I would be reading a serious scholarly history and learn something about Burma. It was serious and scholarly but also fun, funny, entertaining, very well-written, and full of interesting insights and stories, tying Burmese history to everything from the Mongol conquests to the the spread of Islam to Irish republicanism to the Cold War. The author also weaves in his family's two hundred year history in Burmese royal service, his own personal memoir and travels around the country. I recommend it highly.

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