Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia

Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia

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by Thant Myint-U

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From their very beginnings, China and India have been walled off from each other: by the towering summits of the Himalayas, by a vast and impenetrable jungle, by hostile tribes and remote inland kingdoms stretching a thousand miles from Calcutta across Burma to the upper Yangsi river.

In the next few years this last great frontier will vanish—the

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From their very beginnings, China and India have been walled off from each other: by the towering summits of the Himalayas, by a vast and impenetrable jungle, by hostile tribes and remote inland kingdoms stretching a thousand miles from Calcutta across Burma to the upper Yangsi river.

In the next few years this last great frontier will vanish—the forests cut down, dirt roads replaced by superhighways, insurgencies crushed, leaving China and India exposed to each other as never before. This basic shift in geography—as sudden and profound as the opening of the Panama Canal—will lead to unprecedented connections among the three billion people of South Asia and the Far East.

What will this change mean—not just for commerce, but for history, for politics, for culture? Thant Myint-U is in a unique position to know. An American of Burmese descent, for years he has traveled regularly in the Asian no-man’s land that has Burma at its center. He has heard many of its hundreds of languages and dialects, encountered its mix of Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and Muslims, and ruefully looked on as high-speed trains and gleaming shopping malls encroach on the last remaining forests and impoverished mountain communities. And he has pondered the new strategic centrality of Burma, where, with huge oil reserves newly found offshore, China and Asia will grapple for dominance.

Part travelogue, part history, part investigation, Where China Meets India takes us across the fast-changing Asian frontier, giving us a masterful account of the region's long and rich history and its sudden significance for the rest of the world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Policy analysis, travelogue, and history combine in the latest from former UN diplomat Thant (The River of Lost Footsteps). Focuses on his home country of Burma, and the area encompassed by a diameter of 1,000 miles drawn from the city of Mandalay on the edge of the Shan Plateau, Thant suggests that this corner of the world (with a population of 600 million) is destined to become a bridge between Bengal, Bangladesh, India's North Eastern Provinces, and China's Yunnan province. As China moves down to the coast, the pipelines, refineries, hydro-electric dams, and transmission lines presently under construction are setting the stage. Thant foresees conditions in which both Burma's military rulers and India will seek to balance China's outreach, with a flowering of economic potential as a possible result. Thant's knowledge of Burma's history, peoples, cultures, and kingdoms brings focus to his travels through the area. The constant interplay between his experiences and knowledge of the region make this book a gem, with myriad rare insights. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Interweaving the history and geography of Burma (Myanmar) with a travel memoir, Thant (The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma) narrates the compelling story of his journey through this rapidly evolving region rich in culture and heritage. Since the earliest days of China and India, parts of each nation and Burma have made up an expansive frontier that stretches across the Himalayas, made up of jungle, hostile tribes, and remote inland kingdoms. The book reveals that, since World War II, as Burma's once impenetrable land of forests and roads has been replaced by shopping malls, cosmopolitan cities, and a modernized economy, this region of many cultures and religions has experienced a tectonic shift. Examining Burma from its days as a colony to its current status as a modern nation-state, Thant reveals just how important this small nation has become to China and India as they position themselves for supremacy in the 21st century. VERDICT A highly readable and entertaining foray into the complex history of this ancient land, this book will be of interest to lovers of history and travel writing.—Allan Cho, Univ. of British Columbia Lib., Vancouver
James Fallows
Thant's book is an engaging combination of history, contemporary travelogue and personal and family recollections, along with a certain amount of policy analysis. Western readers are likely to be especially drawn to its rich, loving, but tragic portrayal of Myanmar. As he did in his previous book, Thant explains its colonial legacies, its repressive and erratic government, its deep ethnic divisions, drug trade and civil wars, as well as the look and feel of its cities and landscape.
—The New York Times Book Review

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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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First Edition
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6.40(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)

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Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia
By Thant Myint-U

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC

Copyright © 2011 Thant Myint-U
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-374-29907-1

Chapter One

Irrawaddy Dreaming

Before there was Rangoon, there was the Shwedagon pagoda. The legend goes something like this. Twenty-five centuries ago, two merchant brothers named Tapussa and Bhallika met the Buddha, by chance, just days after his Enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, in northern India. They heard his teachings on how to respond to the generally unsatisfactory nature of human experience. They became amongst his first followers, presenting him with an offering of rice cakes and honey and asking for a token of their encounter. The Buddha gave them eight strands of hair from his head. The Burmese believe that Tapussa and Bhallika were from lower Burma and that on their return home they placed the hairs in a jewelled casket and enshrined the casket deep within what would become the Shwedagon pagoda.

The pagoda sits today in the middle of Rangoon, a sprawling city of five million people, on the only hill for miles around. It is an enormous golden structure nearly 400 feet high, shaped something like an upside-down funnel, with an octagonal base, a rounded dome, and then a long spire. The lower sections are covered in gold leaf, the upper sections in plates of solid gold. Altogether the Shwedagon is said to be enveloped in no less than sixty tons of gold. 'More than in all the vaults of the Bank of England', the Burmese used to say during the days of British rule. At the top the spire is encrusted with thousands of precious stones as well as diamonds totalling 2,000 carats. Archaeologists and historians are uncertain about the true age of the Shwedagon. It is known that the pagoda (in its current form) was built in the fifteenth century, but that it was built on top of far older structures, likely dating back at least to the early centuries ad. A treasure chamber doubtless exists within its innermost recesses.

The Shwedagon can be seen from almost anywhere in the city, reflecting the sun by day and floodlit at night. There is perhaps no other city in the world as dominated, physically and spiritually, by a religious site as Rangoon is by the Shwedagon. Rudyard Kipling, after a visit in 1889, described it as 'a golden mystery' and 'a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun'. Thirty-three years later, Somerset Maugham, who had stopped briefly in Rangoon, remembered that the Shwedagon 'rose superb, glistening with its gold like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul'.

It was dusk when I arrived at the Shwedagon. Statues of two giant griffins or chinthés, the winged half-man half-lion creatures of Burmese mythology, guarded the base of the immense staircase that led up to the main platform. The stairs were made of teak, dark and smooth, and as wide as a street, lined on each side with little stalls, each selling flowers or incense or religious icons. The sellers, like most stallholders in Burma, were women, some with their children playing nearby.

A high roof covered the stairs and so it was only at the very top that the Shwedagon suddenly came into view, surrounded by a complex of dozens of smaller pagodas, pavilions, rest-houses, and shrines of different shapes and sizes, all laid out in no particular manner, the result of centuries of gradual augmentation. Many of the pavilions housed statues of the Buddha, big ones and small ones, the pillars of these pavilions covered in gold leaf or in glass mosaics. It was like a little city from a fairy tale.

Buddhism is the religion of an estimated 85 per cent of all people in Burma (the rest are mainly Christians and Muslims) and all Burmese Buddhists are meant to try to visit the Shwedagon at least once in their lifetime. I can't guess the number of people who were there that evening, certainly in the hundreds, probably in the thousands. Nearly all were wearing a sarong-like longyi, patterned and tied differently for men and women, together with a shirt or blouse. Most were probably from Rangoon, people coming after work, but at least some were villagers from far away, their longyis in less fashionable patterns and a little more threadbare. There were Buddhist monks as well, in rust-coloured robes, and nuns in pale pink. Everyone was in their bare feet, as is traditional and required at all sacred sites. The air was scented with jasmine and marigold, and at some shrines people were lighting little rows of flickering candles. I went into one of the larger pavilions where there were already a few other people, including an old lady, her eyes tightly closed and her long grey hair tied up in a bun, kneeling on the floor, their hands clasped together in prayer, facing the large statue of the Buddha in front of them. I first knelt as well and then touched my head and hands to the ground.

For some, Buddhism is primarily a philosophy, a guide to being happy and knowing how best to deal with the vicissitudes of life. A visit to the Shwedagon is an opportunity to be reminded of the Buddha's teachings, perhaps meditate quietly, or simply try to calm your mind after a hectic and stressful day.

For most Burmese, however, the Shwedagon is also a magical place. The faithful believe that somewhere beneath the gilded stupa are not only the hair relics of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, but the relics of past Buddhas as well, from aeons ago: the staff of Kakusandha, the water filter of Konagamana, and a piece of the robe of Kassapa, and that all these relics impart the Shwedagon with supernatural power.

The Shwedagon is also the haunt of weizzas or wizards, Tantric adepts who have achieved special abilities (like everlasting youth or invisibility). There is a small pagoda, towards the southwest, decorated with the figures of wizards and necromancers from times past, where some believe invisible beings come to meditate. There is also a pavilion dedicated to Izza Gawna, a wizard and alchemist of medieval times, and a 'Shrine of the Sun and Moon', whose two Buddha statues are said to grant the wishes of all who come to pay their respects.

The pagoda has also played its role in Burmese history. To the north is the 'Victory Ground', an open area where people come to pray for success of any kind, religious or secular. Traditionally, kings and generals came here before leaving for war. More recently, it has been the place to begin political protests. One of the first was in 1920, when students camped here at the start of an anti-colonial campaign. There's a column nearby in their memory, with their names written not only in Burmese and English but also in Russian, a sign of the high hopes the anti-colonialists then had for the recent Bolshevik Revolution. And protesters have gathered here ever since. In September 2007, thousands of Buddhist monks led peaceful marches against the ruling military junta. The demonstrations lasted for several days and on each day the monks started here at the 'Victory Ground'. But at least in this case their wishes went unfulfilled as riot police eventually closed in, sealing off the Shwedagon complex, and violently ending the demonstrations.

There may be wizards and the occasional protestors, but there are still very few foreign tourists. I saw one that evening, looking relaxed, in khakis and T-shirt, sitting cross-legged with his camera on the marble floor, watching the Burmese go by. I may be biased, but I would rank the Shwedagon as easily an equal of any of the other great sites I have seen, including the pyramids in Mexico, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or the Taj Mahal. Ralph Fitch was the first Englishman ever to come to Burma, in 1584 as the captain of 'the talle shippe Tyger' (the ship mentioned, some say, by Shakespeare in Macbeth), and he said of the Shwedagon: 'It is, as I suppose, the fairest place that doe bee in all the Worlde.' From the beginning of 196 2 through the 1980s, it was difficult to travel to Burma and tourism was discouraged. That has changed and it is today easy to visit. But in the place of old government restrictions there are now boycott campaigns from overseas, campaigns that have called on would-be tourists to stay away from Burma, so as not to contribute to the coffers of the ruling generals. The boycotts have been terrible for the country's nascent tourism industry, but have had the benefit of keeping back the hordes that will almost certainly one day come.

It was dark by the time I climbed back down the stairs and walked to the busy roundabout in front, to hail a taxi and drive to the 365 Café.

Edward was a Burmese businessman in his late fifties, a strongly built man with thinning salt and pepper hair, who had worked for several years in Singapore, as an engineer, before returning to Rangoon, his home town. He had a Burmese name as well, but like many of his class and generation had received an English name at school. The Burmese name he used for any official purpose and was the way he introduced himself to any new acquaintances. But to old friends (he was an old friend of my family's), he had remained 'Edward'.

He was waiting for me when I arrived, dressed in a dark Hawaiian shirt and a Burmese longyi. He had a broad, almost Polynesian, face, and looked tanned and healthy. We spoke in a mix of Burmese and English. 'Business is bad,' he said. 'Sometimes I think I made a big mistake coming back. I should have stayed in Singapore or gone to America when I had the opportunity. My brother's there, you know, in San Diego. He offered to find me a job, ages ago. My mistake.'

Edward had suggested the 365 Café. It was downtown, on the ground floor of the Thamada or 'President' hotel. It was decorated in a bright international style, with comfortable faux-leather chairs, and had a menu that offered a mix of sandwiches and Asian dishes. Big glass windows covered an entire wall, and through them you could see a small car park, with a couple of old Japanese cars and a big truck filled with crates of orangeade bottles. Beyond the parking lot was the street, and then a tall hedge, and finally a red-brick church, looking exactly like a church in a small English town.

'We have nothing like a proper business environment,' he complained. 'The banking system's practically non-existent, there's corruption, and on top of that we've got sanctions.' He meant the sanctions Western governments had imposed to try to pressurize the ruling junta towards democratic reforms. They were amongst the toughest sanctions anywhere in the world, and included a prohibition of all Burmese exports to the US, a blocking of all loans to Burma by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and financial sanctions that essentially made it impossible for any Burmese company to do business in the West. He had tried his hand at different things, from setting up a furniture-making company to running a small hotel. 'The top guys can still make money, but for the rest of us, it's next to impossible. Why impose sanctions when the government already makes it so hard to make a decent living?'

Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer once remarked that political progress in Burma was about as fast as glue flowing up a hill. And the news from Burma had rarely been good. In 1988, a massive pro-democracy uprising had been crushed. Two years later, the junta that was in power had held elections, but then ignored the results when the opposition scored a landslide victory. Burma rarely made the front pages, but when it did, it was usually about the continued house-arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's human-rights icon. There had been a fresh round of protests in 2007, and by the end of that year Amnesty International was estimating that no fewer than 2,000 political prisoners were languishing in the country's jails. And then, in 2008 , the deadly Cyclone Nargis had left over 100,000 people dead. I was meeting Edward in late 2008, a few months after Nargis. It was hard not to be despondent. The little foreign tourism there had been was disappearing and the global recession was just beginning.

But what of relations with India and China, I asked? Their economies had been growing at light speed and were still growing, even during the recession. There were the plans to connect their economies with Burma. Edward hadn't thought about it very much. He was a man of the West. His father and grandfather had been educated in England and all his travels abroad, other than to Singapore and Bangkok, had been in the West. He had never set foot in India or China. He watched American movies, read English-language books, and hoped his kids would go to university in the US. He agreed that the world's economy was shifting eastward, but couldn't predict what its effect on Burma would be. This was the response I heard from many in Rangoon. Few seemed to be looking at the map. But there were others, elsewhere, who were not only looking at the map, but getting ready to change it.

More than a hundred years ago, it was the British who looked at the map, and had their own dreams of Asia's future. The British had seized Rangoon from the Burmese in 1852. And soon, in the clubs and boardrooms of London and Calcutta, there were dreams of the Irrawaddy River as a back door to the markets of China. Rangoon was then little more than a small town next to the Shwedagon, but it held a potentially strategic place. It sits along a branch of the Irrawaddy River, that starts far to the north, in the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas, before descending a thousand miles and emptying into the Bay of Bengal, close to Rangoon.

The British were then the paramount power in India. From beachheads at Madras (also now known as Chennai), Bengal and Bombay, their East India Company had overwhelmed all rivals and established a complete hegemony over the subcontinent. The company already enjoyed lucrative trade with China, mainly involving the sale of British Indian opium in exchange for Chinese silver. But the British saw the obvious: Burma was what lay between their Indian Empire and the immense and still barely explored interior of China. They could sail around Singapore, but a passage through Burma might save time and lead to still more profits. In the decades that followed, soldiers, scientists and surveyors were sent out to map out the unknown borderlands, looking for new routes and attempting alliances with the remote princes and tribal chiefs they encountered.

The lure of China was strong, even then. In the 18 90s, the adventurer and writer Archibald Ross Colquhoun had penned books such as Across Chryse: Being A Journey of Exploration Through the South China Borderlands From Canton to Mandalay, as well as his China in Transformation, which became a bestseller in London. He said that China was 'destined, before long, to be counted among the great world-powers' and pressed hard for the British to find a way from Burma into the heart of that enormous country. Another writer and former intelligence officer, H. R. Davies, made similar arguments: 'In an age when railways are penetrating to the most out-of-the-way places on the earth, it is impossible to suppose that India and China – the two most populous countries in the world – would remain without being connected by railway.' The Victorians thought big and there was even talk of an 'elevated railway' which would zoom across the jungle canopy and directly link Calcutta to the cities along China's Yangtze valley.

The French had similar dreams. A generation earlier, the explorers Ernest Doudart de Lagrée and Francis Garnier had travelled from Saigon up the Mekong in the hopes of finding a viable route to the Chinese interior, but they returned disappointed, Doudart de Lagrée dying from exhaustion and the formidable diseases contracted along the way. On a map the Mekong looked promising, but the French discovered that deep gorges and treacherous rapids would block any significant upriver traffic from their coastal bases in Indochina.

Excerpted from WHERE CHINA MEETS INDIA: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia by Thant Myint-U, published in September 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Thant Myint-U. All rights reserved.


Excerpted from WHERE CHINA MEETS INDIA by Thant Myint-U Copyright © 2011 by Thant Myint-U. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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