Thant Myint-U in the London Review of Books:
There is an enduring myth that in 1948, when it achieved independence from Britain, Burma was a rich country with every reason to expect a bright future and that the policies and practices of the military government are alone to blame for today’s miseries. It is beyond dispute that many of these policies and practices have been disastrous. But there is a deeper history of misfortune which needs to be understood.
At independence, Burma was a country devastated by war, with a collapsed economy and a peculiarly debilitating colonial legacy dating back to 1885, when Lord Randolph Churchill, the secretary of state for India, dispatched an expeditionary force to sort out the ‘Burma problem’ of the day.
When the Burma Expeditionary Force seized Mandalay, British policy-makers decided not only to dethrone the king, Thibaw, but to abolish the monarchy altogether. The nobility was soon disbanded too and families who had held sway over their villages for centuries were fatally undermined. The old social order collapsed during the ‘pacification’ campaign of the late 1880s, when tens of thousands of British and Indian troops attempted to quell unexpectedly harsh guerrilla resistance, and with this collapse came the disappearance of an ancient tradition of Buddhist and secular scholarship. This was followed by a period of peace and considerable prosperity, which lasted from the early 1890s to the late 1920s. There were new connections – intellectual as well as commercial – to England, India and elsewhere, and a generation of well-educated men and women hoped to be part of a more progressive world. But the foundations of future problems were being laid.