In Norman Lewis's book Golden Earth in which he recounts his travels in Burma in the early 1950s there is a scene where he enquires of the Mandalay station master what time the Rangoon Express will get to Rangoon. "Get to Rangoon? The station master was slightly surprised. Naturally, it wouldn't. It was called the Rangoon Express because it went in the direction of Rangoon, and it might travel five, ten or fifty miles before the line was dynamited, or a bridge blown up."
In a similar way the first chapter of Bertil Lintner's new book Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency since 1948 is entitled "The Rangoon government" because by 1950 all that the newly-independent government of Burma controlled was Rangoon itself. For almost 50 years since then a series of ethnic insurgencies have destabilised the Union of Myanmar, as Burma now styles itself, but it is only in the last seven years, since the unsuccessful pro- democracy revolt in 1988 that the West has begun to take an increasing interest in these long-running rebellions. It is, perhaps, somewhat ironic that this new book should appear as the present Rangoon government is announcing the capture of the main base of the last remaining insurgent organisation, the Karen National Union.
The story of the insurgencies in Burma is extremely complicated, involving personalities, parties, armies and acronyms which, to a European reader, are rivalled only by descriptions of the Spanish Civil War. Bertil Lintner is an expert on Burmese affairs, who writes frequently for the Far Eastern Economic Review. His marriage to a Shan insurgent gives him a unique insight into the background of the Shan, the Pa-O and the Opium warlords of the Wa hills. Indeed his amazing trip in 1985-87 accompanied by his wife and young child from Nagaland in North East India across northern Burma to China enabled him to meet and talk to the leaders of the Kachin Independence Organisation and the then existing Communist Party of Burma.
He relates this journey in Land of Jade, a book which is perhaps not well enough known in Britain. Lintner has also chronicled the pro-democracy uprising of 1988 in Outrage: Burma's Struggle for Democracy and here again his researches brought him into contact not only with members of the pro-democracy movement who had fled to the Thai border, but also with leaders of the Karen National Union and the insurgency coalition organisation, the National Democratic Front. All this has ensured that, unlike many academic writers on Burma, Lintner has had practical experience of the insurgencies, and opportunities to talk personally with the insurgent leaders.
However, having described his unique qualifications it is important to make clear that Bertil Lintner is a journalist and not an academic, and despite some pretensions to an academic format in the very full annexes, this book is presented in a journalistic manner filled with colourful anecdotes often of little obvious relevance. Indeed, it is necessary to compare this book with another recent work on the Burmese insurgencies, Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity by Martin Smith. The two books cover very similar ground, but Martin Smith's is a more comprehensive and academic account of the history of insurgency in Burma, though it is probably fair to say that Lintner's is the more readable and, although more simplistic overall, makes the many insurgencies a little easier to understand. The earlier chapters of this book, when compared with Smith's, are a little thin, punctuated with some rather sweeping statements and a few inaccuracies. He describes Wingate as the British commander in Burma in the second world war, rather than Slim. This is tempting since Wingate is obviously an interesting character who contrasts neatly with Stilwell. Smith does not make this mistake.
The strength of Lintner's book lies in his expert knowledge of the opium warlords and their relationship with the KMT stragglers, the CIA and the Rangoon government. Very few Westerners have visited eastern Burma since independence, and he describes clearly the political complexities and the relationships between the various warring groups.
Having travelled in the area and interviewed senior leaders of the insurgent organisations in the Shan State he is able to provide a unique insight into this mysterious world. Lintner's description of the early relationship between the KMT stragglers, forced out of China in 1949, and the CIA gives an illuminating insight into how the pressures to fight the Cold War succeeded in corrupting a number of US agencies from the start of the Korean War until the American withdrawal from Vietnam. Living and working in Bangkok also enables Lintner to write authoritatively about Thai politics and the involvement of Thai politicians and the Thai military in the opium trade. Here his background as a journalist adds both colour and credibility to his narrative.
Burmese politics have never been easy to understand and in this book Lintner offers a simpler, though sometimes less accurate, description than Martin Smith does of the incredibly complex relationships of the insurgent organisations. It is difficult at the best of times to follow the various parties as they split, coalesce and split again.
The Burmese have always enjoyed the devious side of politics, a part of their nature the British, with the possible exception of George Orwell, never fully understood. They always want to be the leader no matter how small the party and this characteristic has led to the frequent internecine and fraternal squabbles within the various insurgent movements. This can perhaps be illustrated by the old story of the British District Officer watching a cricket match in Burma in which only British and Indians were involved. "Why don't the Burmese play cricket?" he enquired of an elderly Sikh sitting next to him. "Ah," the Sikh replied. "If the Burmese were to play cricket they would want to bat and bowl at the same time."
This book is an important addition to the rather limited number of books published on the Burmese political situation. It comes at a time when the only remaining insurgent group, the Karens, appear to be at their last gasp. It is too early to say if all insurgency is now at an end in Burma. It is certainly fair to say, however, that the opium warlords are still at large and will continue to operate until the government in Rangoon is prepared to work willingly with all the ethnic minorities that make up the Union to ensure for all Burmese a fair and prosperous future.
Colonel Bill Clements was military attache in the British Embassy, Rangoon, 1990-92.
Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency since 1948
Author - Bertil Lintner
ISBN - 0 8133 2344 4
Publisher - Westview
Price - £37.00
Pages - 520