Books – recent titles reviewed

Discerning the future in Myanmar

Where China Meets India: Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia
Thant Myint-U, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2011, 384pp, ISBN 978-0-374-29907-1

A great economic, political and environmental transformation is occurring in south-west China’s Yunnan Province and India’s seven north-eastern states (including Assam), as well as in Myanmar, which is wedged between the two Asian giants. It is a region largely ignored in the West, but this engaging book should be essential reading for anyone interested in the future of Asia. 

Where China Meets India deftly weaves autobiography, history and contemporary analysis to provide a picture of monumental historical change, the outcome of which one can only speculate. The book cries out for a six-part accompanying TV series, or at least an illustrated companion volume, to bring to life the physical transformation of what was until a few decades ago a virtually inaccessible region, where South Asia meets East Asia in the snow-capped mountains of northern Myanmar. 

Thant Myint-U, grandson of the former UN Secretary-General U Thant and the author of two other significant volumes on Burmese history, writes easily, if in a rather old-fashioned manner. Preferring the colonial ‘Burma’ to the current ‘Myanmar’, he only occasionally lapses into American slang. His accounts of thousands of years of history may seem irrelevant to the policy advisors of Western governments, who prefer to read conclusions in bullet points, but Where China Meets India reminds us that an understanding of the past is essential for shaping the future. 

A sub-theme of the volume is that Western economic and political sanctions on the government of Myanmar, applied with increasing severity continuously since 1988, have meant that Western governments and interests have been slighted in the economic transformation in these areas. As a result of decisions made by the governments of China and India, the survival of the military government of Myanmar has been assured. 

The concern of the Chinese government, that the remainder of their country needs to catch up with the rapid economic growth of its east coast cities, has resulted in much investment in transforming the transportation infrastructure of Yunnan. Myanmar is seen by Beijing as integral to its drive for prosperity. The current construction of pipelines, railways and highways across Myanmar, linking Yunnan to the Indian Ocean, is just one of the manifestations of that policy. 

India’s concern about China’s rising power is only one of the factors leading India to court Myanmar too. The failure of the states of north-east India to enjoy the benefits of economic growth, and the continuing low-level insurgency that plagues the area, as multiple groups contest for power, has resulted in a realisation by India that the solution to its problems requires a stable and prosperous neighbour. The growing cooperation between India and Myanmar in the areas of information technology, vehicle assembly and military training, as well as highway and port construction, are part of this picture. 

Once these and other transformations are eventually realised, the region will have been changed forever, and solely by Asians. 

Robert Taylor, former Vice-Chancellor of Buckingham University and author of The State in Myanmar (2010) 


Enduring wonders of the world

Beyond the Victoria Falls: Forays into Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia
Gill Staden, Struik Travel and Heritage, Cape Town, 2011, 144pp, ISBN 978-1-77007-856-7 

As noted in the Botswana section in Issue 7 of Global, there are grand plans to create a massive cross-border ‘Peace Park’ covering large areas of the Zambezi and Okavango basins and straddling some 270,000 km2 of five adjoining countries. The idea is to protect the traditional migration routes of elephants, zebras and wildebeest while giving visitors better access to a region stretching from Angola to Zimbabwe. 

But before anyone gets carried away with the promise and grandeur of such a scheme, it would be worth their looking through the pages of Gill Staden’s lovingly researched report on the glories of the game parks covering a vast area around Victoria Falls, to get an idea of how reality can so often undermine the boldest planners’ dreams. 

In a region where other pressing concerns tend to preoccupy politicians and officials, tourism and environmental management may not get the priority many outsiders feel they deserve.

Zambia “still pays scant regard to the needs of the tourist,” Staden notes. “Some of the country’s national parks are now virtually defunct, with continually deteriorating facilities and roads” and “border crossings…[are] often… a nightmare for visitors”. And in Zimbabwe, she reports “an almost complete lack of maintenance” of the infrastructure – the electricity is more often off than on and the minor roads have not been graded for years. 

Such hazards facing the visitors in the less tourism-friendly countries covered here are, however, minor in the context of the extraordinary wildlife experiences that are widely available across the region, Zambia and Zimbabwe included, even if the overall tourism experience is generally easier in Botswana and Namibia. Remarkable gems like Zambia’s Lower Zambezi and Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools still stand out. 

Staden provides detailed observations of the kinds of mammals, reptiles and birds to be found in each location she describes, and gives practical and up-to-date information on accommodation and other facilities. Naturally enough, the descriptions of the Victoria Falls, from both sides, are especially detailed. 

Richard Synge, Consultant Editor, Global 


How Pakistan wages its proxy wars

Storming the World Stage: The story of Lashkar-e-Taiba
Stephen Tankel, Hurst & Co, London, 2011, 352pp, ISBN 978-1-84904-046-4 

Even for those of us who have been observing the rapidly increasing Islamic militancy in Pakistan for over two decades, Stephen Tankel has produced a wealth of new details that shock and surprise. After extensive research, the author has meticulously assembled a nuanced narrative that underlines the dangers this terrorist organisation poses to the region and the world. 

But for those with a casual interest and knowledge of the subject, this book is not always easy-going with its alphabet soup of jihadi outfits that have split apart and morphed into other groups. Even for specialists, it’s hard to keep track of the many incarnations some of these terrorist organisations have undergone. Nevertheless, the effort of reading the book is amply rewarded. As far as I am aware, no other writer has succeeded in revealing the structure, goals, links and methods used by the militant Islamist terrorist group Lashkar-e-Tabia (‘the Army of the Righteous’) with the same authority and knowledge that Tankel shows here. 

The book shows how closely the Lashkar has worked with Pakistan’s army and its dreaded intelligence arm, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate. Funded and trained by military and ISI officials, Tankel reveals that all too often, these officers join the jihad after retiring from active duty. Thus, many foreigners will need to change their image of these terrorists as semi-literate holy warriors.

As the deadly Mumbai attack of November 2008 indicated, the Lashkar is capable of launching carefully planned and coordinated attacks far from its home base in Muridke, outside Lahore. Here, the organisation has a vast compound where religious and modern instruction is imparted to thousands of children, and free medical services are provided to locals who need them. Selected volunteers are then given weapons training in special camps. Clearly, both the provincial and federal governments are well aware of the activities being carried out by the Lashkar. Even though the Pakistan government has assured the USA, India and the rest of the world that it is cracking down on the group, little has been done to stamp it out. 

Pakistan’s policy of distinguishing between ‘good jihadis’ and ‘bad jihadis’ has also been closely examined by Tankel. But judging from the increasing terrorist violence aimed at the Pakistani state and people, it would appear that the military establishment has failed to protect the country from the fallout of its disastrous policy of using extremists as proxies to further its agenda in Afghanistan and Kashmir. 

For anybody interested in Islamic militancy and the danger it poses, Storming the World Stage is indispensible reading.

Irfan Husain, columnist for Dawn newspaper, Pakistan 


Food for thought about a hungry land

Catastrophe: What went wrong in Zimbabwe?
Richard Bourne, Zed Books, London/New York, 2011, 302pp, ISBN 978-1-84813-521-5

Soon, Robert Mugabe will have been in power in Zimbabwe for 32 years, roughly the average lifespan of rural women living in this ill-fated Southern African country. And still we can’t get enough of him. Even if we’ve read books like Mike Auret’s From Liberator to Dictator, Stephen Chan’s Robert Mugabe A Life of Power and Violence and Peter Godwin’s trilogy (Mukiwa, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun and Fear), or dusted down the Zanu (PF) guidebook to revolution, The Struggle for Zimbabwe, written by David Martin and Phyllis Johnson, we are still left with a vacant, flat feeling that there’s more to come – much more. 

So expect a round of applause, in Britain at least, for this latest addition to an understanding of Robert Mugabe and of his remarkable contribution to the collapse of his country’s structures in such a short period of time. 

Beginning with the conquest of Rhodesia in the 1890s, author Richard Bourne delivers a balanced, up-to-date, readable – even judicious – account of Zimbabwe’s much-troubled history. He does it chronologically, making it easy for newcomers to the world’s hungriest (and perhaps most complicated) continent to get to grips with the basics: the nature of imperialism; the reasons for the long fight against all-white rule from the early 1950s to the late 1970s; and the seven-year independence struggle that cost at least 32,000 African lives and brought much of Central and Southern Africa to a standstill. 

Mercifully, Bourne appears scornful of psycho-history and psycho-babble, and he avoids repeating the nonsense that Robert Mugabe really wants an accommodation with Whitehall and to have tea with the Queen. 

In 1980, there was great hope and Bourne explains why. And yet, a black African perspective is missing here. Just why so many African leaders hero-worship a man who has destroyed his country needs explaining. A respected Commonwealth affairs author, journalist and academic, Bourne has studied his subject well and made this an easy-to-read guide to a remarkably complicated subject. But what little there is that’s fresh and startling about the Mugabe story is buried at the back in 20 pages of notes – which one fellow author and Commonwealth devotee remarked “are more interesting than the whole book put together”. 

Trevor Grundy, a journalist formerly based in East and Southern Africa 


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