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FOREIGN PARTS

JOHN KEAY

THE ROAD TO MANDALAY WHERE CHINA MEETS INDIA: BURMA AND

THE NEW CROSSROADS OF ASIA



By Thant Myint-U (Faber & Faber 358pp £20)

DRIVING FROM LONDON to Calcutta in the 1960s was fairly straightforward. All you needed was a passport spattered with visas, a robust vehicle, and a green loose-leaf carnet de passage, obtainable from the AA in Leicester Square, which exempted your vehicle from import duty. The difficult bit came if you were continuing east after Calcutta. To enter the Indian state of Assam you had to obtain a permit that was rarely granted to self-drive foreigners, while to get from there into strife-torn Nagaland and Manipur required the sanction – and sometimes the firepower – of the Indian army. Then came Burma, the overlander’s ne plus ultra. The roads were said to be impassable, Rangoon didn’t recognise the AA’s carnet, and entry permits from India were unheard of. The only hope of driving down the Malay peninsula into Singapore was to ship your motor from Calcutta to Penang.

Strangely, little has changed in the last fifty years of accelerating globalisation. Negotiating India’s still troubled northeastern states, then Upper Burma’s indifferent roads and the paranoid travel restr ictions of Rangoon (now Yangon) is as problematic as ever. But it could soon be very different. Burma – southern Asia’s ‘missing link’, according to Thant Myint-U in Where China Meets India – is slated to become the transport nexus of the world’s most productive and populous region. Linking China to India, and Bangkok and Singapore to Dhaka and Calcutta, the spokes of this Burma-centred hub will turn the sweltering jungles on the eastern side of the Bay of Bengal into a palm-fringed corniche of transnational highways, high-speed rail links and supertanker terminals. A gas and oil pipeline from the Burmese coast is already weaving its way through the mountainous spine of Southeast Asia to Kunming in China’s Yunnan province. The roads and railways are mapped and costed; China, the prime mover, has both the money and the clout. Cruising the Naga hills on a six-lane ‘road to Mandalay’ may sound a bit far-fetched; but so did a rail link to Lhasa until the Chinese went and built one.

Beijing is in earnest. Its geostrategists favour a ‘twooceans policy’, one being the Pacific, the other the Indian Ocean. A presence in the latter is thought essential to protect China’s economic ascendancy from being throttled by the stoppage of oil shipments from Africa and the Middle East as a result of a hostile blockade of the sea lanes around Singapore: China’s President Hu Jintao has called it ‘the Malacca Dilemma’. Chinese access to Burma’s seaboard will also provide a handy outlet for the products of its rapidly developing Sichuan and Yunnan provinces. To service and protect the new Bay of Bengal sea lanes, a deep-water port, financed by the Chinese, has been constructed at Hambantota, a seaside village in southern Sri Lanka where Leonard Woolf served as a colonial agent in the early twentieth century. The Middle Kingdom, then a casualty of Britain’s maritime supremacy, now looks to be emulating it. Myint-U, the American-educated grandson of former UN Secretary-General U Thant, calmly assesses the likely impact of these developments on his native Burma. He delves into the past for some sparse evidence of the Irrawaddy basin having once served as a conduit of commerce and conquest and he travels extensively in southwest China, northeast India and along Burma’s own borderlands to explore the challenges facing the promoters of ‘the new crossroads of Asia’. Surprisingly he makes little of the physical obstacles: the colossal rainfall, precipitous terrain and seismic instability of the region. Nor does he seem too bothered by the environmental cost of all the new arteries and their potential in terms of mineral, timber and hydro-electric concessions. He is more concerned with the political consequences. In hills with as rich an ethnic ecology as New Guinea, he wonders whether more trade and traffic will foster integration or exacerbate alienation. By one count, northeast India alone is currently plagued by over a hundred insurgent militia groups, most of them up in arms on the grounds of disadvantaged ethnicity. Burma has a similar problem with the various Shan, Karen, Wa and Kachin ‘state armies’. Like the production of jade, opium and methamphetamines that finances their operations, the warlords and drug barons thrive in the overgrown, under-administered and uncertainly demarcated declivities along the Salween and Mekong rivers. Even China is careful to appease its ethnic minorities in Yunnan and Guangxi with ‘autonomous’ status and indulgent treatment. ‘Connectivity’ may be the buzz word in Delhi, Dhaka, Rangoon and Beijing but on the ground, says Myint-U, ‘there is already a connectivity of a different sort, of violence and criminality, which in the future may only g row’. The economic oppor tunities and the improved standards of living promised by the new infrastructure could seduce the insurgents and dissidents, as seems to be the case in authoritarian China, or they could excite them, as in democratic India.

Burma itself is the greatest enigma. In an otherwise confident and enthralling discussion, Myint-U seems uncertain whether recent developments, such as the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and the deeply flawed elections, represent an easing of the military’s dictatorial rule or a bid to constitutionalise it. Either way, he deplores the regime’s growing dependence on its

LITERARY REVIEW August 2011

10 FOREIGN PARTS

all-powerful neighbour and regrets that Beijing’s indifference to accountable government means that the new roads and railways will come without any strings attached. For this he holds the Western powers responsible. Their thirty-year embargo of trade, aid and investment, though sanctioned by Suu Kyi herself and intended to embarrass the regime, has, he argues, spectacularly misfired, turning ‘the missing link’ into a lost cause. Outlawing a regime penalises people rather than liberating them. More constructive engagement with Rangoon, like that pursued by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and latterly by India, would have been preferable. One may not agree with this; few in Egypt, for instance,

would regard Washington’s support of Mubarak as having sown the seeds for the Arab Spring. On the other hand, one can’t help agreeing that being designated the new crossroads of a Sinocentric southern Asia may not do the Burmese any favours. It is telling that the subtitle of the American edition of Where China Meets India is not ‘Burma and the New Crossroads of Asia’ but ‘Burma and the Closing of the Great Asian Frontier’. In the case of a land closed to carnet-waving overlanders for as long as anyone can remember, this can only refer to its rejection of the West’s other curiosities: human rights, generous aid packages and responsible government, for instance. To order this book for £16, see LR bookshop on page 12

DANIEL MATLIN

ACROSS 1 1 0 TH STREET HARLEM IS NOWHERE: A JOURNEY TO THE

MECCA OF BLACK AMERICA



By Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts (Granta Books 296pp £14.99)

SOON AFTER ARRIVING in Harlem in 2002, Shar if a Rhodes-Pitts overheard a conversation between two white men in one of the neighbourhood’s smart new cafés. One of the men, like Rhodes-Pitts herself, had recently moved into the area, while his friend seemed to be visiting for the first time. ‘This is fabulous,’ the visitor enthused. ‘Really, you have to do something to get the word out. There need to be more people up here!’

prospectors. Such land must not lie fallow. There needed to be more people up there. On a leaflet stuck to a lamp post on 125th Street, Rhodes-Pitts found the response of one supposed nonperson. ‘Attention New Residents of Harlem,’ it commanded. ‘Please be aware that you are contributing to the active displacement of the historic Harlem community. YES gentrification which is a pretty word for modern day colonization.’ Another notice declared that ‘10,000 Black families have been evicted from Harlem in the last ten years’ as a result of landlords cashing in on their buildings or raising rents. Piles of jumbled clothes and furniture dumped on the streets lent credence to the claim. As a Texan who had recently g raduated f rom Harvard, Rhodes-Pitts experienced her own ‘pangs of complicity’ upon moving to Harlem to research her book. She ‘asked a politically minded friend if I was a gentr ifier. He fir mly answered no – because I was bl ack and poor.’ Another fr iend ‘laughed at the archetypal nar rative of my move north and dubbed me Miss Great Migration 2002’.

For nearly half a century, Harlem was considered offlimits by white Americans, a morass of decay, violence, racial resentment and poverty. The same year that RhodesPitts arrived, I took the subway uptown f rom l ower Manhattan on my first visit to New York and was amazed to see all the other remaining white passengers in my carriage step off at 110th Street, Harlem’s southern verge. At that moment, the ‘invisible walls’ which the psychologist Kenneth B Clark once described as encircling Harlem seemed as thick as ever. Yet change was already afoot. Pushed by the spiralling cost of New York real estate, the adventuresome were beginning to extend the frontiers of white settlement northwards. The faded elegance of brownstone townhouses called out to these pioneers and

Universal Negro Improvement Association Parade, 1924

This self-awareness i s an endearing feature of her writing. Though the ‘journey’ of her subtitle evokes a genre which the critic Albert Murray used to call ghetto ‘saf ar i ’ , Rhodes-Pitts avoids the trap of presenting herself as an indige-

nous tour guide to black America. Too many writers, she observes, have moved too easily from the specificities of their own lives to reductive generalities and definitive assurances that ‘Harlem is this or Harlem is that’. Instead, Harlem is Nowhere offers a sensitive, determinedly personal meditation on the neighbourhood’s past and present and, above all, its mythology and symbolism. Searching beyond its cross-streets and avenues, Rhodes-Pitts revisits the layers of literary history that have imbued Harlem with its

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LITERARY REVIEW August 2011