Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma by Richard Cockett (review)
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Blood, Dreams and Gold: The Changing Face of Burma. By Richard Cockett. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. xvii+ 263 pp.

Blood, Dreams and Gold sets out the historical, political and cultural foundations of some of the problems that confronted Myanmar during the democratic reform process of 2011–15. The book is organized thematically. Chapter 1 traces a number of the distinctive physical and demographic features of the three cities, Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Mawlamyine (Moulmein) and Sittwe (Akyab), back to colonial immigration policies, which resulted in an influx of — mostly Indian and Chinese — foreign residents. Chapter 2 focuses on the growing feeling of marginalization among members of the majority Bamar population as a result of these colonial policies. This feeling provided the basis both for the rise of the Bamar nationalist movement and for the deteriorating and disastrous inter-ethnic relations of the late colonial period and the Second World War. Independent Burma's military regime took hostile measures against the descendants of immigrants on a large scale in the 1960s. It nationalized property and businesses owned by foreign immigrants, particularly Chinese and Indians, and adopted a variety of official discriminatory policies aimed at them.

Chapter 3, the longest in the book, takes up two themes. It first explores the historical foundations and deadly consequences of the hostile and discriminatory actions against minority ethnic groups and Muslims — particularly Rohingyas of northern Rakhine state — on the part of the Myanmar military. It also focuses on the methods [End Page 423] used by the military, in relation both to the general population and to anti-government activists, to strengthen the economic and political foundations of its rule ever since it took power in 1962.

Chapters 4 and 5 shed light on the grievances of minority ethnic nationalities, with a particular focus on Kachin, Karen and Shan. The author discusses the autonomy enjoyed by Kachin and Shan in the pre-colonial period; the British divide-and-rule policy towards Burma's diverse populations; and the Christian missionary work, particularly among Kachin and Karen, that helped create unique identities among ethnic minority groups and fostered a sense of nationalism — of unity and common bonds — that differentiated them from the Bamar majority during the colonial period. Ethnic minorities ultimately resorted to armed resistance in their quest for greater autonomy from the Bamar-dominated government in the post-independence era. Cockett shows minority peoples suffered not only during the protracted civil war that resulted but also in the context of official policies that destroyed and undermined their cultures and of the extraction of natural resources in the areas occupied by minority populations. The pattern of this exploitation meant that it benefited the Bamar ruling elite and their cronies. Chapter 5 also focuses on the scourge of illegal drugs and on the severe impact of the drug trade on the lives and aspirations of members of all of the ethnic groups living along Burma's eastern border.

In chapters 6 to 9, the author explores the pressures on the country's military rulers for reform after the major crackdown on nationwide anti-government protests in 1988. Cockett explains the generals' decision to initiate far-reaching reform by examining the parlous state of the Myanmar economy, the large-scale political repression, and the role played by opposition movements and the "third force". This latter comprised individuals "who explored an alternative to the unrelenting oppression of the military on the one hand, and the stubbornness of the NLD on the other" (p. 199). He then focuses on the challenges that Myanmar faced during the transition to democracy between 2011 and 2015, a period characterized by a relatively open and vibrant political environment and a shift in [End Page 424] Myanmar's geopolitical strategy. In chapter 10, he shows how the process of democratization and modernization is at risk of being derailed by eruptions of ethnic and religious violence, "the ghosts of Burma's past" (p. 231).

The fundamental aim of Cockett's work is to "give an accessible account of modern Burma in a single volume, blending interviews and reporting with historical and political analysis" (p. xii). The author succeeds in achieving this...


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