The River of Lost Footsteps A Personal History of Burma

Thant Myint-U

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

400 Pages



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For nearly two decades Western governments and a growing activist community have been frustrated in their attempts to bring about a freer and more democratic Burma through sanctions and tourist boycotts—only to see an apparent slide toward even harsher dictatorship.

Now Thant Myint-U tells the story of modern Burma, and the story of his own family. His maternal grandfather, U Thant, rose from his job as schoolmaster in a small town in the Irrawaddy Delta to become the United Nations secretary-general in the 1960s. And he is descended on his father's side from a line of courtiers who served at Burma's Court of Ava for nearly two centuries. Through their stories and those of others, he portrays Burma's rise and decline in the modern world, from the time of Portuguese pirates and renegade Mughal princes through the decades of British colonialism, the devastation of World War II, and a sixty-year civil war that continues today—the longest-running war anywhere in the world.


Praise for The River of Lost Footsteps

"[B]rilliant . . . The River of Lost Footsteps is a balanced, thorough, and serious history, but it is also a polemic, firm in its view that the current international campaign—pursuing 'this policy of isolating one of the most isolated countries in the world'—is moving in the wrong direction."—New Yorker

"Mr. Thant eloquently and mournfully recites the dismal history of the last half century and, in analyzing the country's nascent democracy movement, holds out only the slimmest of hopes for a better future. It will not come through economic and diplomatic sanctions, of that he is convinced. Trade and more engagement, especially more tourism, might let in badly needed light and air. But trying to topple the regime by isolating it would, he argues, be disastrous."—William Grimes, The New York Times

"Thant Myint-U's narrative is full of rich details and colorful characters like Bayinnaung, a 16th-century king who led a mighty elephant corps into battle, defeating neighboring Siam . . . If it could somehow be set on a different course, Thant Myint-U suggests, Burma could once again become an important player in Asia."—Joshua Kurlantzick, The Washington Monthly

"Fascinating . . . [Thant] gives us both the savory details and the cruelties of colonialism, as well as a rare for feel for palace intrigue. In the process, he suggests that isolation is in fact just what the military regime feeds on. It's in its blood."—Pico Iyer, Time

"This new book has already received a number of positive reviews, and so is most likely already on the acquisition list for many libraries, where it certainly deserves to be. Best appreciated as a popular history, Thant Myint-U's book covers Burma's distant past to the present day in an engaging style, with many intriguing characters and dramatic moments . . . The best chapters are those that describe Burma's occupation by the Japanese during WW II and the postwar drive to independence. These chapters show the benefit of the author's own long-standing research interests, and are valuable reading for anyone interested in anticolonial movements and in Japanese military activity in South Asia in WW II. The chapters covering the author's personal history are also of general interest, offering a sense of a different Burma than the one that readers may be familiar with from newspaper accounts of the country's current regime, and providing a more informed perspective on this now isolated place. Highly recommended."—S. Maxim, University of California, Berkeley, Choice

"This vivid and well-told history opens in the watershed year 1885, when the British seized Burma, abolished the monarchy and made the country part of British India. The trauma transformed Burmese life and fostered a pervasive feeling of humiliation-the author highlights an incident in Rangoon when an elderly Englishman tapped young U Thant on the shoulder with a cane to force him to give up his seat on a bench. Somehow, the British view of Burma as undisciplined morphed into the Burmese self-perception that they were unsuited to democratic government, says the author. The book's main focus is on the modern era, especially the time since World War II, which devastated Burma and led to independence and the still-ongoing civil war. Foreign interventions (by the U.S., Thailand, the Soviet Union, China) worsened the chaos. Since 1962, a military dictatorship installed by the late General Ne Win has ruled, weakening institutions and isolating Burma from the world community. Hampered by past failures and a misplaced penchant for utopian thinking, the Burmese must open up to different ideas and build new institutions if they are ever to achieve democracy, says the author. Further isolation by the West will not help. With wide interest in Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and others opposing the ruling generals, this warrants attention."—Kirkus Reviews

"Analysis of Burma has been 'singularly ahistorical,' Thant Myint-U, a senior officer at the U.N., observes. With an eye to what the past might say about Burma's present status as a country in crisis, Thant Myint-U examines the legacy of imperialism, war and invasion. Recounting in a well-crafted narrative the colorful histories of Burmese dynastic empires from ancient times to the 18th century, Thant Myint-U then focuses on how, during the 19th century, the Burmese kingdom of Ava fought and lost a series of border wars with the British East India Company, culminating in a treaty that marked the beginning of Burma's loss of independence. Considering the country's longstanding global isolation in the context of its geographic and cultural singularity, Thant Myint-U interweaves his own family's history, writing extensively about his maternal grandfather, U Thant, who rose from humble origins to become secretary-general of the U.N. in the 1960s. Profiling 20th-century Burmese leaders such as Aung San, U Nu and Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Aung San Suu Kyi, Thant Myint-U beautifully captures the complex identity of a little-understood country, concluding with a trenchant analysis of Burma's current predicament under an oppressive regime."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Fall of the Kingdom

The divinity most worshiped in Burma is precedence.
—Captain Henry Yule, Mission to the Court of Ava

Mandalay, October 1885

He was anxious for the health of his wife and their...

Read the full excerpt


  • Thant Myint-U

  • Thant Myint-U, born in 1966, was educated at Harvard and Cambridge, and was a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge from 1995 to 1999. He has also served on United Nations peacekeeping operations in Cambodia and Bosnia and was more recently the head of policy planning in the UN's Department of Political Affairs. He lives in New York City.

  • Thant Myint-U Sofia Busch
    Thant Myint-U