Published by ANU Press, the book provides the first ‘on the ground’ account of the sweeping change carried out by a reform-minded faction within the country’s long-ruling military – adjustments that commenced in 1999 with modest experiments, and which eventually led to historic elections in November 2015.
Throughout the book Wilson, who served as Australia’s ambassador to Myanmar from 2000 to 2003 and who has been a close observer of the country ever since, provides his usual high-quality insight into what for too long has been a little-known and highly misunderstood nation.
As he writes:
In 2000, Myanmar/Burma was one of the least known countries in Southeast Asia, despite its history as a long-time British colony, and its place as a scene of significant and sustained international military action during World War II.
Decades of self-imposed isolation by military-dominated governments, followed by over a decade of international sanctions, contributed not only to this lack of understanding and knowledge, but also to the prevalence of a variety of international stereotypes about the country and its people.
It was seen as a ‘backwater’, as being of little economic or cultural significance, and its people were believed to be uncomfortable with foreigners.
Myanmar/Burma was best known as a country of military dictatorship and political repression, and attempts by the international community to develop effective policies to change this situation were often presented in mainstream analyses as being either misguided or without focus. Internationally, relatively few academics thoroughly studied the nature of politics, the military, or the state in Myanmar/ Burma, and media reporting tended to be superficial and trivial.
The book certainly does more than skim the surface, providing a vivid, first-hand account of day-to-day reality in the country from someone who knows and cares for it profoundly. It is set to become a must-read for anyone wanting a deeper and a more nuanced understanding of the country’s recent history and the moves that set it down its incredible path of major political change.
Eye witness to early reform in Myanmar is available as a free download from ANU Press, or for A$35.00 as a print version. Find out more here.
James Giggacher is editor of New Mandala and associate lecturer in the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.