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the Complete Review
the complete review - politics / history


David I. Steinberg

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To purchase Burma/Myanmar

Title: Burma/Myanmar
Author: David I. Steinberg
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2009
Length: 203 pages
Availability: Burma/Myanmar - US
Burma/Myanmar - UK
Burma/Myanmar - Canada
  • What Everyone Needs to Know

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Our Assessment:

B : informative, fairly well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Foreign Affairs . 1-2/2010 Andrew J. Nathan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Steinberg gives a pointed briefing on what ails Myanmar (also called Burma) and finds the causes mostly in history." - Andrew J. Nathan, Foreign Affairs

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       David Steinberg's Burma/Myanmar is a handy volume introducing this obscure country about which so little information is readily accessible. (Steinberg uses the appellation 'Myanmar' for the post-1988 period (when the regime changed the name of the country), 'Burma' for the time before -- and: "Burma/Myanmar is used to indicate continuity of action.")
       The approach Steinberg takes is an interesting one, as the book is largely written in question-and-answer form. The questions are generally short and fairly specific -- How did the 1974 constitution come about and what was its impact ? -- while the answers are quite expansive, usually running at least a page, sometimes several. As he notes, this leads to some repetition of facts and information, but then he assumes: "that readers will not read this book through as they would a novel". (In fact, however, Burma/Myanmar is structured (largely historically/chronologically) in a way that one can read it front to back without being particularly bothered by the points that are repeated, as there is usually some new or different context to go with them.) The structure of the book makes it a handy reference work, of particular use, one imagines, to journalists seeking specific information (i.e. answers to specific questions) and students.
       Steinberg's focus is on contemporary Myanmar, but he finds the roots of much of the present situation in past Burmese conditions, experiences, and history, and he provides a good overview of Burmese history -- as well as discussing the lingering social and religious attitudes (though he could have gone into their whole bizarre astrological preoccupation in more depth). Usefully, he examines Burma not only from an American perspective, but considers its relations with its powerful and influential neighbors (China and India, above all) as well. Helpfully, he tries to explain Burmese actions and attitudes towards these foreign powers, from the necessary cozying-up to China to the (irrational but very real) fear the current regime has of an American invasion.
       While Steinberg acknowledges that hard numbers and statistics are hard to come by, and that most statistics about the country are unreliable, enough is available to show that Myanmar is a very peculiar sort of failed state: the quality of everything from medical care to education has become abysmal; nevertheless: "There is now no crisis in macroeconomic terms". Economic policy remains misguided and haphazard, as the government pulls stunts like the overnight-demonetization of 1987 (where certain bank notes were deemed no longer legal tender, rendering them worthless), but the country is not -- overall -- anywhere near the verge of economic collapse.
       The role of the military, which now dominates all walks of life, is also presented well, with Steinberg showing that even any future changes in politics and government will be strongly influenced by those with a military background (as almost the only way to get a decent higher education is in the military), and making it clear that the military itself will retain significant influence. Much of the book is geared to looking ahead, specifically to the elections scheduled for 2010, and the timely Burma/Myanmar (completed in late 2009) will be a useful primer for anyone following the events that should unfold in the country in 2010.
       From the many minorities and their territories to the plight of Nobel-winning Aung San Suu Kyi to how the catastrophic Cyclone Nargis was handled (and why the government handled it the way they did), Steinberg covers Burmese politics and the many forces and personalities that have shaped it over the years very well. Among the interesting titbits are those about the drug trade, where Burma -- once the world's major supplier of opium and heroin -- has drastically cut back production (his statistics include: from 1975-85 some 75% of heroin in the US came from Burma; in 2007 it's less than 2% ) -- though he notes:

These encouraging statistics may well prove ephemeral, as other crops providing alternative incomes not easily cultivated or marketable in those remote areas, and a return to poppy production is likely.
       Perhaps more surprising is the flourishing trade in methamphetamines, which the largely uncontrolled Wa produce and sell in Thailand.
       For a quick and fairly thorough introduction to contemporary Myanmar, and its internal and external politics (and the consequences of current actions, both by its government and by outside forces), Burma/Myanmar provides most of what readers could want.
       Sadly, as Steinberg concludes:
     The prognosis for early socioeconomic progress in Myanmar is not sanguine, and that for politics is marginal.
       In Burma/Myanmar he shows, fairly clearly, why that is the case.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 February 2010

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Burma/Myanmar: Reviews: David I. Steinberg: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       David I. Steinberg teaches at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

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