The Burmese Labyrinth by Carlos Sardiña Galache

Burmese Labyrinth by Carlos Sardiña Galache

In the book The Burmese Labyrinth: A History of the Rohingya Tragedy, journalist Carlos Sardiña Galache gives the in depth story of Rohingya issues through his first hand account of the bloody crisis and combining it with a thorough assessment on the country’s past events dated back to the ancient time. The book is available on Scribd but at limited countries only.

In Part I of the book which constitutes three main parts, it tells the transitioning period from 2011 to the beginning of 2015 elections. The writers examines the mishandling of the country after the independence in 1948 which has exacerbated the racial conflicts and political unrest throughout the rests of the years. From the interviews he conducted with the government officials, people from various ethnic groups including Kachin, Shan, Burman, Rakhine and Rohingya, the writer shares the information of these racial clashed between ethnic people and Burman. The first part mainly focus on the severe oppression received by the Rohingya people which is mainly a triangular wars among the Burmese military, Rakhine ethnic group and Rohingya people. In past, the latter two used to live in harmony but with the rise of extreme buddhists and islamophobia, these two different groups are systematically pitted against each other by the military.

Part II features a brief precolonial history and the time Burma under the British as well as the emergence of nationalism to fight against the colonialism and the road to independence. It includes the country’s struggle to build a nation after the British left. The writer then mentioned the period of battle for the democracy along with the leaders’ failed attempt to form a federal country with all the ethnic groups. It also recount the period of caretaker government which activated a long coup era by the military junta from the socialist era through 8888 uprising and until SLORC and SPDC administration.

In the last part, the writer takes us back to the end of Part 1 and continues from there. From the election that made NLD win to the years the Lady is in power, he focuses on the issues of civil wars within the country as well as the suppression of ethnic minority which later lead to the genocide and huge exodus of Rohingya people. He points out the silence and inaction of Aung Sann Su Kyi (ASSK) and NLD-led administration for these atrocities. He ends the book with his analysis on how the various leaders of the country has failed to established Burmese nationalism and the incapability of the people from various ethnic groups to work towards the democratisation of the country since they share very different interest from the time immemorial.

It is a very engrossing book which gives me a lot of thoughts. I recently read the book First, They Erased Our Name: A Rohingya Speaks written by Habiburahman (a Rohingya) together with a French journalist. I loved that book and then I want to read a divergent narrative with separate perspective on the same issue—Rohingya crisis—from a different person. So I picked up this book by Carlos Sardiña Galache which has been recommended by a few friends and some people over the internet. In a whole, this is another brilliant book that explores the political landscape of Burma along with who shape it as well as both internal and external factors that transform the country. Although the narrative is a bit rambling and verbose in some parts of the books, it is such a remarkable and elaborated examination of my country. A big salute to the writer for giving voice to the people who have been silenced for so many years.

It is in fact an amazing book that explains the extravagantly intricate paths of labyrinth that Burma has been built into from the beginning. My favourite is the first part of the book. His presentations with facts, interviews as well as a general visions of the historical, cultural, social and political forces that have formed a labyrinth are utterly satisfying. I also agree with the arguments he brings to the table as well as most of the sharp critics on the country’s past and present leaders.

The writer had admitted in the introduction that he wrote this book as a foreigner who tried his best to understand Burma. Carlos is a Spanish and when he read a book about the civil war in Spain, written by a non-Spaniard, he admitted he find some of the writings annoying. He added if any Burmese reading the book may have similar feeling like he did. Well, I definitely was annoyed by some of his generalizations.

I’m quite discontented with the second part where he discussed about Burma’s colonial time. Though his explanations are somewhat agreeable, I can see white saviour in his narrative when it comes to talk about the actions of the colonizers. With multiple and sometimes repetitive usage of ‘but’ and ‘however’ after almost every clause about the British’s manoeuvre to exploit Burma. I find some of the ideologies he presented for the inevitable routes the British has to do because of hitherto complicated situation of Burma as merely “justifying” facts. Nevertheless, his reports on the events after the country’s independence are concise and emphatic.

In Part III and conclusion of the book, I find the write’s criticism towards ASSK and NLD-led administration harsher than necessary. The main perpetrator of these chaotic situations in Burma are the military junta and its Generals yet the I’ve seen the names of these Generals only a handful of times in the entire book. However, ASSK’s name is mentioned in almost every page. I agree on the writer’s points about ASSK being rather moral than political but till the end of the book, he was incriminating all her actions for which she has very limited path to choose from the beginning of her time in the office.

Perhaps he or other people consider her to do better because she was regarded as a peace icon in the past? Because she’s more decorated in awards and medals from international organizations than the Generals? ASSK and the main figures in the pro-democracy camps are strongly criticised for not using their platform to speak out for the Rohingya. He wrote the military is primarily responsible for killing the Rohingya but ASSK and other important pro-democracy figures are as responsible as the Generals, if not more so, for failing to change the public opinion which has made the genocide acceptable to many Burmese.

What’s more infuriating is the very little amount of coverage on the situations after 1988 which is the whole reign of SLORC and SPDC. Than Shwe reigning period was covered in the last chapter of the second part with merely 19 pages where as not even 10 years of ASSK’s attempts or “failure” to save the nation was exaggerated to two third of the book. Some of his critics are quite patronising on both democratic leaders and people of Burma.

I do not idolize ASSK like certain group of people in the country. I’ve questioned some of her actions and do not agree with her ideologies sometimes. But I would rather give her the benefit of the doubt than to the thuggish Generals from the military. The writer has said in his introduction that “History is not characterized by an ineluctable fate beyond the control of its protagonists; but it does largely condition the sorts of choices available to them.” I think choices ASSK has are very minimal and she has to run the country which the Generals had established to be easy to govern for them. She also has limited moves under the constitution made by the Generals to protect themselves.

I always try to be a filter not a sponge when I read a book. There are several things one can take away from this book. The writer tried his best to showcase his opinions along with several details referencing facts. Before adding my strong opinion to this book, I thought for half day whether I myself was trying to justify for ASSK and NLD leaders for what their inaction towards Rohingya people and their failure to setup federal union in the country. I even question myself, ‘do I unconsciously idolise ASSK?’ and ‘am I trapped in her charisma like others?’ Then I reread my highlighted notes and consider the writer might be whitewashing the acts by the Generals unintentionally, too, cause the world knows how ruthless they can be. For ASSK, she’s supposed to be different from them. She’s supposed to do better. We tend to expect good kid to do better than a spoiled kid. I suppose there’s a lot of expectation weight involved when it comes to criticizing her. Even including her own countrymen.

I feel like I have embedded a little too much personal opinions on this book. Besides, these opinions are coming from a more or less privileged, middle class, Burmese (Burman), Generation-Y Guy. I would like to see it from the perspectives of people from my country with various backgrounds as well as from foreigners. And I heard there’s a Burmese translation coming up, soon.


That being said, I would also like to point out that we, Burman, tend to claim that we’re also the victim of the military dictatorship. However, our victimhood is not the same as other ethnic groups. And the Rohingya have faced the worst. I didn’t learn the history correctly and didn’t find out about the true crime of the military. I think it is time to do more on educating ourselves and less playing victim. (I don’t say this as a victim blaming or forcing the toxic positivity act. We have been injured and hurt but it is nice to help others who are in the similar situation like ours.)

If we haven’t voiced out for the ethnic groups, voice out for them now. If we haven’t known the true history of the Rohingya in the past, now is the opportunity to learn it and stand up for them. If we are going to demand solidarity from other ethnic people, it is also our responsibility to protect and defend them, as well. By word and deed.


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