When nation-wide pro-democracy demonstrations were crushed by the armed forces in 1988, thrusting Myanmar (Burma) into the world’s headlines, there was a surge of public interest in the country. Aung San Suu Kyi’s 15 years under house arrest and developments like the recent Rohingya crisis have helped it remain a focus of attention.
As Matrii Aung Thwin has written, over the past 30 years numerous studies have appeared, offering ‘a variety of perspectives that reveal particular and sometimes contested perceptions of the Burmese past, present and future’. The struggle against authoritarian rule by domestic political groups and the country’s ethnic and religious minorities has been the subject of hundreds of books, research papers and scholarly articles. Close attention has been paid to Myanmar’s economy, defence policies and foreign relations. New publications have been devoted to neglected aspects of the country’s society and culture. There have also been important contributions to Myanmar studies in broader works, covering subjects such as the involvement of armed forces in politics and the development problems of ‘failed’ states.
This increased level of academic and official interest has been matched by a greater awareness of Myanmar among the populations of Western and other countries, prompting the publication of a wide range of works designed mainly for the mass market. The biggest sellers have been travel guides, albums of photographs and recipe books. The China-Burma-India theatre during the Second World War has attracted renewed interest from military historians. There has also been a flood of political tracts, most produced by exiled dissidents and foreign activist groups. Since 1988, think tanks like the International Crisis Group and organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have commissioned detailed analyses of key issues. Many publications have been posted on the Internet, but most have also been released in hard copy as books, reports and research papers.
As more and more works appeared, the need arose for a bibliography or checklist of major Myanmar-related publications, not only for scholars and officials but also for the flood of foreigners who, mainly after 2011, travelled to Myanmar as tourists, consultants, aid workers and business executives.
Responding to this need, in 2012 the Griffith Asia Institute’s Andrew Selth published a select bibliography entitled Burma (Myanmar) Since the 1988 Uprising. It listed 928 books and reports that had been produced in English, and in hard copy, since 1988. In response to popular demand a second edition was published in 2015, listing 1318 works. The aim of the bibliography remained the same, namely to provide academics, officials, students and members of the general public with an easily accessible list of works on Myanmar that had been produced over the past three decades. A third edition of this bibliography has just been released, both in hard copy and online. Reflecting the continued outpouring of publications about Myanmar in English, it lists 2133 works.
For example, the chapter on Myanmar’s politics and government has been updated, to reflect widespread interest in the country’s transition from a military dictatorship to a ‘disciplined democracy’. The advent of President Thein Sein’s reformist government in 2011 and the election of a National League for Democracy administration in 2015 prompted a fresh surge in publications about the country’s changing political, economic and social landscape. There have also been several new books written about Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now Myanmar’s de facto head of state. Also, as the country has opened up to foreign aid and investment, there has been a marked increase in the number of reports produced by governments, international organisations and consultants interested in its economic growth and social development.
The number of visitors to Myanmar rose from 310,000 in 2010 to nearly three million in 2017, prompting a host of other publications. They are a mixed bag, often reflecting what Penny Edwards has called the ‘overnight expert syndrome’ that has ‘fed a rapid demand for books on contemporary Myanmar’. One noteworthy trend has been the flood of travelogues and memoirs by tourists and temporary residents, on whom the country has clearly made a strong impression. Some of these works bring to mind Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Globe-trotter’, ‘who “does” kingdoms in days and writes books upon them in weeks’. Like most travel brochures and coffee table books, they tend to emphasise nostalgic themes. However, there are exceptions. For example, there are some insightful commentaries on contemporary Myanmar and several excellent collections of photographs help record the country’s traditional culture, natural environment and colonial-era architecture.
The large number of entries in the new edition of the bibliography has necessitated some structural changes. Instead of the 29 chapters and 44 sections found in the 2015 edition, there are now 35 chapters and 70 sections. There are separate chapters on subjects like the Second World War, Aung San Suu Kyi and the ‘Rohingya Question’, to account for the much greater number of titles now listed in those categories. Sections have been added to other chapters, such as those on Myanmar’s ethnic groups and national security, to make it easier for readers to find what they are looking for. As always, the watchwords of the project have been comprehensiveness and balance. As a select bibliography, it does not try to include every work published in any category, but an effort has been made to cover all major subject areas, and to provide a representative sample of points of view.
In addition to the checklist itself, the third edition includes a new preface, an updated foreword by eminent Myanmar-watcher David Steinberg, an introduction describing the historical development of bibliographies about Myanmar, and three appendices. One appendix is an essay surveying books, chapters and articles that can profitably be read by people unfamiliar with the country, who plan further studies, or who are going there for the first time. Another appendix is a selection of maps and nautical charts now available to Myanmar-watchers, armchair travellers and tourists. The third appendix lists feature movies and documentary films that have been made about Myanmar, or have a Myanmar-related theme.
Despite all the works on Myanmar that have been produced over the past 30 years, it is still the subject of many myths, mysteries and misconceptions. As Professor Steinberg states in his foreword, the latest edition of Andrew Selth’s bibliography will help those who wish to learn more about this fascinating country and understand it better.
Download the PDF version of Burma (Myanmar) since the 1988 uprising: A select bibliography (Third edition).