Myanmar and its peoples

Whispers of Hope: A Family Memoir of Myanmar (Penguin Random House) by Chris Mabey, reviewed by Dr Chris Timms.

11 May 2021

Professor Chris Mabey’s Whispers of Hope is at once a travelogue, a psychological history, a journey in religious faith, and a love story. His future wife, April, left post-colonial Burma with her family soon after the 1962 military coup. April and Chris met in their teens, married in their early twenties – and, in 2021, the military junta she left behind still rules Myanmar. 

The book is not focused on battles, teak forestry, and GDP. Instead, and perhaps rather boldly for a non-native, Mabey tells the story bottom-up. The book conveys the steamy forests, the diversity of largely Buddhist ethnicities, the simple family values – and the varied cultures of a people who have suffered political repression for a lifetime. Accordingly, readers expecting a fattened-up Wikipedia entry might be disappointed. 

Many other readers will feel that this lack of clutter gives the book its impressionistic lightness, enabling them to better understand Myanmar and its peoples. This comes at a price, however. Although Mabey’s highly engaging streams of sensation combine well with first-hand quotations to give the book spontaneity and ‘voice’, it’s not always obvious where and when the action and dialogue are set. 

Gradually, the narrative brings readers to the present time and the complex relationship between Myanmar’s generals, Aung San Suu Kyi and political freedom. As globalisation inexorably compels the generals to relax their grip, the nation is facing its Quo Vadis moment (or liminal space, as Mabey describes it). Can ethnic rivalries be peaceably resolved with mutual tolerance of difference – rather than ethnic cleansing? Can increased prosperity be achieved without an explosion in materialism?  

Until recent times, the obvious catalyst for successful transition appeared to be Aung San Suu Kyi. But very recent events have persuaded Mabey that Myanmar’s Whispers of Hope must come from a younger leadership (Aung San Suu Kyi is now 75) with greater skills in statecraft. 

The identity of Myanmar’s future leaders remains uncertain, but change is not. And it will be a matter of great interest for social scientists to see if Myanmar’s spiritual traditions of mindful respect can survive exposure to the transactional values of liberal economics.

-        Reviewed by Dr Chris Timms
-        Read Chris Mabey’s article Unmasking Myanmar