In a New Yorker article on Burma, John Lanchester notes that “Burma … has long been preoccupied with isolation, and the desire to be cut off from the world recurs in its history.”
But Burma is not alone in one sense: it is hardly the only nation in the world that has sought to isolate itself from all outside intrusion. Korea was long known as the Hermit Kingdom, and North Korea maintains that tradition to this day. Bhutan is less militantly cloistered, but it strictly limits its contacts with the rest of the world. For many centuries, Tibet and Nepal held themselves aloof, as did a number of the kingdoms of Central Asia, and not only from Europeans, though from Europeans more intently than with close neighbors.
Indeed, dotted across Asia, from Japan and Korea to the landlocked mountain fastnesses of Afghanistan, were forbidden kingdoms. I have studied Asian history more closely than some other regions, but I wonder whether Asia is uniquely rich in hermit states. Certainly the territories of Persia and Rome, whatever the ruling state may have been at the time, have not lent themselves to such isolation. Nor has the easily traversed European peninsula, with its superabundant coastline and its many rivers flowing to every sea. About other parts of the world, I’m less certain. But I do wonder whether there is anything in common among the hermit states beyond geographical potential.