[NOTE: This section does not include an update about the coup in Myanmar in 2021. The complicated story continues.]

What’s in a name…?

Before we start talking about the featured nation this week, we have to decide what we should call it. Is it Burma? Is it Myanmar? Why should we choose one over the other?

Before the British colonized the land in question it was known primarily as the home of the Bamar/Burman people. “Burma” is taken from the Burmese word “Bamar,” which is a colloquial form of Myanmar, the word commonly used to refer to the Bamar people. When the British colonized in the 19th century they called the nation, being the land of the Bamar people, Burma. In 1989 the military government that came to power in a coup–we’ll meet them soon enough–officially changed English translations of many of the British-era names for cities (such as the capital at the time, Rangoon, which became Yangon), as well as the name of the country as a whole. The leadership declared the name of the country would from that day forward be “Myanmar.”

Not everyone thought that was a great idea. True, most of the new pronunciations are in fact closer to their pronunciations in Burmese than they were before, but there’s more to a nation’s name than that. Opposition groups refused to accept the name change because they didn’t recognize the government’s legitimacy at all, let alone the right to rename the country in English. Non-Bamar ethnic groups didn’t accept the name change because “Myanmar” most often referred to the Bamar, not to the country. The United Nations as a whole accepted the name change, but governments of many countries, including the U.S., didn’t. Most Southeast Asian nations, including China, did accept the change. Media outlets around the world remain split.

To be consistent, as well as to make like easier we should probably refer to the nation as either one or the other…yet life isn’t easy, and consistency is overrated. So let’s be complicated and erratic and sometimes call Burma “Myanmar” when we’re referring to it through the eyes of its ruling leaders, but call Myanmar “Burma” when discussing it from the perspective of the U.S. or human rights activists who refuse to accept the new name. Good?

Now that that’s settled, what’s the story this Myanmar/Burma nation of which we speak? Today’s Myanmar is best known internationally for being in the grip of a military junta that took of the country in a 1989 coup. The junta went by the name “State Law and Order Restoration Council.” (For a group so eager to rename its country into English, one would think they’d speak the language well enough to know the acronym of their group is the unflattering, “SLORC.”) Under SLORC, and now under the State Peace and Development
Council (SPDC), which the SLORC became in 1997, the nation’s citizens have little freedom of speech, assembly, association or the right to dissent. They have been unable to effectively vote for their leadership (recent elections have by no means been free or
fair) There’s an active secret police force and a prevailing system of citizen informants; the government readily detains citizens who speak out, or even speak their minds to foreigners. Though the international community maintains a variety of formal and informal
economic and diplomatic sanctions to put pressure on the government, so far the military leadership is giving no sign of releasing its grip.

The situation in Burma hasn’t always been so dire, though since the British colonized in the early 19th century many things haven’t been going the Bamars’ way. The British colonized Burma in 1924 when the then-independent nation was attempting to invade part of India. The British took control of northern Burma first, then eventually brought all of Burma into their Empire. The British established Rangoon as the capital and brought in Indian and Chinese workers, displacing many Burmese. A Burmese nationalist movement festered throughout the years of British rule, inspired in no small part by the perception that the British disrespected Burmese culture and the Theravada Buddhism that was at the nations’ heart. Wikipedia’s entry on Burma describes it this way:

“Much of the discontent was caused by a disrespect for Burmese culture and traditions, for example, what the British termed the Shoe Question: the colonisers’ refusal to remove their shoes upon entering Buddhist temples or other holy places. In October 1919, Eindawya Pagoda in Mandalay was the scene of violence when tempers flared after scandalised Buddhist monks attempted to physically expel a group of shoe-wearing British visitors. The leader of the monks was later sentenced to life imprisonment for attempted

During World War II Burma was on the front lines of the battle between the Allies and the Japanese. Fighting was brutal as control of the nation changed hands and then back again. The Burma Independence Army, commanded by a man named Aung San, first fought with the Japanese but ended the war fighting with the British. After the war, the British established a transitional government in Burma, with Aung San as its Deputy Chairman. In 1947, soon after signing the Pangalong Agreement that went a long way toward unifying the hill tribes into the Burmese nation, Aung San’s political rivals assassinated him and several other cabinet members.

Burma officially became independent in 1948, and for a while actually ruled itself independently and democratically. Unfortunately for the Burmese people, General Ne Win led a military coup in 1962 and took firm hold of almost every social, economic and political institution in the nation in the name of the “Burmese Way to Socialism.” Ne Win’s way to Socialism apparently was to establish one-party rule, nationalize most industry, expel 300,000 Burmese Indians and, to satisfy his believe in his version of Buddhist numerology, reissue the Burmese currency in denominations of 45 and 90 because they were divisible by his lucky number, nine.

By 1988 the Burmese people had had enough of Ne Win and staged massive pro-democracy protests with students and monks in the lead, facing violent government reaction. Again unfortunately for the Burmese people, the military leadership, many of whom were among the millions of Burmese who had lost their savings when Ne Win tinkered with the currency, had had enough of Ne Win too. They grabbed power and became SLORC. Ne Win resigned on the numerically appropriate August 8, 1988; Burmese refer to this as the “8888 Uprising.”

In 1990 SLORC allowed the Burmese–or, by that time, citizens of the newly renamed nation of Myanmar–to vote in free and fair elections. Over 80% of the seats in parliament should have gone to the National League for Democracy (NLD), the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung Sung who was by then revered as the Father of the Burmese nation, but SLORC annulled the election results, refused to step down and placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. She remained there for most of the next 21 years, even through her winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and also through renewed protests by monks in 2007, during which thousands paraded by the gates of her house to catch a glimpse of her. (The
military junta, led since 1992 by Senior General Than Shwe, brutally repressed these protests too.) In the interim, the people of Myanmar–those who have not been able to flee to Thailand or elsewhere, as tens of thousands have–have faced repression of all kinds.

On November 7, 2010, the Burmese people voted in elections that few observers believed to be truly democratic. the junta’s party won 80% of the vote. For the Burmese people, that doesn’t bode well. On the other hand, the government finally released Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest the next week. In March 2011 the Burmese military junta officially dissolved as a new “elected” president took the reigns. There was much optimism — mostly cautious optimism, because Myanmar is complicated. Those who were cautious seem to have been proven right. In 2021 a coup restored full military rule, sending the nation into turmoil yet again.

For more information:
Wikipedia on Burma (wikipedia redirects searches for “Myanmar” to this page) | The Panglong Agreement: celebrate Myanmar’s Union Dad every February 12! | More about Ne Win: BBC’s obituary | More about Senior General Than Shwe, including a hint at his lavish spending habits | More about Aung San Suu Kyi–no lavish spending habits here | Burmese refugees have it rough in Thailand | Burma VJ: A chilling, must-see documentary about life in Myanmar under the junta | What’s the difference between Myanmar’s dominant Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism?: says “P’ang” on, “In general, the goal of Theravada Buddhism is personal liberation from suffering. In general, the goal of Mahayana Buddhism is liberation of all beings from suffering.” | In 2009 the Burmese government banned the chanting of the Metta Sutta, the Buddhist discourse on loving-kindness

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