Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Little Lecture About Burma That Will Clear Everything Up

Well, hardly. It won't do a thing for the appalling degradation of a rather remarkable nation and culture that's been happening for many a decade now. On the other hand, it could improve western perception of 'the Albania of Asia'. That epithet, by the way, isn't meant to degrade; it merely implies an unknown or underknown subject, in this case, Burma.

When I visited Burma in 1986, it was the 100th anniversary (decidedly NOT celebrated), of the British conquest of Upper Burma. King Thibaw in Mandalay had been deposed, and all of Burma now came under British control. I remember dining in a restaurant in downtown Rangoon and sharing main courses and rice with a fellow American. He was sincere in his admiration for things Burmese, but his nervousness was palpable. 'This place is gonna blow up any minute now,' he said. At the time, I thought I knew what he meant, but I wasn't exactly sure. Something was in the air - or under it. He turned out to be right, but it took about two years to happen. In 1988, all hell broke loose, and then things went back underground. Until, basically, a few weeks ago.

I'm not taking on the whole issue here - that is, the latest unrest in this most unique of countries. But the name game being played out in the western media needs a tad bit of corrective attention if basic understanding of Burma is going to get anywhere, here in the west.

Which name to pick in referring to Burma? Despite being officially unrecognized in the US and the UK, American media seems to prefer 'Myanmar', the name chosen by the ruling junta as an act of defiance to world opinion. Why is this? Apparently, the name 'Burma' is linked to the general notion that it is a product of that country's colonial past. Thus, to be politically correct, the media choose the supposedly 'real' name for Burma: Myanmar, the 'native' name (apparently), the name for a people who threw off the yoke of imperialism and now live in the sunlight of freedom. A name specifically chosen by a corrupt, paranoid and utterly ruthless group of self-serving, not to mention bizarre, military freaks who control their Buddhist subjects by decidedly non-Buddhist methods. That reason alone is sufficient not to honor this spelling preference.

Other Burmese names have also been altered when rendered into Roman script: Irrawaddy, Moulmein, Prome, Rangoon, Pagan, and many others. I won't even bother to show their preposterous 'corrected' versions, spellings that even National Geographic has sucked up to (while retaining some of the previous spellings in parentheses). However, Myanmar as a spelling and a term indeed has legitimacy, as Burma expert David Steinberg has pointed out, but the decision to name the country that was hardly a people's choice.

Ironically, when all is said and done, 'Burma' and 'Myanmar' are pronounced, if you are Burmese, almost exactly the same. The 'm' and 'b' enunciation is subtle, as is the 'r'. In any case, Burma's name in its variations is merely a Romanization and an Anglicizing of the Burmese language and script. It is extracted from one of the world's more cheerful and even playful-looking scripts. Old Burmese hands affectionately say it looks like 'eggnog-eggnog', with its ancient but progressively-graphic lines of interlocked and connected circles. In a more abstract sense, even a chemical formula or calculus problem comes to mind. Further, the junta-official Romanized spelling of 'Myanmar' is 'Myanma'. Say it fast, with imagined subtleties that you think a Burmese speaker might include . . .

Also, I'm awfully darn sick of hearing, hither and yon, that there's no oil or 'anything we want' in Burma, so there's no reason why the US should invade, like we did in Iraq, in order to 'bring democracy' and set the inhabitants free. There IS oil in Burma. In the UK there is an oil company called Burmah (even the Brits streamlined their 19th century spelling to the one we know today), and while Burmah is not particularly associated with Burma any more, Burmese oil is still tapped and is still considerable in its deposits. Vast forest reserves, which are only now really starting to be decimated, make Burma the next grab-zone after Indonesia has been exhausted. Considerable natural gas and mineral deposits also lie within Burmese borders. During the British era, one district up-country was called Ruby Mines. Burmese gems are still a big deal. Also, Burma used to be Asia's largest rice exporter, so this is not a country without self-sufficient potential. It's just that, certainly in a neocon frame of mind, it's potential is not worth fighting over, like Angola, or any number of disadvantaged countries. Burma is also not particularly strategic in US interests. Why spill US blood over it? Like Afghanistan (which IS strategic to US interests), Burma is a major producer of illicit drugs, particularly opium. Remember the Golden Triangle? Most of it is in the Shan States of Burma, a zone similar to the untamed Tribal Areas of the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. There are still ganglords who are running the show who escaped over the hump from China in '49, old Nationalists from the defeated Kuomintang, who have prospered in their fiefdoms of absolute feudal control of these outaback locales. Like Darfur, the US can instantly get sluggish when it doesn't have supersalesmen like Richard Perle or Paul Wolfowitz to sell a war that interests only them and their corporate superiors.

Maybe I am taking on the whole issue here . . .

The thing is, Burma as a resource country has already been 'claimed' by its surrounding regional powers - mostly China, while Iraq, run by uppity Saddam, who didn't stay bought, with far, far, more oil deposits than puny Burma, was determined by US neocons as up for grabs, and must be claimed before anybody else, whether Iran or China or Russia got grabby.

I also find the 'effort' put into the usage of 'Myanmar' to be quite condescending, even a vestage of colonialism. Perhaps the sentiment is correct: it's 'Thailand' now, not 'Siam'; it's 'Iran' now, not 'Persia'. Nevertheless, it's still 'India' to us, though 'Bharat' is the official name, and 'Hindustan' is used in widespread fashion. Plus, we say 'China' and not 'Chung Kuo', and perhaps the most significant example of western preference: 'Japan' instead of 'Nippon'.

So, unless media mouths are ready to start saying 'Wien' for Vienna, 'Roma' for Rome, 'Sankt Peterburg' for St Petersburg, 'Ciudad Mexico' (with proper pronunciation) for you know what, let's drop the 'Myanmar' preference, and note that name secondarily, and make it clear as to why. Some already have, as they have slowly discovered the truth behind this most flimsy reason to honor a totalitarian government's international gesture.

One final example of the looniness of Burma's military sociopaths. Back in the 70s or thereabouts, Burma, like most formerly British possessions, drove on the left. Out of the blue, an edict came down that all vehicular traffic in the nation would, from the next day forward, keep to the right side of the street. The deed was done, and without question. Now admittedly, Sweden did the same thing, and without one traffic mishap, by the way. But their reasons for doing it were basically pragmatic: to join the rest of continental Europe, and also to sell Volvos and Saabs to growing left-hand drive markets. In Burma, the joke went around that Ne Win, who led the country at the time, was perceived as moving a little too far to the left in his thinking. So, what to do? Make a corrective statement! Move traffic to the right! Statement made. Control established.

Many a politician is wont to say today that to do something, it should be done because it's morally right. Well, it's morally right to call Burma 'Burma'. And the thing is, it really is. One of Buddhism's chief tenets is right action. For those who are repressed in Burma, it still is.

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