Sunday, August 1, 2010

Burma vs. Myanmar

I am posting the full text of the paper "BURMA VS. MYANMAR -- What’s in a Name?" by Lowell Dittmer in Asian Survey, Vol. 48, Issue 6, pp. 885–888. The author is from UC Berkeley and is known for his pro-US leanings, as one should be expected. But he does clarify where the divide really is.

I am just confused as to what to call Burma myself. GoI in its MEA briefings specifically uses Myanmar. Hopefully the article should provide some insights. I have no love lost for either the junta or Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD. So it is a coin toss, if it is a majority of one (with me abstaining) as I expect it will be :), we will go with Burma, as usual. But in any case, the article is below:

The State Law and Order Protection Council (SLORC) decided in 1989 (as decreed in the Adaptation of Expressions Law) that their country, heretofore referred to as Burma, was henceforth to be referred to (in English) as Myanmar, that Rangoon would be called Yangon, and so forth. The name Myanmar is taken from the literary form of the language, while the term Burma is derived from the spoken form (in Bamar, the language of the dominant ethnic group). Although the Burmese-language name of the country has included “Myanmar” since independence in 1948, some organizations, including Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), prefer the spoken form “Burma” (which was also in use during the independence movement prior to 1948) and still use it in English.

Because the political renaming came in the wake of the 1988 coup, this has given rise to a division between nominalists (those who consider names a matter of arbitrary convenience) and realists (those who think names mean something). This split fi nds the United Nations, ASEAN, China, India, and Japan among the nominalists and the United States, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom among the “realists”—metaphysical, not political—who still adhere to the old usage as a way of gainsaying the legitimacy of the ruling junta. Normally, Asian Survey’s commitment to scientific objectivity would place us in the nominalist camp, but in deference to the convictions of our contributors, we sometimes employ “Burma” and sometimes “Myanmar,” sometimes even “Myanmar/Burma” (the European Union’s somewhat cumbersome solution).

While that takes care of our title, would that the political reality underlying this lexicographical cleavage might prove equally tractable! Behind the two names are two quite different historical experiences and political trajectories, each holding a jealous claim to political loyalty. The country has been ruled for some four decades by a series of military dictatorships, initiated by Ne Win’s 1962 coup to introduce the “Burmese way to socialism” (he held power fi rst as head of a “revolutionary council,” then as head of the nominally civilian Burma Socialist Program Party [BSPP] that ruled from 1974 until Ne Win was deposed by Saw Maung’s 1988 coup). This gave rise to SLORC (1988–97), rechristened in 1997 as the “State Peace and Development Council” (SPDC). But Burma began its independent existence in 1948 as a parliamentary democracy, as the protesters whose demonstrations have periodically interrupted military hegemony (e.g., 1962, 1969–70, 1974, 1996, 2007) have never forgotten. Ironically, both of these threads trace their pedigrees to the Panglong
Conference, held on the eve of independence in February 1947. Here the country’s hero, General Aung San (head of the interim Burman government and father of Aung San Suu Kyi), together with other notables (including U Nu and Ne Win), managed to reach agreement at Panglong with the non-Burman ethnic minorities accepting full autonomy in internal administration. This historic agreement formed the basis for the ethnic
minorities to join the Burman majority in the quest for independence. But Aung San was assassinated that summer, and the new nation faced serious communist as well as ethnic insurrections, which neither parliamentary democracy nor Ne Win’s subsequent dictatorship were able to resolve. In his fascinating dissection of the roots of the ethnic strife that has continued to plague the country, Matthew Walton revisits Panglong to dissect this myth of a pristine moment of ethno-national unity, fi nding some very interesting discrepancies.

Whereas during the Cold War there was some international tolerance for “developmental dictatorship” under the one-party rule of the BSPP, the 1988 coup was accompanied by a sanguinary crackdown anticipating Tiananmen, which had a similar chilling effect on the country’s foreign relations, Stephen McCarthy relates. As ASEAN moved from Cold War polarization toward geographical ecumenicalism, it found itself challenged by the hard case of Burma (now Myanmar). Amid recurrent debate, Myanmar was finally awarded membership in 1997, along with Laos. Yet, this prize has proved disappointing to the recipient, no less than the donors. The SPDC, no more reconciled to Asian democracy than the reverse, no doubt justified its accession to ASEAN by the prospect of opening the floodgates to foreign direct investment (FDI), which was having such telling economic effect in neighboring China. But alas, Myanmar’s accession coincided with the Asian financial crisis, when FDI was moving out rather than into the region. On the other hand, the “ASEAN Way” of consensus decision making and non-interference among member states had no discernible impact on the SPDC’s harsh authoritarianism, giving rise to the collective embarrassment manifest in the 2005 fiasco over Myanmar’s chairmanship of ASEAN.

New Delhi has felt analogous pangs of political conscience about Myanmar, which shares with India a long troublesome border and colonial history. Initially, India was inclined to join the chorus of regional critics, for example awarding the Nehru Prize for International Understanding to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 1995 (after all, she had already received the Nobel Peace Prize). But with the onset of New Delhi’s grasp for geostrategic leverage (e.g., the “Look East Policy” in the 1990s), Indian priorities have shifted from human rights to border control, weapons sales, and access to Myanmar’s rich natural resources (particularly hydrocarbons), with an eye to favorable geostrategic positioning vis-à-vis China (“if we don’t do X or Y, China will”). Whether this more accommodative stance pays off for the Indians in either economic or strategic respect remains, however, quite debatable, Renaud Egreteau informs us.

With the largest area in mainland Southeast Asia, with rich natural resources and a well-educated populace of manageable size (estimated at 50 million, but no offi cial census since 1983), Burma’s economy, relegated by the U.N. in 1988 to the world’s “least developed,” has failed to take off.

Yet, according to Sean Turnell, this unhappy paradox is on the verge of dramatic change. Inspired by the spike in world commodity prices over the past decade, the SPDC resolved to replace the export of illegal drugs with fossil fuels as their country’s leading foreign exchange earner (Burma remains the world’s second-leading source of opium after Afghanistan, although the manufacture of methamphetamines is the new growth industry). Capitalizing on China’s and India’s rapid GDP growth and competing drives for energy, Burma has indeed reaped impressive export gains, enjoyed
predominantly by its military-industrial complex (the poverty rate remains around 23%). That such a narrow focus on extractive industry risks incurring the “Dutch disease”—an overvalued currency, governmental corruption, and capital starvation of other, more labor- and technology-intensive industries—does not seem of immediate concern to Turnell’s “insatiable state.”

This lack of concern may be attributed not merely to authoritarian callousness but to a rational assessment of the country’s economic opportunities under the restricted economic horizon of trade sanctions imposed since the 1988 massacre and subsequent cancellation of the 1990 election, analyzed comprehensively in Jalal Alamgir’s article on foreign trade and with specifi c regard to the impact on the garment industry in Toshihiro Kudo’s essay. These sanctions, imposed predominantly by the West under U.S. initiative for the past two decades (and reinforced in 1997), are contingent upon the SPDC’s recognition of the political validity of the 1990 election, which they lost decisively to the NLD—a suicidal condition the SPDC is highly unlikely to fulfi ll. Gas and oil extraction have been relatively unaffected by the sanctions, which China and India (energy importers), along with Russia and Japan (purveyors of oil extraction and pipeline construction equipment) have all chosen to ignore. Although the economy has incurred some damage from the sanctions, it has not been (nor is it likely to be) suffi cient to force the junta to its knees. Nor will sanctions be universalized by the U.N., given China’s and Russia’s Security Council veto power (demonstrated in January 2007). The damage has been inflicted mainly on the labor-intensive garment industry and on the private sector, pushing the state toward greater reliance on gas exports and on investment in its apparatus of control.

The men behind the SPDC, a topic to which little serious attention has hitherto been devoted, are carefully analyzed in Win Min’s chapter. The tatmadaw (Burmese military) sees itself as the patriotic savior of national unity against the fi ssiparous dissension of various national minorities (the Karens, Shan, et al.). It must be said that “splittist” tendencies have indeed been mitigated somewhat by the junta’s counterinsurgency operations and even more by its conclusion of a series of armistice agreements—17 armed groups have reached truce since 1988, although the Karen rebellion resumed in 2006. Yet, human rights violations such as extrajudicial killings, rape, forced labor, and forced relocation continue in the ethnic minority areas, especially Eastern Burma. Nor have living conditions been alleviated by economic growth: even after the abandonment of “Burmese socialism” in 1988, military stewardship of the economy has proved consistently inept. With the purge of Khin Nyunt and his “intelligence faction” in October 2004 and the move to a remote new capital it calls Naypyidaw in 2005, the Than Shwe leadership seems to have systematically pruned all alternative options to its own increasingly isolated autocracy.

Yet, amid the ruins of the 200-m.p.h. Cyclone Nargis that had just inflicted some 133,000 casualties on the Irrawaddy Delta region, the SPDC proceeded on May 10, 2008, to hold a national referendum on the draft constitution that the National Convention finally produced after some 16 years, supposedly a vital step in Khin Nyunt’s “road map” toward general elections to be held in 2010. Could this be part of the “pacted transition” prescribed by Ian Holliday in his conspectus on Myanmar’s
democratic prospects? Conceivably, but the reservation of 25% of all parliamentary seats to active military offi cers and a future executive open to military takeover during (self-defined) national emergencies are not too confidence-building.



At August 1, 2010 at 4:01 PM , Blogger Sid Gau said...

Stan saar: Proceed as per your heart :-))) And why cannot we use both Burma and Myanmar, eh? Don't get caught up with the necessity of using just one. Hailing from a democratic country we cherish democracy and hope Burma finds democracy in its own way.

Pranab Mukherjee said it well in 2006 "We are a democracy and we would like democracy to flourish everywhere. But we cannot export our ideologies".

It is humane to expect Burmese people to prosper and flourish. Hope they get the rulers according to their wishes and whims :-)

At August 1, 2010 at 4:06 PM , Blogger Sid Gau said...

I remember someone blasting me, @ BRF, for using the term Burma. He thought I was playing into Western hands or something.....I did not know why he was so upset until I read several articles on the terminology use - Burma vs Myanmar.

At August 1, 2010 at 4:17 PM , Blogger Pax-Indica said...

At the end of the day, as long as we dont end up blindly rubber-stamping the Burmese refugees in Delhi, and picking needless fights with the junta on behalf of the west, Burma or Myanmar or Suvarnabhumi -- anything is fine. Oh btw, there is a fight between the Thais and the Burmese on who should be called Suvarnabhumi --- all in the game. I will post some stuff on the Panglong pact when I get the time.

At August 1, 2010 at 4:21 PM , Blogger Pax-Indica said...

Read somewhere that Maung Aye is supposed to be pro-India and anti-China, but he is old. Prince Charles redux :). Myint Swe is pro-China to the hilt. Have no clue about Thura Shwe Mann. We need to map the second tier of the junta and see what grease can be applied, if any. Who knew Baburam Bhattarai was more pro-India than pro-china? Could cleave the maoists by ripping it along the BB axis. One stone, two mangoes.

At August 1, 2010 at 8:02 PM , Blogger Sid Gau said...

The Thais are wary of the Chinese. A lot of countries in S.E Asia are, but they need Chinese money for their own development. India is forced to give out grants in competition.

At August 3, 2010 at 8:33 PM , Anonymous Al said...

The recent episode of the Thai unrest with the central actors being a set of masked terrorists who obviously had military training -- the claim was that these were ex thai Army guys, but they denied it, and I think these could have been foreign elements. Still digging about this.


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