The problem with Myanmar is people know so little they still call it Burma


by Kulvinder
26th September, 2007 at 2:42 pm    

The specialist blogs and commentators aside anyone who has written or reported on the ongoing pro-democracy struggle is essentially saying little more than theres an ongoing struggle for democracy.

Myanmar is such a hazy country in our minds that when asked we can’t even recall the name of its leader. We know theres a military Junta, we know theres a woman called Aung San Suu Kyi and thats about it. Whilst I support the right to self-determination of any people I honestly don’t know what to say about Myanmar other than I wish the people can live as they choose. Should I applaud the red robed monks in the street or question whether they have any alternative theocratic intentions?. Aung San Suu Kyi may be a symbol for democracy but can any of us claim to know what her philosophical ideas actually are? Unlike the North Koreans and their enigmatic leader who may claim to shun the outside world but flirt with it around a nuclear table the leaders of Myanmar are so introspective as to be invisible.

Commenting intelligently about the fast moving developments of country whose name most people don’t even know is difficult. George Bush and Gordon Brown have probably realised the political capital that can be gained from supporting freedom in this far off nation, but its really little more than political opportunism. As far as we can tell Myanmar doesn’t have any significant deposists of crude oil so we aren’t that interested in them. The vast majority of the people aren’t followers of one of the ‘Abrahamic religions’ so aren’t tied into any other political struggle.

What more can we say about Myanmar other than we hope its people find what they’re looking for?

Sunny adds: Clashes between the police and monks have now intensified.
BBC Online has an article on using Burma or Myanmar. Interestingly, using ‘Burma’ is akin to taking a particular political position, which is fine for us but may not the BBC…

There’s also a Facebook group (40k members and rising) here.


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  1. Kulvinder — on 26th September, 2007 at 2:46 pm  

    Isn’t it fun when you publish something then find out that the basis on which you wrote the article is itself in question?.

    I blame my former flatmate. I never liked her anyway. Still it shows we don’t even know what to call ‘that country’.

  2. Jagdeep — on 26th September, 2007 at 2:55 pm  

    My great grandfather worked as a carpenter in Burma for a few years back in the 1920s or ’30′s. I hope everything works out well without violence.

    But we should be grateful about one thing — at least Harry’s Place isn’t advocating bombing the Buddhists to liberate them, although who knows what Oliver Kamm will be saying on the subject soon.

  3. justforfun — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:00 pm  

    Never heard of Burmah Oil?

    As you say What more can we say about Myanmar other than we hope its people find what they’re looking for? – I wish them well and success.

    What is the Indian Govt is doing giving any support to Burmah’s military – probably kick backs on the arms deals, as their espoused reason of needing the juntas help in suppressing insurgents in the North East makes no sense. Shame on the Indian Governement for its actions but it needs to rethink its ideas quick.

    What are the odds that Tibet will follow suit with further non-violent resistance – as the window before the genocide games in Beijing in 2008 is slowly closing, because after 2008 the gloves will come off the PLA.

    Justforfun.

  4. a — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:00 pm  

    The problem with people writing blog posts about Burma is that they don’t bother finding out anything about if before writing.

    There’s been a long running campaign in the UK about Burma and there is a lot of information available about it. Lobbying for economic boycotts has gone on for years and has been fairly successful in preventing UK investment.

    Even a cursory search on the internet would show you that Burma has significant natural resources among which are oil and gas.

  5. Kismet Hardy — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:00 pm  

    Just as I was beginning to consider throwing my mobile phone away

    It was heartening to see the reason the protestors might not get pulversised by the army like they did last time is because they’re rallying support worlwide via mobile phone images

    Nice

  6. Kesara — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:01 pm  

    Good show for putting the issue up. I found this article fairly illuminating (re: the role of the monks in the current and former protests):
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/7014173.stm

  7. Leon — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:02 pm  

    What more can we say? How about we start talking about our complicity in what goes on over there?

  8. Bartholomew — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:04 pm  

    I was under the impression that Aung San Suu Kyi was opposed to the “Myanmar” re-naming. I see that Wikipedia hints that she has changed her mind, but there’s no source given. Without contrary evidence, I’m sticking with “Burma”.

  9. bananabrain — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:09 pm  

    gosh, leon, is there anything bad that goes on in the world that we aren’t complicit in? by those lights, we here in the UK should never, ever, under any circumstances, act on anything and should properly be sitting at home with our hands on the table where everyone can see them.

    and supposing we are complicit in all this stuff, what, precisely, do you propose we do about it? blog?

    b’shalom

    bananabrain

  10. Bartholomew — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:12 pm  

    Justforfun mentioned India – might be worth also keeping an eye on Thailand. Certainly Thaksin Shinawatra came under criticism for his Burma links, don’t know about the new Thai regime.

    (Thaksin now owns Manchester City. Imagine – a very dodgy foreign millionaire owning a UK football team! Are there any other examples of this?)

  11. Kulvinder — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:13 pm  

    The problem with people writing blog posts about Burma is that they don’t bother finding out anything about if before writing.

    All my information came from a Kachin girl.

  12. Kulvinder — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:17 pm  

    nb the UN apparently recognises the name Myanmar; which would make sense.

    You may not think the government is representative of the people but that doesn’t stop it being the recognised government and hence choosing the name.

  13. Sunny — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:18 pm  

    To be yhonest I think the Indian govt is more complicit in this than the west. The Indian govt itself doesn’t have the balls to say anything in its neighbourhood.

    Incidentally, Avaaz.org is running a campaign to support the monks. But from what I’ve read, they don’t want to overthrow the regime, only to bring down the price of foodstuff. So to be honest I don’t this will go anywhere…

  14. Sunny — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:21 pm  

    The other thing is, I’m not entirely sure that investing in Burma is a bad idea. A military dictatorship can more easily keep under control a poor population which can barely keep alive.. than a richer population that has jobs and now want more freedom. It isn’t a concidence that as countries go richer, their people demand more freedoms.

  15. Kismet Hardy — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:22 pm  

    I hear America’s imposing further sanctions. That should ease the suffering of the common man

  16. a — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:26 pm  

    Almost all opposition groups, inside and outside the country, favour Burma as a name. Given that they are representative of the elected government of the country rather than the vile kleptocrats who have usurped power from them it seems only reasonable to follow their lead.

  17. a — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:29 pm  

    The case for sanctions (from the UK Burma campaign)

  18. Bartholomew — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:29 pm  

    You may not think the government is representative of the people but that doesn’t stop it being the recognised government and hence choosing the name

    Yes, but calling it Burma annoys them and does no harm (Same with Col Gaddafi, who gets in a huff if you don’t write him as “Qadafi”). But more seriously, whomever the UN recognises, with Suu Kyi we have an alternative legitimate leadership who ought to be given preference.

  19. a — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:39 pm  

    Sunny – Burma is jointly rated with Somalia as the most corrupt country on earth. No money from inward investment is liable to substantively enrich the population but rather line the pockets of the regime and increase military spending and hence internal repression.

  20. Elaine — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:43 pm  

    Thanks for starting a thread.
    It is worth visiting the Burma Campaign site website -http://www.burmacampaign.org.uk. This is a long-established, hard-working, serious organisation.
    They offer a lot of detailed historical information; there are lists of ‘dirty’ and ‘clean’ companies = which means that you can choose (or not) to write/phone/email and/or boycott the dirty ones. What makes the issue of tourism and teak imports (major UK links) so pertinent is the very direct link these activities have with the military — whether through ownership or the use of forced labour…and that is why the Burmese opposition supports such sanctions. There are also links to an e-petition to the UK government, a letter to the EU and notices of their regular demonstration.

    Alongside India(deserves a post in itself) and China, French and Russian links should be noted: eg. the French Total oil company operates there (ummm…I wonder if that was a factor in shaping the very limited EU sanctions), and Russia is involved in a nuclear energy project.

    I will keep using Burma because that is what almost all Burmese human rights or democracy activists prefer.

    When issues like this arise, my first port of call for information tends to be the human rights groups/campaigns. The good ones provide details, citations and links so that you can double-check information.

  21. Leon — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:48 pm  

    Excellent post Elaine.

  22. Kismet Hardy — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:55 pm  

    A little story you might find heartening

    Few years back, a friend of mine, James – a beer swigging rugger bugger that was great to talk tits and arse to – did something quite unexpected. He woke up one day, went to Burma, sang peace songs and got locked up for 17 years

    After intenational pressure, he got released and wrote this book

    It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Heart-Must-Break-Burma-Democracy/dp/0099426943

  23. Leon — on 26th September, 2007 at 3:59 pm  

    Cheers for that Kismet, I remember him…just been speaking with a friend of mine who left the country after the 1988 protests etc. She might be interested in writing a little something for us…

  24. Sunny — on 26th September, 2007 at 4:19 pm  

    That’s quite persuasive a… thanks for the link.

  25. a — on 26th September, 2007 at 4:31 pm  

    my pleasure.

  26. Leon — on 26th September, 2007 at 4:32 pm  

    Interesting exchange here about what constitutes investment:

    From the FO:

    “The Burmese authorities claim that the UK is the second largest investor in Burma. These economic figures, like most of data produced by the regime, are bogus and misleading. We believe the figure they quote for the UK is cumulative, and includes planned investments dating back many decades by companies such as Premier Oil and British American Tobacco who have since withdrawn under UK Government pressure. It also includes investments that were agreed but which never occurred.”

    From The Burma Campaign:

    “The £1.2bn estimate of UK investment, which ranked it as the 2nd largest investor in Burma, is a cumulative total from 1988 to approximately 2004.

    Given the significant investments made directly by companies such as Premier Oil, and by British subsidiary offices of foreign companies such as Total Oil, the figures do seem to be reasonable estimates. British American Tobacco channelled its investment via a subsidiary in Singapore, so this figure probably does not include their investment.

    To argue that there is no need for a ban because British companies are not investing is misleading. Companies from all over the world have used subsidiaries in British dependent territories to invest in Burma, including France’s Total Oil, Unocal (now Chevron) of the USA, and ex-Thai Premier Thaksin’s Shincorp.

    The Foreign Office repeatedly assured the Burma Campaign UK that if there was any evidence that such investment was continuing, then they would take action. In January and March this year two Singaporean companies were reported to have used British Virgin Island subsidiaries to invest in Burma. There was no response from the British government.

    Britain’s ranking as the second largest investor in Burma is due in part because for years it has allowed foreign companies to use British territory to facilitate investment. The government’s refusal to close this loophole is inexplicable.”

  27. Leon — on 26th September, 2007 at 4:52 pm  

    And there’s more…

    Burma bloggers keep one step ahead of junta

    Burmese security forces killed some 3,000 anti-government protesters in 1988 but prompted barely a peep from the outside world.

    Today, the junta again faces mass protests, led by the country’s monks, but this time the world is watching.

    Besides the coverage of the “old media” – Reuters, Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press – hundreds of Burmese bloggers are making invaluable contributions.

    Both old and new media are ensuring that one of the world’s most reclusive regimes is being scrutinised as security forces clash with demonstrators, in the junta’s biggest challenge since the 1988 uprising.

    Although Burma has some of the most draconian internet controls in the world bloggers are managing to evade the censors to post images and provide information to the anxious world.

    In today’s coverage, the first reports of fatalities came from the Irrawaddy website. Others providing up-to-the-minute coverage include Zin Media and Mizzima News.

    Opposition activists are even using Facebook, the social networking site, to air news and mobilise support. More…

  28. Don — on 26th September, 2007 at 5:08 pm  

    It may be hubris, but I suspect that the demonstrators will find more useful and worthwhile support from the internet community than from governments.

    Unfortunately, the current regime will almost certainly do absolutely anything to retain their grip.

    And I shall continue to call it Burma until a legitimate government ratifies the change.

  29. Leon — on 26th September, 2007 at 5:20 pm  

    …I suspect that the demonstrators will find more useful and worthwhile support from the Internet community than from governments.

    Maybe.

  30. Don — on 26th September, 2007 at 5:33 pm  

    Did anyone catch the Newsnight piece on corruption in Burma? it featured the wedding of a general’s daughter. Among her wedding presents was an item of jewellery worth three times the nation’s health budget.

    One present, for one daughter of one general.

  31. Nyrone — on 26th September, 2007 at 5:52 pm  

    I agree that people don’t know a whole lot, although there are some fascinating documentaries.
    Here are about 12 of them:

    http://uk.youtube.com/profile_videos?user=journeymanpictures&search_query=burma

    I recommend the ones: Feisty Flower (Interviews with Aung San Suu Kyi) Inside the secret City (about the capital, Naypidaw), and Tobacco Wars (about Kenneth Clarke’s dodgy investments in Burma)

  32. Elaine — on 26th September, 2007 at 8:05 pm  

    Would you please put the link to The Burma Campaign as an update to the article.
    http://www.burmacampaign.org.uk

    Whether people agree with them or not, it provides very good material; with the e-petition and letter ‘actions’ it offers clear routes for individuals to express their concerns.

  33. Letters From A Tory — on 27th September, 2007 at 9:18 am  

    “Political opportunism” is a very appropriate phrase, as no Western leader genuinely wants to get involved in this but has to be SEEN to want to get involved.

    http://lettersfromatory.wordpress.com/2007/09/27/style-over-substance-mr-brown/

  34. Leon — on 27th September, 2007 at 10:20 am  

    Yep well said and good post on your blog too.

  35. Edsa — on 27th September, 2007 at 11:36 am  

    PM Brown may act all sanctimonious now but does he recall the British record in 19th century Burma? Britian first invaded Burma in 1824 and then again in 1852, demanding £1000 compensation for an imagined slight to two British sea captains. When the Burmese demured, the Brits seized the royal yacht and effectively overthrew the monarchy. They shelled Burmese forts killing hundreds and imposed a blockade. Lord Dalhousie, governor of India, raised the compensation demand to £100,000 and when this was refused, the British declared war, launched a massacre and annexed the country.
    Cobden in his document “The origins of the Burmese War” condemned the British acts for a “wanton disregard of all justice and decency.”

  36. brachyury — on 27th September, 2007 at 5:32 pm  

    Burma has very large oil reserves.. which it supplies mostly to India and China.

  37. ad — on 27th September, 2007 at 6:31 pm  

    Edsa may act all sanctimonious now but does he recall the Burmese record in 18th century Thailand? Burma first invaded Thailand in 1756, and besieged its capital in 1760, killing thousands…

    I don’t see why dragging the eighteenth century into this is any more absurd than dragging the nineteenth century into it.

  38. Kulvinder — on 27th September, 2007 at 6:59 pm  

    Burma has very large oil reserves.. which it supplies mostly to India and China.

    Apparently their oil reserves are ‘only’ around the 3.2 billion barrel mark, they can’t even satisfy their own national demand; to put that in context India – hardly known for its oil industry – has 5.8 billion barrels.

  39. Anna — on 27th September, 2007 at 7:08 pm  

    Myanmar is such a hazy country in our minds that when asked we can’t even recall the name of its leader. We know theres a military Junta, we know theres a woman called Aung San Suu Kyi and thats about it. Whilst I support the right to self-determination of any people I honestly don’t know what to say about Myanmar other than I wish the people can live as they choose.

    Uhh, speak for yourself, and use “I” rather than “we”. When I did my undergraduate in Canada, Aung San Ruu Kyi was required reading for students studying human rights, and she is fairly widely read. The protests and boycotts against Burma/Myanmar were huge in Canada in the early/mid ’90s. I don’t understand the idea of posting a blog piece that says “I am commenting on this issue to say that I don’t really understand this issue and that because I, Mr Smart-Man-Who-Follows-Politics don’t understand it, I’m going to assume that you don’t either.” Why not just leave the blog piece to someone who is informed or go do some research?

  40. Kulvinder — on 27th September, 2007 at 7:49 pm  

    I’d try to explain how this article came to be, but you bore me.

  41. Nyrone — on 27th September, 2007 at 8:09 pm  

    That was a bit harsh Anna.
    He may just be talking about the mainstream collective viewpoint as it presently stands. It’s good that you know about the issue, but a lot of people simply don’t…and I think the overall intention of the article is an honest one, pushing us to re-examine what we really know about the country and what lead us to the current political climax.

    Even now, reading a few of the comments on Burma Videos on Youtube, I can see individuals that have written stuff like “Let’s do it! Let’s free Burma!” and I’m not sure they understand anything about the deep-rooted tension and complexities inside the country…I guess my point is that I don’t just read blogs for the most knowledgeable facts, but also for the unique individual viewpoints and how questions are posed on here too…It’s a conversational debate, not a lecture.

  42. Anna — on 27th September, 2007 at 8:56 pm  

    I agree that there is something very troubling about people mobilizing around an issue because of slogans and not information. However, this piece assumes that everyone is equally uninformed, and I’m not trying to say “well I’m not!” I’m trying to say that there has been an awful lot of activism on this issue for the past 20 years, both in Canada and the UK (I only know these two examples as I have not lived elsewhere), and so when Kulvinder asks, ‘Aung San Suu Kyi may be a symbol for democracy but can any of us claim to know what her philosophical ideas actually are?’ the answer is, ‘for many, yes.’ And of course it’s important to then try and educate ourselves and others if we/they don’t know enough about the issue, but I really, really don’t see this piece as advocating that–I see it as saying, “well I don’t know anything, so I assume other people don’t either, so let’s all give up and just hope for the best.” I’m really not ok with people being complacent about their ignorance.

    But thanks for the comment, Nyrone. Kulvinder, as a long-time reader of this blog I find it really disappointing that you’d respond to reasonable criticism in such a childish way, and this is the kind of shitty not-even-rhetoric that keeps people from taking blogs seriously.

  43. Kulvinder — on 27th September, 2007 at 9:01 pm  

    ha!

  44. Sunny — on 27th September, 2007 at 10:11 pm  

    ha!

    Yeah, alright son. You already got done over the name, stop digging that hole. Anna has a point.

  45. Kulvinder — on 27th September, 2007 at 11:00 pm  

    Then perhaps she should read the blog more carefully to understand how this article came about.

  46. Leon — on 27th September, 2007 at 11:10 pm  

    Anna, I was considering writing something but not having enough time to do the research (as I know a bit but not as much as someone who’s been directly involved in activism with this) I thought it’d be wiser to not.

    I must admit when I read Kulvinder’s piece I thought ‘hang on a sec, you may not know much but I know a bit and known plenty that know more!’ (including a close friend from the country, who with her family, escaped there after the last major crackdown in the late 80s).

    Anyway my rambling aside, I mean yes I see your point and want to add, please stick around. The more diverse and informed opinion on here the better.

  47. Kulvinder — on 27th September, 2007 at 11:26 pm  

    *sigh* fine.

    I consider myself important enough for the majestic plural. Reading comments elsewhere led me to believe an article was desired. Noone else did anything; so i thought of a novel way to write and start a discussion about something i didn’t know much about without banally parroting the work of other blogs.

    As a rule of thumb i don’t ever take into consideration the knowledge of anyone who’ll read what i write. Good for you if you know more than me about a subject, but i’m hardly likely to respond well to someone asking why their experience wasn’t foremost in my thoughts whilst writing.

  48. douglas clark — on 27th September, 2007 at 11:29 pm  

    Anna,

    Just to agree with Leon, really. You have knowledge of this situation that I most certainly do not. Sharing is good. So, please, stick around.

  49. inders — on 28th September, 2007 at 2:33 am  

    It has come to this. The liberals can hardly bring themselves to support a liberal movement in a developing country on the grounds that ‘the west’ also supports it.

  50. Sunny — on 28th September, 2007 at 2:38 am  

    The liberals can hardly bring themselves to support a liberal movement in a developing country on the grounds that ‘the west’ also supports it.

    Which liberals? I didn’t blog about it only because I had so much other stuff to push through. I’m on the Facebook group dammit! :P

  51. inders — on 28th September, 2007 at 2:49 am  

    Not all liberals sunny. Just read some of the comments above. Support for the Burmese people is being dismissed as a P.R. exercise by the UK/US governments. If the British and American standpoints are PR exercises then what are the Russian and Chinese standpoints representative of ?

  52. Sunny — on 28th September, 2007 at 3:45 am  
  53. Kulvinder — on 28th September, 2007 at 9:17 am  

    Support for the Burmese people is being dismissed as a P.R. exercise by the UK/US governments. If the British and American standpoints are PR exercises then what are the Russian and Chinese standpoints representative of ?

    Their own PR excercise?? I’m not sure what your point is, without supporting a particular person i support the general quest for representative government in Myanmar (its the officially recognised term and im not going to change the name i use lest i change every other name) but the words of support from the US/UK is just a PR stunt.

  54. Desi Italiana — on 1st October, 2007 at 10:45 am  

    China is Burma’s biggest trade partner, and India has been arming Burma for a long time.

    Myanmar was the name chosen by the military, and some folks refuse to use it because it was chosen by the military.

    Info coming out of Burma and into Western media is not too often, mostly because press freedom is curtailed for Burmese journalists, and the Burmese gov’t rarely grants visas to foreign journalists.

    The US, for its parts, has tightened sanctions and placed some more on 12 officials of the Burmese regime (I think). It’s also issued a “support” statement, though when asked whether the US will substantially support the pro-democracy movement in Burma, it’s all “hypothetical.”

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