Useful Notes: That South East Asian Country
"I think they call it Myanmar now."
"It'll always be Burma to me."
—Elaine Benes and J. Peterman, Seinfeld
This country is known in English by two names. Firstly, its colonial name, Burma. Secondly, the name the ruling military government has given it in 1989, Myanmar. The renaming is understandable, because "Burma" led to confusion as the country is made up of one large ethnic group called the Burmans
(or Bamar) and a huge number of smaller ones, who are collectively called Burmese
; Myanmar is a more neutral term. However sensible the renaming, a lot
of media outlets and governments continue to use "Burma" as a symbolic protest against the military dictatorship that ruled it from 1962 to 2010. The BBC
now calls it "Myanmar"
, but note that the very first paragraph also refers to it as Burma. Basically, it's Asia's version of Britain Versus the UK
From 1992 to 2010 Burma was a military junta ruled by General Than Shwe, who pursued a largely isolationist foreign policy, with the exception of friendly relations with the People's Republic of China
In 2010, the junta stepped down, and handed power to a civilian government after flawed elections. However, the military continues to have strong ties with the government. Thein Sein (pronounced "Tane Sane") is the current president, famous for his democratic reforms and reconciliation with the west.
There is great controversy over the government's brutal treatment of various minorities, such as the native Karen. Burma has been involved in a civil war since 1948, the oldest ongoing war in the world. They moved their capital from Rangoon to a purpose built city, Naypyidaw, in 2005, ostensibly because of a prophecy that Burma would be conquered by a foreign invader from the sea, but more likely because it could be designed to make urban insurgency very hard, unlike the sprawling Rangoon.
In fiction, it is generally a nasty Holiday in Cambodia
, portrayed as ruled by an oppressive and genocidal military junta with little regard for human rights or for political dissidents. Then again, in a place where using a modem without permission carried a 15-year prison term under the junta's regime...
Appearances by this country and its inhabitants in fiction:
The Burmese/Myanma flag
- Its people appear as the villains in the fourth Rambo movie, which proved highly popular with Karen rebels (especially since the government banned it).
- Mentioned in Spitting Image's "I've Never Met a Nice South African", as featuring unicorns. The BBC noted it as rather ironic, as a song that was ridiculing the evils of The Apartheid Era referred to a country that would later do even worse things.
- Mentioned by Alfred in The Dark Knight, when he had visited it when it was under colonial rule and encountered a mad diamond thief.
- Road To Mandalay, of course. And the same poem by Kipling, naturally.
- Appears in an episode of Seinfeld in which J. Peterman has Gone Native (and insane) in a parody of Heart of Darkness. The business over the name is also mentioned.
- Burma has a Fictional Counterpart in Ligon, a Fictional Country in the works of Kir Bulychev, based on his time there.
- French-Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle did a book, "Burma Chronicles," about his year living there with his wife and son for his wife's job with Medecins Sans Frontieres France.
- Radical author George Orwell was sent out here as a policeman responsible to the British colonial administration. While here, he became a friend of the family of Spike Milligan (then aged around ten), whose father had been posted here. The experience of Burma shaped his dislike of British imperialism and his later opposition to it. He refers to it in two books, Burmese Days and Shooting An Elephant.
- An episode of the short-lived The Philanthropist series has Teddy go there in after he's publicly accused of endorsing the Myanmar junta (the show was filmed prior to the junta step-down), as his company has dealings with the Myanmar government, and their forced labor. After visiting the country and finding out the truth for himself, Teddy is forced to further cooperate with the junta in order to get his bodyguard out of prison.
- Mentioned frequently in the McAuslan series — the author and his expy/main character served in Burma and it is something of a spiritual prequel to his memoir Quartered Safe Out Here.
In 2010, as part of the nation's makeover, the old flag (featuring a red field with a canton showing a cogwheel and crops surrounded by stars) is replaced with a flag composed of yellow, green and red stripes, symbolizing solidarity, peace and courage, respectively, while retaining the star of the Union of Myanmar.