Friday, January 13, 2012

Impressions of Burma

Burma (aka Myanmar) is changing quickly. Political prisoners are being released, draconian rules are being relaxed, and if this continues I expect tourism will explode from tens of thousands to tens of millions in a few years. Here are a few random observations over my week and a half visit over New Years 2012 :

Like many underdeveloped countries, the place is a garbage heap. Plastic bags and used bottles are everywhere, except in the trash can.

Mess at a Pagoda

The domestic airlines – Air Bagan, KBZ, Mandalay, Asian Wings—are almost always late for both departure and arrival.

Here are a few books about Burma that you may want to read: George Orwell (who spent a lot of time here), and The White Umbrella.

Economic sanctions means you see relatively few foreign brands. Sure, you can find Coke here but it’s imported from Singapore. Try Star Cola or the various local coffee mixes instead of the real thing.


Ubiquitous sunscreen. The local women cover their faces in a yellow protective paint ground from the bark of a tree, apparently to prevent sunburn.

Women of Burma

I didn’t find the food especially appealing: the mohinga noodles are great for breakfast, but the curries (and most everything else) are too oily, without anything special in taste.


You spend a lot of time barefoot if you visit temples or pagodas, where the rule is “no footwear”.


Saturday, January 07, 2012

Let's call it Burma

The United States government (as well as the UK and most other European democracies) officially refers to it as “Burma”, a perfectly fine name for the country.  Unlike India, whose democratically-elected government deliberately renamed many of its place names in a nationalist effort to assert independence from its British-ruled past, the name “Burma” is simply an anglicized word the locals have always used to refer to the majority ethnic group and the language of the inhabitants. They still refer to their country as “Burma” in verbal conversations.

The name “Myanmar” was arbitrarily hoisted on the country in 1989 by a whim of the repressive military junta that still runs the place.  Linguistically, Burmese uses different sounds for the written versus spoken forms of some proper nouns, and “Myanmar” is the sound of the written, formal version of the country name.  So why did they change the name we foreigners are supposed to use?  Perhaps the ruling junta wanted us to treat their government with more respect.

It’s not an entirely bad name change. Unlike names like “Stalingrad” or “Soviet Union”, which were brand new terms specifically intended to force a new political agenda, there is some logic in asking English speakers to use the pronounced form of the written names. The change is applied consistently to all place names including the (long-time) capitol city Rangoon (Yangon) and the main river, Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady).

But that is a decision that should be up to the people, not the military.  Perhaps someday the citizens of a newly-free Burma will elect representatives who will themselves choose to call their country “Myanmar”, at which point I’m sure the United States and other countries will recognize the change. Until then, I’m going to call it by the name the people used the last time they were free.

Aung San Soo Kyi's House