In 1989, a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of a popular uprising, the ruling military junta announced to the world that the country was changing its name, from Burma to Myanmar. One logical explanation to this name change is that the country needed a fresh start following its (relatively) recent independence. There may have been an intention for the country to reinvent its self as a multi cultural society with a diverse ethnic religious heritage. The name Burma is deeply rooted in ‘Barma’, the Barman people being the overwhelming majority in the country. It can be argued that origins of the name Myanmar has a less controversial association to ethnic and religious division.
A famous quote from Samual Johnson (1709 – 1784) lodged in my mind is ‘language is the dress of thought’. However, Myanmar has shot holes in the corollary that names and labels are important. Since 1989, events in Myanmar have proved to the world that dictating a name change does not change how people think about past events. History remains what it is and directly affects the here and now.
Myanmar shares borders with India and China, with Nepal is to the North and Thailand to the south. The country is well placed to command trade routes through-out the region, in particular as it is flanked by the Bay Bengal along in the South West. Perhaps, in the past, this has made the country a strategically appealing catch to foreign powers with military and/or economic intentions. This may go some way to explaining why, for centuries, the country has been subject to so many invasions and take-overs, from outside and from within.
Over the past thousand years Myanmar has been attacked and occupied by various armies, including the Mongols, the Chinese, the Portuguese (in theory a ‘liberating’ army of mercenaries) and of course, the British who ultimately ‘colonised’ the country in the 1800s. Most recent to invade was Japan, during the second World War.
During World War 2 the ethnic and religious divisions a became more polarised across Burma as its citizens were caught up in the armed conflict between Japan and the Allies. Burmese forces were subsumed by opposing armies into vicious fighting for opposing sides, with Burmese Nationalists fighting for Japan, facing off to Burmese Muslims fighting for the Allies. This can only have deepened ethnic divisions.
The plight of the minority population of Rohingya Muslims will be fresh in peoples minds at the moment, with recent reports of genocide. They have had had such a dreadful time of it in recent living memory, and it’s all happening again. We don’t have to look to far back in history for other examples of this kind persecution, often being driven by an underlying insecurity within the ruling authorities. Perhaps a contributing factor might be the increasing number of neighbouring countries which have converted to a Muslim majority, for example; Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and quite recently Malaysia. India is another neighbour which may be on the same pathway, with a vast population of (more than 180 million) Muslims, The majority of India’s Muslim population lives in the North East, the highest densities being towards the Punjab and borders with Myanmar. Perhaps (for the current ethnic and religious majorities in Myanmar) this is fuelling a fear that Myanmar could succumb to a Muslim majority as its surrounding neighbours have done? With the wrong type of leadership in place it is not implausible that a consequence of this insecurity could lead to the violent confrontation and persecution we are now seeing.
Since the British restored Burma to independence in 1948 the country has been plagued by conflicts between communist, nationalist, ethnic minority armies, and government forces. There was a military coup in 1962. The army seized power again in 1988. After much international pressure and economic sanctions, 2 years later the Army staged an ‘election’ (to form a ‘constitutional committee’). Elections results were in favour of pro-democracy and against the army who refused to accept the result. The military establishment have never fully relinquished control. Ever since that election there have been continued conflicts across tall parties and factions and the elected political leaders have been very constrained in what they can and can’t do. Following increased sanctions by western powers, Myanmar looked east to China and further north to Russia for economic support. Both communist states were happy to fill the void and increase influence (with economic aid and sales of weaponry).