It's Burma, Damn it!

By Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice (etc.) 10/4/07


Last Sunday’s Buffalo News sports a front-page AP wire service story about Burma’s nonviolent democratic uprising—its Saffron Revolution. But the article never mentions “Burma.” Kowtowing to the Burmese dictatorship, the AP dateline reads, “YANGON, Myanmar.” Outside of the US, most media outlets reported similar stories, but their datelines read, “RANGOON, Burma.” It’s no wonder American kids score dead last in global geography.

But this isn’t a lesson in geography. It’s a lesson in politics—Orwellian politics, to be precise. Burma has been ruled by a series of brutal autocratic military dictatorships since 1962. The current military junta, after brutally suppressing a nonviolent democracy movement and slaughtering approximately 3,000 unarmed protestors in 1988, relented to world pressure and allowed free elections in 1990. But these are dictators on crack. They thought, and who the hell knows why, that they’d win. Perhaps the fix broke. When the votes were tallied they did win—10 seats in the National Assembly. The opposition took 415 seats, and democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi became the prime minister elect, her supporters controlling almost 80 percent of the National Assembly.

So the ruling junta did what military dictators usually do in such situations—they nullified the election and arrested Aung San Suu Kyi. They didn’t even go through the theater of using a Supreme Court to do it. But the Burmese junta took the dictatorship game to a new level, issuing an edict changing the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar, and the capital city from Rangoon to Yangon, which they declared was no longer the capitol since, well, there was no longer a government there. They built themselves an isolated, fortified, Green Zone sort of city, called it Nay Pyi Taw, and declared it the capitol of Myanmar.

Orwell in Baboon

This all seems kosher to the American corporate press—long used to sucking up to those in power and running official stories unchallenged and unverified. The country between India and Thailand was always Myanmar. It’s principal city was always Yangon, or Baboon, or something like that. The seat of government was always Nay Pyi Taw. George W. Bush won Ohio fair and square in 2004.

Since the beginning of recorded history, conquering powers changed the names of conquered lands and peoples. It’s part of the act of taking possession of a nation. The Burmese, however, weren’t conquered by another nation. They are imprisoned by their own military—a problem that’s all too common when generals become beyond reproach and military budgets swell larger then social expenditures.

In the case of Burma there’s no external threat, no disputed border or imperial enemy. The last foreign occupiers of Burma, the British, left in 1948. Today Burma is under class occupation. The ruling junta runs the nation for the benefit of an elite few while the average Burmese citizens toil for about one dollar per day in wages. Those who question this slave-like arrangement often die at the hands of deranged sadists who hope such killings will spread fear and teach the Burmese people that resistance is futile—they live in Myanmar now. Four hundred thousand soldiers are there to remind them of that.

Buddha and Gandhi

On the other side of the equation are the Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi. Buddhism stresses patience, selflessness and justice, as well as karma. Almost 90 percent of the Burmese population identifies as Buddhist. Buddhists can be killed but their spirits don’t die. The generals, in the long run, are powerless. Today they’re old and isolated. And the next life isn’t too promising for them. By contrast, the Burmese people are mostly young and full of hope and energy. And they’re no longer isolated, even if Americans think they live in Myanmar.

Then there’s the Gandhi factor. Under British rule, Burma was part of India. The Burmese saw firsthand the power of Gandhian nonviolence. Aung San Suu Kyi was born just before Gandhi died. She lived her life learning of Gandhi and has been an adherent of Gandhi’s teachings, persistently preaching nonviolence. Buddhism also teaches nonviolence, and has for 7,000 years. There will be democracy in Burma, because the generals are out of their league.

Last week 100,000 people poured into the streets of Rangoon to march behind a phalanx of up to 10,000 Buddhist monks. The monks, barefoot and wrapped in orange saffron robes, marched without fear—and day after day more and more Burmese people joined them, once again, to demand democracy, all without fear. Governments should fear the people. People should not fear their governments. To be free from such fear is to be truly free. Once again the people of Burma are rising up in freedom. Once again some have been killed. And some have become quiet. But in the long run guns are no match for the teachings of Gandhi and the Buddha.


This brings me back to the issue of Myanmar. Myanmar is the generals. Myanmar is a state of mind that exists where there is fear, repression and isolation. The people of Burma are once again standing up to demonstrate the power of peace. They’re not just fighting for their own liberation. Their fight, ultimately, is our fight. It’s humanity’s fight. It’s the power of beauty over the greed and hatred of totalitarianism.

We need to end the isolation of the Burmese people and not kowtow to their oppressors. Once and for all, there is no Myanmar. The people of so-called Myanmar are called Burmese. They speak the Burmese language. Even the CIA, in its World Factbook, identifies the nation where the Burmese people live as “Burma,” explaining, “since 1989 the military authorities in Burma have promoted the name Myanmar as a conventional name for their state; this decision was not approved by any sitting legislature in Burma, and the US Government did not adopt the name.”

Even the CIA and the last three US administrations are on the same page with the rest of the world. It’s Burma, damn it! Let’s not figuratively erase this nation. Fuck Myanmar. The Buffalo News and the Associated Press need to get on the same page as the Burmese people. Add this to the AP Style Guide: When writing about a nation, identify it by the name its people use to describe themselves.

Dr. Michael I. Niman teaches journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are available online at, archived at and available globally through syndication.

ęCopyright 2007

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