Is it Burma or Myanmar?
I arrived under cover of darkness. Deep, night, darkness. I queued. I waited. And then, breathless, I rushed through the silent, thick, lilting, lightless night air. Blackness. Darkness. And then a crescendo, a tower of resplendent, luminescent, incandescent gold: the spire of the Shwedagon Pagoda. I was in Burma. Or Myanmar. And everything was golden.
A Beach in Burma. Or Myanmar
I thought about this first impression a few days later, as the soles of my feet flicked through the scalding – golden – sand. A golden sun bowed before me, temples glittered between the palms, and silk thread sparkled as women walked past, their cheeks awash with creamy thanaka paste. These weren’t the colours I’d expected to find in Burma. (Or was it Myanmar?) When even the landscape of a country’s name becomes a minefield, it’s a clear sign to tread with care. As I write this, it’s the 25th anniversary of the uprisings in Yangon (or is it Rangoon?) where 3000 protestors died and thousands more were imprisoned. The military regime dealt with its troublesome Press through censorship and silence and foreigners couldn’t stay for more than a day. In my travel-sketched mind, Burma – or was it Myanmar? – trudged through colours of grey, olive green and a weary, overburdened brown. I was not prepared for the turquoise thrill of Ngapali.
Burma (or is it Myanmar?) has come a long way since first I read old travel tales. Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the pro-democracy movement, is now a member of parliament rather than a housebound political prisoner. Elections take place. Newspapers are printed daily (censorship is so time consuming) and pale-skinned foreigners such as myself can wander around for a month at a time. Yet, clearly, there’s still a way to go. Also, as I write, an email lingers in my inbox from Amnesty International. It details their human rights concerns about Italy, Spain, the US, Germany, Holland, Greece and more. And I have no doubt that journalists in those countries received an email about the UK. It’s not a perfect world. And of all the colours it wears, they’re rarely black and white.
So how is the modern day traveller…writer…photographer… to proceed?
Should we boycott certain countries until certain changes are made? It seems such a soothing, simple answer that I’m tempted to agree. And I would hardly be alone if I did. Except. That list from Amnesty, followed through to that conclusion, would lead to travel nowhere. And no residence at home. It would, some argue, increase the isolation of those already isolated and reduce the flow of different ideas. Then again, with a flow of foreign visitors – and the money that surely follows them – perhaps the message to the government is to carry on just as they are, business as usual. The waves laze along the shore and I still don’t have the answer. Aung San Suu Kyi herself has adapted her stance on the tourism boycott as part of the ebb and flow of political change. Mass tourism has received criticism; individual exploration more of a green light. Whatever the international chatter, right here, right now in Ngapali, life goes on. Children play in the sand. Men and women do too once the work of the day is done. They dive through rubber tyres and tubes, sunlight sparkling through their laughter as the foam from the Bay of Bengal nudges them back towards the shore. In the village behind the resorts, of which there are few, kids play football in the dust. And when I walk past, they clamour for me to take their picture. The song of fresh seafood, chilli and garlic sizzles through the air. My mind kaleidoscopes through contradictions, yet my eyes, they bathe in beauty. I’m in Burma – or Myanmar – and everything is golden.
So, is it Myanmar or Burma?
Myanmar is the current name approved by the military government. Burma is the older colonial name. Except, there’s more to it than that. In the original language, Burma and Myanmar mean much the same thing; it’s a difference of literary interpretation or politeness (like you and thou in English, tu and vous in French and so on.) So…both names are old yet both have picked up modern day meanings. Burma was used when the area was ruled by the British (hence, the desire by some for a change.) Yet the name change came about in 1989, long after the Brits left, but soon after the deaths of thousands of protestors. Thus, many pro-democracy groups view the term Myanmar as a symbol of oppression. Because of this, some countries (the US, the UK) do not recognise the term Myanmar. While others (France and the UN (and yes, I know that’s not a country but it’s useful to talk about it here)) do. As a result, the whole thing has become a political statement and, let’s face it, a mess. And in spite of all that, I have a hunch that many native English speakers prefer the term Burma simply because it’s easier to say, remember and spell. I have only anecdotal evidence to support that supposition.