Is it Burma or Myanmar?

If you were sitting in social studies, government or geography class in the United States in the1990s, you were likely one of those that raised their eyebrows when you heard that the United States was re-establishing ties with “Burma.” If you weren’t confused then, you may have been when you heard that the US was also considering re-establishing ties with “Myanmar.” You brushed it off, thinking, “We must be figuring out how to stave off the effects of climate change on a couple island countries in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.”


Unlike the fate of most obscure island countries in the Pacific Ocean, Burma and Myanmar remained in the news and continue today to make financial and political headlines. When President Obama visited Burma and Myanmar on November 2012, you may have realized that Burma and Myanmar are one in the same – that’s right – one country, and that the obscure island is in fact the second largest country in Southeast Asia with a population of 60 million.


So what’s up with the two names?


The British, during their time as colonial overlords, referred to Burma and to its principal city Rangoon. Early independence fighters did not see any problem with this, nor for several decades did the army generals who took power in 1962.


But, after widespread pro-democracy protests in 1988, things changed and Burma became Myanmar, or, more specifically, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar; Rangoon became Yangon.


Some countries recognized the change. Others, such as the US and the UK, did not. As both names are used in the country – Burma is more popular, Myanmar is more literary – the decision was rooted more in a desire to show disapproval for the noxious regime.

As Burma continues its grand entry to the world stage, more analysis emerges regarding the tension between an inherited military heritage and a reformist agenda. The below panels depict the major issues and actors at play in Burma today. At the top of each panel are images commonly seen in Western media. Below each are Harn Lay’s political cartoons skewering Burma’s infamous military regime. Working from the safety of neighboring Thailand, Harn Lay’s cartoons were regularly published by Burmese media organizations in-exile, like The Irrawaddy and Mizzima, but until recently, would never have been allowed in Burma itself. They provide a much-needed pause from the enthusiasm for Burma’s reformist agenda and prospects.

Okay, so Myanmar and Burma are actually one country, and it is actually located south of China and west of Thailand. But why is everyone from Hillary Clinton to Google to China to the Human Rights watch clamoring to get to and talk about Burma?


The new dawn in Myanmar has caught even its most avid followers by surprise. Formerly a British colony, it played a major role in World War II before a military junta took over in 1962. Ever since 1988, the U.S. had imposed sanctions on Myanmar, in response to the country’s military junta cracking down on peaceful protests then, killing thousands. The crippling foreign policy against Myanmar plunged the country into decades of isolation from the world economy. China has filled this vacuum left by western powers and has been Myanmar’s chief benefactor in recent decades. In turn, it had unlimited access to the country’s natural resources. With Western economic sanctions in place since the 1990s, China’s had virtually free rein in Myanmar.

The United States reinstated diplomatic relationships as the Myanmar’s government introduced democratic reforms, allowed the formation of trade unions, released political prisoners, and eased restrictions on access to information. Analysts say that China is watching how the Myanmar-US relationship unfolds intensely. China has been unrivaled in its access to Myanmar’s natural resources, and has been able to exploit this condition to its fullest advantage. The degree of exploitation may now be in jeopardy. In addition, it underscores the political-military rivalry among competing core powers – the US and China.[1] Myanmar, in this context, is shaping up to be a battlefield for the distribution of power and competitive advantage among the two countries.


Why do Coke, Google, Samsung, and billions of investment dollars care?

Burma is what many call the “last frontier” in Asia. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reported that from global multinationals to one-man entrepreneurs, businesses were abuzz over what may be one of the world’s last great business frontiers. A New York Times report states that business leaders cannot adequately describe the magnitude of the Myanmar opportunity. The population is larger than South Korea and South Africa, and almost triple that of Australia. That population needs factories to churn out products, power to keep those factories running, and exploration technology to find natural resources for that power. In a recent visit to the country, Coca-Cola chief executive Muhtar Kent presented Myanmar President Thein Sein with photos of Coke’s operations there from the 1920s and 1930s, just before Coke last pulled out, and made a case for letting the soft drink behemoth enter the country once again .


Clearly, the rhetoric regarding Myanmar’s grand entry into the world stage is largely related to its economic promise – its untapped natural resources, disconnected cities.


This all sounds exciting. What’s the catch?


While a nascent democracy tries to take hold, ethnic and anti-Muslim unrest threatens to further expand the military’s role. Burma is being faced with two tests to its democracy.

First, Myanmar is a predominantly Buddhist country, but about 5 percent of its 60 million people are Muslims. There are large communities in Yangon, Mandalay and towns across Myanmar’s heartland, which are dominated by the majority Burmans, who are Buddhists. In June, deadly sectarian violence erupted in Arakan State between ethnic Arakanese Buddhists and ethnic Rohingya Muslims, a long-persecuted minority of approximately 800,000 to one million people. HRW criticized Burma’s government of failing to protect ethnic Rohingya Muslims during the violence. “State security forces initially failed to protect either community, resulting in some 135,000 displaced, and then increasingly targeted Rohingya in killings, beatings, and mass arrests, while obstructing humanitarian access to Rohingya areas,” HRW stated.


Second, the ethnic Kachins that live along the Burma-China border are facing heavy offensive attacks from the Burmese army since a 17-year ceasefire dissolved in June 2011. Since December the government has employed helicopter gunships, jets and heavy artillery bombardment, in Kachin State, leading to civilian deaths.

HRW estimate around 90,000 civilians remain displaced, and say that the government continues to deny humanitarian aid to the displaced Kachin civilians in KIA territory.




[1] J. Kentor “Economic Development and the World Division of Labor” P.11

The Tell All Memo That Didn’t

The National Rifle Association posted a video an online video prior to the State of the Union regarding gun control. It claimed that a memo from the administration which proved that measures supported by President Obama to reduce gun violence, will eventually result in the federal government confiscating arms that are lawfully owned.



While the document does exist, and the video quotes directly from it, the conclusions it draws are not those that have been supported by the administration: “The ad claims that in order for our proposals to work, we would have to confiscate guns and create a national gun registry,” said an administration official. “That is simply not true.”[1]


The uncovering of an “internal” Justice Department’s memo by the NRA, according to Cox, reveals ideas that were supposedly never meant to get out, but the document is a research on gun violence and did not represent the position of the Department of Justice or the administration. In addition, the Justice Department Official told the website Talking Points Memo that the document is not an official memo nor was it used as part of the gun violence task force that created the White House plan.


The video claims the quotes cited prove that President Obama is out to create a national registry of gun owners and use the power of the federal government to confiscate firearms [2]. Thus, in this video, the NRA is framing Obama’s policy as a veiled attempt at confiscation.

Wayne LaPierra

Now that we have an understanding of the message of video – that the Obama is considering gun confiscation – let’s review the rhetorical tactics used:


–       The video features Chris Cox, the Executive Director the NRA which adds a new face to the NRA’s videos which have been led by Wayne LaPierre since the Newtown, Conn shootings. This allows the NRA to distance itself from its association with Newtown, an event that caused significant discomfort among the general population and within the NRA.





–       By revealing an “Internal” Justice Department Memo, Cox attempts to give Americans little-known insight to the administration’s workings.

–       Cox also uses rhetorical questions that he answers to define the terms and phrases found in the memo for the viewer. He

  • “Requiring gun registration?” is defined as “An illegal abuse of privacy and freedom unprecedented in our history”
  • “Mandatory Gun Buyback?” is defined as “Government confiscation of legal firearms owned by honest citizens”

–       Throughout, Cox also uses charged language to anger the viewer such as, “illegal abuse, government confiscation, honest citizen, prosecuting criminals”

–       Ends by deflecting the issue of gun control to other issues. Cox says, “Get serious about protecting our kids, prosecuting criminals, and fixing our broken mental health system.”


These tactics are used to convey that the memo, shows, without a doubt, that the administration plans to confiscate guns and create a gun registry, which is inaccurate.




In fact, the administration has repeated it’s support for the right of citizens to bear arms. In a Mayor’s meeting in Washington, Biden says, “The first foundational principle is that there is a second amendment. The president and I support the second amendment, and it comes with the right for law-abiding, responsible citizens to own guns – use it for their protection and for recreation.” [3]



Robert Spitzer, chair of the political science department at State University of New York – Cortland and the author of four books on gun policy says that the NRA was factually wrong in the video. “The ad is less hysterical and foreboding than the previous one, but is actually less factually accurate than the one about Obama’s daughters (after all, it was factually true that they have bodyguards),” he said in an email Wednesday. “So, the NRA has traded anger for factual inaccuracy.”[4]




[1] Johnson, Eliana. “DOJ Memo: Assault-Weapons Ban ‘Unlikely to Have an Impact on Gun Violence.’ “ The National Review Online. Feb 18, 2013.

[2] McMorris-Santoro, Evan. “LaPierre: They’re Coming for Our Guns No matter What they Say. Talking Points Memo.

[3] US Conference of Mayors’s Meeting. Washington DC. Via Youtube.

[4] McMorris-Santoro, Evan. “Obama Administration Hits Back at Latest NRA Video.” Talking Points Memo. Feb 13, 2013.

Sharks or Electric Cars?

“So why science journalism?” I ask Aviva as we walk through Harvard’s campus. Aviva’s mother was a veterinarian and, as a child, Aviva remembers seeing kidney stones and organs floating in her jar, while her grandfather was an organic chemist who captivated Aviva with experiments. Then she moves to journalism – she was the editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper and then her college newspaper at Union College. “It was my life for two years,” she says as she looks away, no doubt remembering the nights before the issue went to press.


So, I think, that’s what science writer is. But that clearly wasn’t the whole story. Developing a love for science and a love for media journalism didn’t have to necessarily lead Aviva to writing about science. Aviva is a prolific writer – her short pieces cover everything from wireless car charging to the origins of the great white shark. The subject of her writing is often technical and can be found in the all important peer-reviewed scientific journals, but her writing is not the glazed-eye, yawn inducing, regression-filled analysis of those mediums. As I researched Aviva and realized she wrote about science, I procured a rather large cup of coffee in order to hunker down and read her articles. I didn’t touch my coffee before I was finished reading through the first one, and then the second, and then…How did she do that?


So I had to ask her again, “Why science writing?” “I didn’t come to this as a dream of mine. It was a fortuitous marriage of some things that I love.” As a neuroscience major, Aviva was required to take a computer science class, which she put off as long as she could. After her first day of class, “I loved it, “ she said with her hands out reiterating her own shock.  She said she found herself in a 300-level class creating an interactive fiction engine for her college thesis – something she wouldn’t have known how to do just a year before. Two themes emerge as Aviva continues talking about the “fortuitous marriage:” First, she’s drawn to tangible objects, objects that she’s brought to life through her creative capacities; second, that the reigning image of a scientist is incorrect, and she wants to change that misperception.  The speech speeds up when she talks about holding her college newspaper in her hand. It’s easy to see that she’s picturing a copy of the Concordiensis, her school’s newspaper as she describes the manifestation of her imagination and work. To her second point, she talks about communicating technology and science to women, making it accessible to a group of people who think it’s not available to them. Her writing embodies this mission – she jumps from gray matter to the anatomy of a protein seamlessly and takes this layman along with her.


Aviva’s one year MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing comes to a close in three months. So, what’s next? She tells me over the winter holiday she lived with the widow of the subject of her graduate thesis, Paul Bach-y-rita, a pioneer in the field of neuroplasticity. Paul’s wife invited Aviva to live in their home for two weeks, giving her access to his unpublished manuscripts, full access to the contents of his computer, and even the songs he wrote about his wife. “It would be disappointing  to be read just by my advisor and mother,” Aviva says referring to her thesis. She hopes to do more justice to Paul’s life and the unprecedented access she’s received to his ground-breaking research. I look at her incredulously, and ask, “Okay, what else?” knowing there is more Aviva wants to do. That’s hard, she says, “I don’t know my brand.” “What do you mean?” I ask. She gives me an example: Ed Young looks for accuracy and holes in new stories, other writers are known for writing “obscenely fast” or for covering infectious disease.


“Okay, so let’s brainstorm,” I say.


This is the list we come up with:

Humanizing Science



Lay audience







She likes “Science,” but hates the word “Humanizing.” She changes her mind – Science is a scary word for too many people. So we finally settle on one.


Ladies and Gentlemen, I present Aviva’s brand – at least for now.