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