Burma / Myanmar – A Little Background & Other Curiosities

Detail Shewdagon Pagoda Yangon

Detail Shewdagon Pagoda Yangon

I am just returning from lunch on the beach. There are tiny bars, with a few chairs, tables and umbrellas, and presumably tiny kitchen. The one I’d selected looked suspiciously empty, including absence of any serving staff or cook. After a few minutes, one of the jewelry sellers on the beach noticed that nothing was happening, and bravely jumped in. It was very noticeable that she’d not done this before, but she served my drinks and cooked my meal most admirably. Only: She cooked for Burmese tastes, and my soft European taste buds never stood a chance. I ate on regardless. After the meal, she asked me how it was, and with a burning mouth and watering eyes I croaked: Very good, very good. She was so proud – she called out to her colleagues on the beach, something I interpreted with „she’s happy“. I feel I collected good karma points today.

What exactly is the name of the country? There are about 135 ethnic groups, which makes it a bit difficult to decide, but the general name (before the British invaded) seems to have been „Bamar“, which was changed to „Burma“ by the Brits. Myanmar was the name of the people, and not the country. The military dictatorship changed that, and renamed the country to Myanmar. Because this happened without a referendum, many from the opposition continue to use Burma or Bamar.

The name of the largest city also switches between Rangoon and Yangon – Yangon being the official name, Rangoon the British version, but both can be used. The capital city has anyhow since 2006 been Nay Pyi Taw; it means „city of the kings“ and it is a mystery why the militaries moved the capital there, but they’d big plans, because in total they dedicated an area 5 times the size of Berlin. There aren’t supposed to be many attractions, but it has some golf courses and a zoo, should you ever get there.

The country has 55 million inhabitants, a rapid growth – in 1901 it were 11 million; an average life expectancy of 63 years – also a rapid increase, it was 49 years in 1970. There are large minorities of people of Indian or Chinese descent. Buddhism is the overall religion, and people are very religious indeed. There are many thousends of pagodas and stupas – shrines – and monks and nuns are everywhere (on my first day, I was delighted to see a monk and had to take his picture; on ca. the 4th day of the phototrip, it was „no more monks or children, pleeeease“ – although it must be said that a monk, nun or child will make any picture more interesting, and they do like to have their photo taken).

Because of the numerous ethnic groups, throughout the centuries power changed often between various factions; the Mongols under Kublai Khan also knocked at the doors; and the country disintegrated into many independent states. Since the 15th century, Italy and especially Portugal maintained trade relations with Burma. In the 18th and 19th century, Burma became a united kingdom once more, until the British sacked the last king in 1885, when he tried to open up the country for the French; he died in exile in 1916. From 1886, Burma became first a province of the colonie British-India and then a colonie of Britain, until the Japanese threw out the British in 1942. However, they managed to become unpopular pretty quick, and the Burmese fought under General Aung San and alongside the Allies to successfully re-conquer the land from the Japanese.

In 1947, Britain agreed to release Burma into independence. The first elections were won by Aung San, hero of the people and father of Aung San Suu Kyi. However, he was shot and killed by the opposition shortly thereafter, aged only 32. The birthing hour of the new Burma was on Sunday, 4th January 1948, at 4.20am – the time had been carefully chosen by astrologers. But the country was still too divided and there were numerous unrests. In 1962, the military took over control, and maintained it until 2011 (or so). The economy declined rapidly; in 1988, it all escalated and there were mass demonstrations and strikes, many people died; 8.8.88 is called the blackest day in recent Burmese history.

In this August of 1988, a woman held a speech in front of hundreds of thousands of people, at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the national monument of Burma – Aung San Suu Kyi. Enough has been written about her, she is „The Lady“ and for many she is a Saint, on one level with Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. For many years, she lead a life outside Burma, first in exile, and then with her husband and two sons in England. In 1988, she returned to Burma to care for her dying mother. At the same time, the protests started against the dictatorship, and as the daughther of the hero Aung San, she become the figurehead. She did not leave the country again, not even when entry was refused to her dying husband, who’d tried to see her one last time. She was offered to leave the house arrest and Burma to meet him, but she declined, as she knew she would not be able to get back in again – she chose her country over her family. Her husband died in 1999, without having seen her again. In 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. It will likely be her task to bring a peaceful democracy to Burma – which will be difficult amongst economic problems, religious unrest, and the burden of the past.

After this very moving story, what else can I say? There are a few things I noticed and found curious:

– A child’s name is dependent on the weekday it was born – only certain initials may be used per weekday. It does help that the Burmese have 5 alphabets, which increases the options.
– What also helps is the additional week day – Burmese weeks have 8 days. This does not make the year longer: Wednesday is divided into two days – from 12am to 11.59am and then from 12pm to 11:59pm. Nobody seems to worry that 2 days in the week are much shorter than the remaining 6 days.
– Names don’t count anyhow – nobody seems to be going by their birth name, they all have nicknames. Our tour guides for example were called Min-Min, Shine and Po Bo – these names had nothing in common with the names in their passports (which I have forgotten).
– Cars have right hand steering like in England, but drive on the right hand side like in Germany – which makes overtaking a car on a busy road interesting. Apparently, everybody drove on the left hand side – a legacy from the Brits – until this was changed sometime in the 70s. Because however all cars are bought used from the Japanese and they have cars with right hand steering, that’s what you get, and the steering remains on the „wrong“ side. Doesn’t worry anybody though.

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