human trafficking

Please Don’t Refer to Burma as Myanmar

As I turned on the news this morning, a man I didn’t recognize was discussing the risks presented by North Korea’s rapidly escalating rhetoric and military posturing. Not an uncommon topic as of late, and he wasn’t saying anything controversial or new. But as his commentary expanded to the region as a whole, I felt myself bristle as he referenced, “Myanmar.”

I can think of maybe a half dozen people who would have been cringing alongside me. The rest might wonder where the country in question is, or why it even matters. Those familiar with the name may still be perplexed by my discomfort.

And the thing is, I could probably explain my objections in a couple of sentences. If that’s all you want, click here and skip down. I hope you don’t, though. The only way you’re really going to understand why this matters is if you know the back story. It’s not about me. It’s not about anyone I know. But it is about a courageous and downtrodden people that deserve a lot more respect than any of us afford them.

And that starts with a name.


Burma’s history is long. The region was home to some of the earliest civilizations in Southeast Asia. Its positioning, with access to the Indian and Pacific Ocean and borders with China, Thailand, India, Laos and Bangladesh, meant the country was always going to be of geopolitical value. The nation also boasts a rich array of natural resources, from precious gems to timber to metals to fossil fuels. Perhaps, then, it should come as no surprise that the nation’s history has been as bloody as it has been long. Wars have been fought for centuries, as both regional and global powers have jockeyed to control the strategic value of Burma.

But Burma’s most recent chapter of bloodshed has not been at the hands of an imperial colonizing force, or even the political leaders of the region. The struggle has taken place internally, and as the world attempted to aid the despairing population, they have facilitated further subjugation and sorrow.

British rule of Burma fell in 1942, as the Japanese made their move during World War II. Allied forces countered the Japanese successfully in 1945, but the result was a people without stable governance. For years, a bicameral parliamentary government struggled to survive votes of no confidence and party shifts. The ultimate imbalance propelled military leader Ne Win into a position of power. Notably, in 1958, he was asked by then beleaguered Prime Minister U Nu to serve as interim Prime Minister. By 1960, power was handed back to U Nu, but the tenuous peace would not last.

The Coup and Political Evolution

Ne Win launched a military coup on March 2nd, 1962, overthrowing the parliamentary government in favor of a militant state guided by a 24-member military council. It was called a “bloodless revolution,” which might have been accurate, if you ignored the frequent disappearances of dissident political figures, or the bloody crackdown that took place in July of that year at Rangoon University. Those were just the previews of what was to come, though. After additional violently oppressive efforts from 1974 to 1977, it became clear that this government was not about the people.

The backdrop to these militant crackdowns was a spiraling economy. The military controlled all commerce, and sapped away profit margins to support their rule. Making things worse was that the centralized planning and governance was not based on any semblance of sanity, but guided by superstitions. Andrew Selth explains:

The decision in 1970 for Burma to change from driving on the left-hand side of the road to the right-hand side was reportedly because the General’s astrologer felt that Burma had moved too far left, in political terms. In 1987, Ne Win introduced 45 kyat and 90 kyat currency notes, as the face values added up to nine, his lucky number. It was said that he walked backwards over bridges to ward off evil spirits, and bathed in dolphin’s blood to extend his life to the age of 90.

By 1988, the economic inequality had created a rising tide of dissent, ultimately leading to what would be known as the “8888 Uprising.” On August 8th of that year, students, monks, and citizens began to protest the military regime, and the protests rapidly spread throughout the country. It was a bloody time (sensing a trend here?) that eventually ushered former democratic figures like U Nu back into the spotlight. It also bore witness to the political emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi, whose impassioned address begging for non-violent solutions launched her to the forefront of the struggle for democracy. The government eventually agreed to hold elections, but when they refused to institute an interim government until the elections could be organized, the protests ramped up once more.

Then, on September 18th, 1988, General Saw Maung turned back all of the already insufficient progress that had been made, brushing aside the constitution of 1974 and imposing martial law under the rule of State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Troops drove through the country, firing indiscriminately at protesters. Dissidents were pushed to the Thailand border, and a new regime of oppressive laws were put in place. The SLORC offered to hold elections the next year, but democratic leaders (rightly) rejected the idea that free elections could be held under martial law.

By the end of 1988, the death toll was over 10,000. Even more were “missing.”

Elections were eventually held in 1990. Led by Aung San Suu Kyi, now the figurehead of the democratic movement, the National League for Democracy (NLD) won 80% of the seats in the first free election in 30+ years. The SLORC, however, refused to step down, and though they changed their name in 1997 to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), they maintained their total control until 2011, when they were dissolved. Throughout this time, Aung San Suu Kyi was largely under house arrest.

Since 2010, the country has made some progress. We’ve seen the establishment of the National Human Rights Commission, amnesty negotiated for over 200 prisoners, labor laws which allowed for unions and strikes, increased freedom of the press, and more. We’re seeing increased global engagement, as well, including a historic visit from President Obama.

These are positive changes, even though the junta still maintains a frightening level of control. The problem with this account of events is that it’s easy. To be exceedingly clear, this story is longer and more complex (and frankly more horrifying) than is conveyed in this post. All we’ve looked at so far is a retelling of facts that doesn’t really explain the tragedy that has unfolded since 1962. And make no mistake – it’s been tragic.

How bad is bad?

It’s really hard to wrap your mind around the depth of suffering that has been taking place in Burma over the past half century. Some of the abuses are expected consequences of the story: extreme limits on the flow of information, travel restrictions that isolate those who need help the most, abuse of prisoners, dissident disappearances, absence of rule of law. But there are other insidious issues that get lumped in with these harms, and are deserving of individual attention. It’s almost insulting to describe the issues in list form… but for the sake of keeping this post below 10k words, it’s going to have to suffice:

Pervasive use of Child Soldiers

Caught in the crossfire of the conflict have been the nation’s most vulnerable.   This theft of innocence and the harm it inflicts is egregious, and despite reassurances from the Burmese government that things are improving, The Independent reported in 2012, “Children are being sold as conscripts into the Burmese military for as little as $40 and a bag of rice or a can of petrol. Despite assurances from Burma’s ruling junta that it is cleaning up its act in a bid to see Western sanctions lifted, recruitment of child soldiers remains rampant.” reports, “92 percent of over 600 households surveyed reported at least one episode of a household member subjected to forced labor, including being forced to porter military supplies, sweep for landmines, or build roads, with the Burmese military imposing two-thirds of these forced labor demands.”

HIV Crisis

As a hub for sex trafficking between Southeast Asian nations, Burma has long struggled with a burgeoning HIV positive population. However, for years, the junta rejected Western medicine to the detriment of its population, and even with modernization, oppressive international sanctions have limited the flow of critical antiretroviral drugs into the nation.

The result? As the Huffington Post reported last year, “The World Health Organization recommends treatment start when this all-important CD4 count drops to 350. In Myanmar, it must fall below 150. […] Of the estimated 240,000 people living with HIV, half are going without treatment. And some 18,000 people die from the disease every year, according to UNAIDS.”

Rape as Warfare

Rape is abhorrent no matter where we see it or how it exists, but in Burma, the stories are harrowing. As Aung San Suu Kyi has stated, “Rape is used in my country as a weapon against those who only want to live in peace, who only want to assert their basic human rights, especially in areas of ethnic nationalities. Rape is rife. It is used as a weapon by the armed forces to intimidate the ethnic nationalities and divide our country.”

In 2012, the Global Justice Center reported, “The Secretary-General has cited Burma for violating Security Council Resolution 1820’s protections for women in conflict situations and for giving impunity to the Burmese military’s ongoing sexual violence against ethnic women in conflict areas. Yet, Burma’s new constitution accords the military constitutional guarantees of immunity, including for using rape as a weapon of war.”

Environmental Devastation

The junta controls the land rights in Burma, and in an effort to secure funds for military purchases, has spent years doling out industrial contracts for mining, fossil fuel extraction and transportation, and logging, with minimal (if any) environmental regulation governing the activities. The result has been rampant deforestation and pollution of waterways. Impractical demands on farmers have also caused overuse of arable lands, and soil nutrient depletion to occur at dangerous levels. The end result has been major health hazards for the population, and further exacerbation of economic inequality and its inherent harms. This report is the stuff of nightmares.

Genocide and the Refugee Crisis

Odds are you’ve heard about genocide in Sudan. Odds are you have not heard about it in Burma. reports, “The Burmese army moves through the region and destroys Karen villages. The Burmese army specifically targets the Karen’s crops and resources in order to starve them out and kill them, without drawing the international community’s attention. Once it gains control of an area, the military uses forced labor to build bases from which the military attack and burn surrounding villages as well as mining the razed areas to discourage returns. Human Rights groups have reported that many Karen are routinely subjected to forced labor, human trafficking, and child labor.” reports, “Human rights campaigners are warning that further ethnic cleansing in Burma, which is being exacerbated by land clearances due to economic developments surrounding the Shwe Oil/Gas pipeline, could be imminent. […] Last year there were two massacres against the Rohingya, an ethnic Muslim-minority population who inhabit Arakan state, including the strategic port of Sittwe, which is the start of the pipeline on the Burmese coast.  There are credible reports that the Burmese military is involved in the ethnic cleansing.”

That should be enough to spur outrage, but the violence has also displaced tens of thousands of individuals over the years. Refugee camps have caused some bordering nations to shut down their borders, and with the military dismissing concerns about living conditions in IDP camps (and in some instances, like in 2008, putting the camp residents in direct danger), things aren’t about to get any better.

Feeling a little ill? Hold on to your hat. These problems are being made worse by international actors who insist on levying extreme sanctions on Burma.

In theory, the sanctions are justified. If you want to cut off an abusive regime at the knees, you cut off the flow of cash into their coffers. Unfortunately, the only way these measures work is if they’re consistent, and if the markets they’re impacting already enjoy some level of freedom.

With the bulk of Southeast Asia (most notably, China) continuing to conduct trade with Burma, and large financial institutions like RBC and Barclays still allowing financing for projects like the pipeline, AND the Burmese junta continuing is stranglehold on commerce, these sanctions are not stopping the flow of cash to the government. But they ARE stemming the tide of humanitarian aid from reaching the neediest populations, as exemplified in the HIV crisis.

And yet, chances are most people would never be able to point to Burma on a map.

The Point

Hopefully you read all of that. If you didn’t, the short version is that the Burmese junta is oppressive and evil. So why was I all kinds of unsettled in listening to a commentator refer to Burma as “Myanmar”? As The Guardian explained:

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.

This shouldn’t be that hard to understand. Myanmar is the name chosen by the oppressors; Burma is reflective of the people. Choosing to call the nation Myanmar is a sign of solidarity with the government’s reign (and their lengthy list of human rights abuses); choosing to call the nation Burma is a sign of solidarity with the people fighting the good fight. Language is power. Let’s not pretend otherwise. In fact, the same article, which discussed President Obama’s use of both names during his visit (ugh), highlights this VERY IDEA:

Barack Obama had reportedly considered avoiding either name but in the end used both Burma and Myanmar on Monday during his short visit to the country.

The use of the latter pleased his hosts – the Myanmar presidential adviser, Ko Ko Hlaing, called the wording “very positive” and an “acknowledgement of Myanmar’s government” – but White House officials were quick to play down the move as a “diplomatic courtesy”.

In other words, this isn’t something I’m pulling out of thin air. This is a very real debate, and our engagement (either through advocacy or passive reference) matters.

Could this be construed as a simplification? Sure. Will insisting on using the term “Burma” immediately overthrow the junta after 50+ years? Of course not. But in insisting on using the term Burma, we DO open the door to conversation on the subject. If you correct someone referring to the country as Myanmar, you give both of you the opportunity to discuss what’s been happening there, why it’s so awful, and what needs to happen next. And as we can see when looking at public awareness of the situation in Sudan, that kind of knowledge can be powerful in terms of shaping public discourse and action on important issues.

When we’re talking about commentators in the media referring to Burma as Myanmar, I get particularly peeved, though. It’s inconsiderate. It glosses over what’s happening to the people there. It makes it easy to look at the country as “another one of those tiny places over by China.” If your job is to be reporting, ignoring a major human rights crisis, and the impact that has on relationships in the region and throughout the world, is absurd at best.

Maybe, even after reading all this, you still don’t care. Maybe it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to you. That’s fine. If it’s not a big deal to you anyway, then do me a favor, and just use Burma instead of Myanmar. Because while it’s not a big deal to you, in a small nation in Southeast Asia, it means everything.