Category Archives: Burma

What the River Kwai Meant to Thais

From In Buddha’s Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War, by Richard A. Ruth (U. Hawaii Press, 2011), pp. 42-44:

Behind the confident statements issued by Thai and US leaders throughout the first half of 1967, the battle readiness of the regiment was uncertain. American military personnel who had come to train the Thai [Queen's Cobra] regiment were unimpressed by the volunteers’ level of preparedness. From early June, in the ten weeks that remained before embarkation, the American advisers guided the Thai unit through field exercises and training missions in Lopburi, Chonburi, and Kanchanaburi. The Americans had designed “an intense training” program that “drilled the Thai [troops] in the exact tactics and methods of operation employed by the Viet Cong.” They hoped that this crash course would help the Thais counter the guerrilla warfare methods being used by the Vietnamese guerrillas. All of the American instructors came from experienced combat units in South Vietnam and were eager to impart the lessons they had acquired. They attempted to simulate the conditions that the Thais would face in South Vietnam, but despite the physical similarities between Thailand’s and South Vietnam’s landscapes, the Americans found it difficult to impose a sense of urgency or even realism on the regiment that had hitherto been regarded as a domestic symbol. In Kanchanaburi the Americans led the Thai troops in field training exercises that crisscrossed the jungles along the Khwae (or Kwai) River, not far from the site of the bridge built by forced labor for the Japanese Imperial Army’s “Death Railway” during World War II. The fictionalized retelling of the bridge’s construction, as presented in Pierre Boulle’s 1954 novel and its 1957 film adaptation, was on the minds of the Americans as they trained the Thai troops. The hint of cinematic make-believe suggested by the Khwae River location may have contributed to the growing unease among the American instructors. It was as if their appreciation of the book and film undermined their own attempts at simulating realism in the jungles there. The Americans’ effort to impose realistic conditions on the exercises were compromised by the feeling that they had been dropped into a movie set on which a familiar, unrealistic film had been made. While the Thai troops were certainly aware of the cinematic resonance that the Khwae River setting elicited, the region offered them another set of specifically Thai symbols born from a different semifictional source: Thailand’s nationalist history.

The area used in the training exercises was not far from several sites important to the historical imagination shared by most Thai soldiers in this era. Kanchanaburi’s location below the Three Pagoda Pass put it on a major route traditionally used by the Burmese and Siamese armies while invading and raiding each other’s kingdoms. In the nationalist version of Thailand’s history prevalent in 1967, a retelling of events that was particularly popular with members of the Thai military, the Burmese of old were always portrayed as the Thai people’s archenemy. The natural corridor created by the mountains to the west and the Chaophraya floodplain to the east was the site of several celebrated (and historically embellished) clashes between these occasionally bitter rival kingdoms.

The battle of Nong Sarai was certainly on the minds of the Thai volunteer soldiers as they trained for their South Vietnam mission. It had occurred during a phase of Ayutthaya‘s history when the kingdom’s Thai rulers were struggling to retain their sovereignty after several decades of Burmese military occupation. At this site in January 1593, King Naresuan the Great, the most revered figure in this nationalist history, won Siam’s greatest military victory. With his forces pressed to the breaking point, Naresuan was said to have called out the Burmese crown prince to challenge him to a duel on war elephants. After a few minutes of fierce combat, Naresuan got the better of his Burmese rival and killed him with a well-aimed slash of his sword. The Burmese forces panicked and fled south-southwest toward Burma. Naresuan’s army pursued them through Kanchanaburi, decimating their scattered lines.

The Thai soldiers preparing to fight in South Vietnam relished their proximity to the site of Naresuan’s victory. Joseph Callaway described his Thai trainees talking about a centuries-old victory over the Burmese “as though it took place only a few years before.” They cherished the historical memory of the warrior king and asked his spirit to bless their upcoming adventure. The men prayed in an ubosot (Buddhist ordination hall) said to have been visited by Naresuan while he was fighting in the area. Many recalled dreaming of Naresuan while training in Kanchanaburi and fighting in South Vietnam….

In the midst of this atmosphere of competing cultural and historical symbolism, the Thai troops added one realistic detail to their training procedure that may have trumped even the Americans’ passion for realism. The Thai troops carried live ammunition along with the simulated rounds used in their training because they felt they required protection against the dangerous forces that inhabited the Thailand-Burma frontier, everything from cobras and tigers to opium smugglers. Although the American trainers felt that the Thais did not fully comprehend the danger posed by the Viet Cong guerrillas, they were flabbergasted to discover how anxious this apparently sleepy western province made the volunteers.

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Flickr’s Fractured Greetings: Korean

Is anyone else as annoyed as I am by Flickr’s cutesy attempts to improve international understanding (or whatever) by telling you how to say some equivalent of Hello in a randomly chosen language whenever you refresh your Flickr homepage? The one that set me off most recently is Korean Bangawoyo ‘Pleased (to meet you)’, which corresponds in usage to Japanese Hajimemashite, French Enchanté, or Romanian Îmi pare bine (or Frenchified Încântat), and so on. None of those equivalents are on Flickr’s list of greetings. For Korean, I would have expected something like Annyeong (안녕), which is a good match for Arabic Salaam or Hebrew Shalom.

Do Flickr’s intrepid researchers just ask random speakers of random languages for greetings and then accept whatever they’re told? Have they never heard of Omniglot? Can someone tell me what Mingalaba really means in Burmese? ‘Come eat!’ perhaps?

UPDATE: Of course, “Haro! Haro!” was by far the most common greeting directed at Westerners when I was a kid, but was somewhat less common when the Outliers visited in 1985, and much, much rarer during our sabbaticals there in 2005-2006, even when we were pretty far off the usual foreigner circuits. Being greeted as if I were a talking parrot used to irritate me a lot as a kid, as did constantly being stared at, or having my skin or hair stroked or cheeks pinched by little old ladies when I was a child. When a bunch of junior high school boys tried out their “Haro!” on me in the gardens of Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion) in 1985, I responded in Japanese with “Haroharo tte ningen no kotoba desu ka?” (‘Is “haroharo” a human word?’). That seemed to silence them for a few moments.

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Foreign Policy on Indonesia vs. Burma

In Foreign Policy‘s Shadow Government, Dan Twining compares recent positive developments in Indonesia with negative developments in Burma.

Indonesia’s political revolution was also spurred by a regional wave of democratization that spread from the Philippines in 1986 to South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Mongolia, and beyond over the following decade. After free parliamentary elections, Indonesia held its first direct elections for president in 2004, followed by those which have just given President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono a decisive mandate for a second term.

The popular and performance legitimacy required by a system of democratic accountability has led SBY, as he is popularly known, to aspire to lead Indonesia to new heights. With the country’s respected former central bank governor as his new vice president, the leadership team has set a target of matching China’s economic growth rate and attacking entrenched corruption, a corrosive legacy of Suharto‘s clientelistic rule. Democratic Indonesia is finally beginning to punch its weight geopolitically: international newspaper headlines celebrate “Indonesia Rising” and suggest Indonesia as “Another ‘I’ in the BRIC Story.” The U.S. National Intelligence Council predicts that Indonesia will have an economy larger than those of most European nations by the 2020s. Leading Indonesian public intellectuals like Rizal Sukma ambitiously propose “a post-ASEAN foreign policy” of “strategic partnerships with global powers” grounded in Indonesia’s values as a democracy. Yudhoyono speaks proudly of Indonesia’s democracy as a source of soft power in the world and wants to leverage it to expand respect for human dignity and government accountability as sources of regional security, including through new institutions like the Bali Democracy Forum.

Burma is a different story. Its widespread poverty and brutal autocracy are a cancer in the heart of ASEAN, the club led by Asia’s “tiger” economies that inducted Burma in 1997 in the hope that doing so would spur the kind of opening of Burma’s economic and political system that has transformed the fortunes of its neighbors. It hasn’t. Leaders in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and elsewhere are embarrassed by the Burmese junta’s misrule and have been increasingly outspoken in saying so — including during the debate over ASEAN’s new charter, which creates a regional human rights body and is grounded in a framework of political and economic modernity that is anathema to the generals in Naypyidaw (Burma’s new capital, built deep in the jungle and featuring plush underground bunkers for the country’s paranoid leadership).

Since the junta rejected the results of the country’s last elections in 1990, Burma’s people have grown poorer as its ruling elite have grown richer from trade in gems, timber, narcotics, and other commodities, as well as the development of offshore natural gas fields that will deliver billions of dollars in revenues to Burma’s governing elite over the coming decade. Civil conflict stemming from the junta’s rule has produced millions of internally displaced people and refugees. Forced and child labor are rampant. The regime’s security forces fired on peacefully demonstrating monks and rounded up large numbers of innocent civilians following non-violent protests in 2007. The country’s political opposition has been eviscerated. The junta may be cooperating with North Korea to develop nuclear weapons.

In short, the pathologies that afflict Burma’s failing state, all either derived or exacerbated by political misrule, make its regime a threat to its people, its neighbors, and the wider world. Burma’s descent is in many respects a mirror-image of the success of Indonesia’s vibrant democracy next door.

via Oxblog

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Burma: Engagement Has Failed, Isolation Has Failed

I’ve posted a good bit about Burma since starting to blog almost four years ago, but I’ve been hesitant to post much now because I feel we are all little more than drive-by rubberneckers, turning our heads toward Burma just long enough to catch a glimpse of yet another passing segment in the endless video of disaster news that no one can really do much about—apart from finding a way to pin the blame on one’s favorite ideological demons, of course. Every disaster is good for blind partisans.

But a current article in Foreign Affairs seems to offer a useful retrospective on two opposing diplomatic dead-ends. Both engagement by its neighbors and isolation by more distant but powerful forces seem to have failed.

U.S. policy toward Burma is stuck. Since September 1988, the country has been run by a corrupt and repressive military junta (which renamed the country Myanmar). Soon after taking power, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), as the junta was then called, placed Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition party the National League for Democracy, under house arrest. In 1990, it allowed national elections but then ignored the National League for Democracy’s landslide victory and clung to power. Then, in the mid-1990s, amid a cresting wave of post-Cold War democratization and in response to international pressure, the SLORC released Suu Kyi. At the time, there was a sense within the country and abroad that change in Burma might be possible.

But this proved to be a false promise, and the international community could not agree on what to do next. Many Western governments, legislatures, and human rights organizations advocated applying pressure through diplomatic isolation and punitive economic sanctions. Burma’s neighbors, on the other hand, adopted a form of constructive engagement in the hope of enticing the SLORC to reform. The result was an uncoordinated array of often contradictory approaches. The United States limited its diplomatic contact with the SLORC and eventually imposed mandatory trade and investment restrictions on the regime. Europe became a vocal advocate for political reform. But most Asian states moved to expand trade, aid, and diplomatic engagement with the junta, most notably by granting Burma full membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997.

A decade later, the verdict is in: neither sanctions nor constructive engagement has worked. If anything, Burma has evolved from being an antidemocratic embarrassment and humanitarian disaster to being a serious threat to the security of its neighbors. But despite the mounting danger, many in the United States and the international community are still mired in the old sanctions-versus-engagement battle….

If ASEAN and Japan are critical components of any international approach to Burma, China and India could be the greatest obstacles to efforts to induce reform in the country. China has many interests in Burma. Over the past 15 years, it has developed deep political and economic relations with Burma, largely through billions of dollars in trade and investment and more than a billion dollars’ worth of weapons sales. It enjoys important military benefits, including access to ports and listening posts, which allow its armed forces to monitor naval and other military activities around the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea. To feed its insatiable appetite for energy, it also seeks preferential deals for access to Burma’s oil and gas reserves….

It will also be a challenge getting India on board. Despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s trumpeting of democratic values, India has actually become more reticent when it comes to Burma in recent years. This is particularly regrettable considering that Congress was one of the Burmese democratic opposition’s strongest supporters during much of the 1990s and that Suu Kyi continues to cite Mohandas Gandhi as a model for nonviolent resistance. The change occurred during the past decade, after New Delhi detected that China’s political and military influence in Burma was filling the void left by the international community’s deliberate isolation of the junta. Like China, India is hungry for natural gas and other resources and is eager to build a road network through Burma that would expand its trade with ASEAN. As a result, it has attempted to match China step for step as an economic and military partner of the SPDC, providing tanks, light artillery, reconnaissance and patrol aircraft, and small arms; India is now Burma’s fourth-largest trading partner. Singh’s government has also fallen for the junta’s blackmail over cross-border drug and arms trafficking and has preferred to give it military and economic assistance rather than let Burma become a safe haven for insurgents active in India’s troubled northeastern region….

Given the differing perspectives and interests of these nations, a new multilateral initiative on Burma cannot be based on a single, uniform approach. Sanctions policies will need to coexist with various forms of engagement, and it will be necessary to coordinate all of these measures toward the common end of encouraging reform, reconciliation, and ultimately the return of democracy. To succeed, the region’s major players will need to work together.

Fat chance of that happening, I’m afraid.

As a gesture of mourning for the lives being sacrificed to ‘keep the peace’, I’ll retain one header image for the rest of the week. It’s a stupa-style memorial dedicated to Japanese war dead in Burma, which I came across in the massive Okunoin cemetery at Kōya-san, one of Japanese Buddhism’s holiest sites.

via Arts & Letters Daily

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Etymologically, Myanmar = Burma: Round Two

I’ve blogged on Myanmar = Burma before, but it seems to bear repeating before that sad country once again fades from international consciousness. Here’s the email I sent to the PBS NewsHour last week.

As a regular NewsHour watcher, I find it painful to hear Jim Lehrer pronounce Myanmar as ME-and-Mar, for two reasons.

(1) One is the same reason English speakers insist on pronouncing Kyoto in three syllables. They can pronounce kyu in one syllable (as in ‘cue ball’), but not kyo. I’m sure Jim can pronounce myu in one syllable, as in ‘musing’, but can’t get mya out in one syllable.

(2) But I wouldn’t bother to write you about it if I hadn’t heard Jim offer a lame bit of newsroom CW to explain why he insists on using the name he can’t pronounce rather than the name he can pronounce. Etymologically, Myanmar and Burma are the same word, just pronounced differently. One is formal and literary, the other more common and colloquial. Here’s what a reputable academic specialist says on the matter: “Myanmar/Burma,” by Bertil Lintner, in Ethnicity in Asia, ed. by Colin Mackerras (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), p. 174:

In 1989, Burma‘s military government changed the name of the country to Myanmar. The reason, it said, was that the British colonial power had named it ‘Burma’ after the main ethnic group in the country, the Burmese, who inhabit the central plains. ‘Myanmar’, it was argued, included the Burmese and all other ‘ethnic races’, including the Shan, the Karen, the Mon, the Kachin and more than 100 other nationalities. This is, however, historically and linguistically highly dubious. The once-British colony has always been called Burma in English and bama or myanma in Burmese.

The best explanation of the difference between bama and myanma is to be found in the Hobson-Jobson Dictionary, which remains a very useful source of information. ‘The name [Burma] is taken from Mran-ma, the national name of the Burmese people, which they themselves generally pronounce Bam-ma, unless speaking formally and emphatically.’

Both names have been used interchangeably throughout history, with Burma being more colloquial and Myanmar more formal. Burma and Myanmar (and Burmese and Myanmar) mean exactly the same thing, and it is hard to argue that the term ‘Myanmar’ would include any more people within the present union than the name ‘Burma’.

There is no term in the language that includes both the Burmans and the minority peoples, since no country with the borders of present-day Burma existed before the arrival of the British in the nineteenth century. Burma, with its present boundaries, is a colonial creation rife with internal contractions and divisions.

If an academic source is too arcane, then perhaps Jim will listen to what a fellow journalist, James Fallows, has to say. He, too, insists on saying Burma not Myanmar [but for political reasons].

The BBC has also weighed in on the topic, favoring the alternative Burma, but its pronunciation guide for those who insist on using Myanmar lists several possibilities—MYAN-mar, my-uhn-MAR, MEE-and-mar, and mi-AN-mar—but recommends myan-MAR (all without pronouncing the final r).

For more discussion, visit Language Hat.

UPDATE: I’m way out of my depth on the issue of Burmese orthography, but from what I understand, written Burmese and spoken Burmese are in a diglossic relationship perhaps akin to that between Classical Arabic and the rich diversity of contemporary colloquial Arabic, or between Classical Chinese and modern spoken Chinese languages and dialects. Written Chinese underwent drastic reforms during the early 20th century to reflect modern spoken Mandarin, but Burmese still awaits such orthographic reforms. So people may write Burmese as it was spoken 1000 years ago (e.g., Mran-ma) but pronounce the same words the way they have turned out after 1000 years of sound change (e.g., Bam-ma), even writing millennium-old grammatical elements that are now archaic or obsolete in the spoken language. It would be as if all English speakers shared no writing system except a Runic version of Anglo-Saxon.

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The Race for Burma’s Natural Gas

The February issue of HIMAL SOUTHASIAN reports on the competition for Burma’s huge deposits of natural gas and what it means for human rights in one of the most oppressive regimes in Asia.

Even as Southasia’s energy-strapped, fast-growing economies have led many to wonder whether antagonistic neighbours may be pushed together into forced cooperation, on the eastern edge of the region a less optimistic dynamic is playing out. Indeed, the huge natural-gas reserves of Burma have caused many Asian governments to turn a blind eye to Rangoon’s continued oppressive and non-democratic tactics.

Burma stands on the world’s tenth largest natural-gas reserves, estimated at more than 90 trillion cubic feet (tcf) in 19 on-shore and three major offshore fields. As the economies of South, Southeast and East Asia have soared upwards in recent years, the Shwe ‘gas block’ in western Burma’s Arakan state has instigated intense competition between India, China, South Korea, Thailand, Japan and Singapore. South Korea’s Daewoo International estimates that just two blocks from the Shwe gas field together have a reserve of about 20 tcf, equivalent to about 3.5 billion barrels of oil. There are currently four stakeholders in the Shwe Gas Project – Daewoo (which controls 60 percent), KOGAS of South Korea, and two Indian interests, the Oil and Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) and the Gas Authority of India Limited (GAIL)….

Burma remains one of the most repressive countries in Asia, despite promises for political reform and national reconciliation by its government, which continues to spend 40 percent of the country’s national budget on defence, and just five to ten percent on health and education. Burma’s military, the Tatmadaw, is Southeast Asia’s second largest conventional force, estimated at over 400,000 troops. The junta stands to profit by up to USD 17 billion dollars from the Shwe Gas Project over its lifespan, which could become the government’s single largest source of revenue – up to USD 825 million per year….

Meanwhile, in early January 2007, just days after China and Russia jointly blocked a proposal before the United Nations Security Council to censure Rangoon’s continued human-rights abuses, the Chinese government landed a new deal to further explore Burma’s petroleum resources. Negotiations between India and Burma over gas pricing are continuing, with an agreement expected by the middle of the year. Such is the desperation for Burmese natural gas in India, and such a fear of growing Chinese influence on Burma, that human-rights issues will cut much ice in New Delhi – particularly if the Indian civil society continues to keep mum.

via The Marmot

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Finding Burmese Speakers During WW2

On Language Log, Mark Liberman has been excerpting passages from J Milton Cowan‘s brief memoir, “American Linguistics in Peace and at War.”

It is difficult today to visualize some of the obstacles we had to overcome. To illustrate I will tell the Burmese story because it has multiple punch lines. In the lottery of languages William S. Cornyn drew the Burmese straw. This frightened him a bit but Leonard Bloomfield promised to hold his hand. Nobody knew where to find any native speakers of Burmese and the files of the Alien Registration Act were classified. The Department of Immigration and Naturalization said there were no Burmese legally in the country at the time. There were supposed to be some sailors who’d jumped ship in New York and San Francisco but they hadn’t caught up with them yet.

Mortimer sent me to the Pentagon to see a young fellow in G-2 (Military Intelligence), Major Dean Rusk, a name not so well-known in those days, but known to Mortimer. I described the non-existence of known Burmans and why we wanted some. He volunteered to see what could be done with the roster of Alien Registration. He phoned our offices the same afternoon, saying tht he had over a hundred names and he’d call back as soon as he could have them decoded. Next morning he phoned to say there was something funny, there were Abernathys, Browns, Davenports, Fitzgeralds and so on down through the Youngs. It turned out that the Roster listed those foreigners residing in the U.S. who had been born in Burma, regardless of their current nationality. These were the names of children born to business people and missionaries while living in Burma. There were only two names that sounded exotic enough to be possible Burmans.

Read the rest at Language Log

When I was a missionary kid in elementary school in Kyoto, I remember reading a biography of Adoniram Judson, a pioneering Christian missionary in Burma at a time when converts risked death sentences for changing their religion. Judson was no slouch as a linguist, either.

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