Monthly Archives: September 2007

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.


Filed under Burma, language

Sam Quinones on Two Mexicos

This post from its introduction concludes my series of excerpts from the fascinating book, True Tales from Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino, and the Bronx, by Sam Quinones (U. New Mexico Press, 2001). I look forward to reading his newest book, which I ordered at the same time.

The Priista/licenciado is the modern version of the hacienda owner and the Spanish noble. He doesn’t return phone calls to anyone less important than he is. He is accountable only to those above him. He keeps those seeking employment waiting in his lobby for hours because he can. His shoes are too well shined to belong to anyone who really works. His sinecure insulates him from the higher standards the world demands, and from this he derives his inertia.

The Priista/licenciado culture remains an anchor around the neck of Mexico’s development. It assumes the superiority of those with power and thus is fundamentally unfair. Though clad in double-breasted suits, this part of Mexico remains emotionally stuck in the sixteenth century. It is the modern expression of the ossified top-down, hierarchical tradition left the country by the Aztecs, the Spanish, the Catholic Church, and the dictator Porfirio Diaz. This side of Mexico is hardly ready for the demands of democracy and the global economy. The very term licenciado is supposed to conjure up some kind of innate wisdom. The licenciado doesn’t need to prove his worth; he is entitled to more than his labor produces. The Priista is a Priista precisely because adhering to the state endows him with special rights. Mexico’s world-famous corruption has its roots here, and so therefore does Mexicans’ belief that their society is unjust.

I mention all this because this part of Mexico is what the world seems to know best. Certainly the press, other governments, and tourists are most aware of the official, elite, corrupt Mexico; the Mexico that won’t allow a poor man a chance; the Mexico behind the sunglasses. I’ve even been told by people, including Mexicans, that this is Mexican culture. But I know that’s not true. There is another Mexico.

This other side is vital and dynamic and is often found on Mexico’s margins. The other side of Mexico is not always pretty, but it is self-reliant and adventurous.

And this Mexico is what this book is about….

The emigrant stands for the country’s vital side. He uses his wits and imagination. He strikes out on his own, looking for a future. One emigrant does not require two people attending to his needs. Some twelve million Mexicans reside year-round in the United States. Many millions more have lived and worked there or spend part of the year up north. The United States is now part of the Mexican reality and is where this other Mexico is often found, reinventing itself.

Official Mexico holds their absence against them. Emigrants are resented for their daring. In official Mexico’s twisted point of view, emigrants must explain why they aren’t traitors to their country….

The country’s greatest modern catastrophe is that it has treated the emigrant poorly and thus been deprived of his dynamism. His absence is of greater consequence to Mexico than the nineteenth-century territorial losses of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Mexico survives today largely because the emigrant cannot bring himself to fail his country the way the licenciado so miserably fails him.

Much the same could be said for the Philippines and so many other major exporters of migrant labor.

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Mexico’s Lumpendeputies, the Bronxistas

From True Tales from Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino, and the Bronx, by Sam Quinones (U. New Mexico Press, 2001), pp. 184, 187-188:

No Bronx was needed during the decades of PRI hegemony, when virtually all congressmen were Priistas. An occasional opposition critic at the podium was even a welcome sight, adding a democratic veneer to an authoritarian exercise.

Congressmen then were known as levantadedos—finger raisers. Cartoonists portrayed them asleep in their chairs with their fingers in the air. They took orders from the president and approved whatever he proposed. Some deputies couldn’t read or write. It didn’t matter. They had been powerless since 1933. [Sounds like one-party Hawai‘i during the 1980s—and probably the 1930s as well.]

A fire in the chamber [in 1991] forced the 55th [Legislature of the Chamber of Deputies] to spend many months in an auditorium at Centro Médico—the medical center several miles away. The auditorium had no offices, no secretaries, no telephones. Simple things like writing a letter were major undertakings. Most PRI deputies were already shut out of the decision making, which was the exclusive domain of an elite crew of twenty or so Priistas. Now they didn’t even have secretaries. They felt like schoolchildren. Ghettoized, they commiserated, and soon a collective bond emerged among sixty or so deputies. As the months wore on, they hit on the idea of publishing a newspaper as an outlet for their festering frustration…. Their newspaper … was to be a clandestine organ of dissent and barbed humor, written anonymously. [Arturo] Nájera was put in charge of collecting articles.

The paper was first published in December 1991 and was known as La Daga—The Dagger. La Daga looked like a junior high school newspaper. Only eleven editions were ever published…. La Daga was by and for the rabble. It had no budget. It was written on a typewriter—full of spelling mistakes—then xeroxed and stapled together. La Daga was a collection of gossip, anecdotes, sexual innuendo, and cartoons making fun of important chamber members—and in that lay whatever transcendence it achieved. Soon dozens of deputies were contributing. “You know, there were 250 or so underemployed congressmen,” said Nájera. “If you’re sitting there with nothing to do, in two hours you can write a poem or an article.” There was often too much to publish.

Yet if this group of deputies showed signs of rebellion, its main function was to ridicule opposition deputies at the podium. “Lumpendeputies,” one opposition-party colleague called them. Wisecracking sustained them in their discredit. Relegated, disrespected, crude—the group developed an esprit de corps around its name. How it got that name is in dispute. Nájera says it was given them by Esteban Zamora, a PAN deputy. One day, the story goes, they were attacking Zamora as he spoke from the podium. “You over there in the Bronx, leave me alone,” Zamora supposedly boomed in response. Zamora denies coming up with the name, though he admits calling them “la broza del PRI” (“the PRI’s rubbish”). “They’d already named themselves the Bronx. I didn’t invent that,” Zamora told me. “Please don’t attribute it to me. It would be an insult to the district in New York.”

Whatever the case, Mexicans had long associated the term with aggressive behavior. The group donned the name—La Daga became its voice. La Daga eventually published a map of the chamber. The PAN section was labeled Queens; the PRD, Harlem. The PRI leadership section was commonly known as the Bubble by this time, but it was labeled the Holy Sanctuary, while the group of powerful Priistas directly behind it was christened Manhattan. Left field, made up of Priistas who didn’t yell or participate but more or less bided their time, was dubbed New Jersey. In right field was the Bronx. “I think among many of us who formed the Bronx, there was this spirit of independence, of not enslaving ourselves to an orthodox, closed regime,” Nájera said. “We formed a wing that superficially could be seen as ‘rudos’—with the yelling and all that. But that wasn’t the intention. Rather it was a way of permeating this impenetrable bubble of power.”

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The 1st and 2nd Filipino Regiments in the Pacific War

I have heard endlessly about the exploits of the Japanese American units during World War 2, the 100th Battalion and 442d Regimental Combat Team, but I had never heard about the 1st and 2nd Filipino Regiments. Here are a few excerpts from a much longer account at the California State Military Museum website.

The Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934 treated the Filipinos in the U.S. as aliens. Although the Philippine Commonwealth Constitution permitted the United States to draft Filipinos in the Philippines to defend American interests there, Filipinos in the United States, quite ironically, were exempt from military service.

Thousands of Filipinos had petitioned for the right to serve in the U.S. military immediately after December 7, 1941. On January 2, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed a law revising the Selective Service Act. Filipinos in the United States could now join the U.S. Armed Forces and they were urged to volunteer for service. President Roosevelt quickly authorized the founding of a Filipino battalion, which would be organized for service overseas. It estimated the number of available Filipino volunteers between 70,000 and 100,000.

The 1st Filipino Battalion was formed on March 4, 1942 and activated in April 1 at Camp San Luis Obispo, California. Lieutenant Colonel Robert H. Offley, who had served in the Philippines and spoke passable Tagalog, volunteered to be assigned to the unit as its first commander. He assumed command in April 8, 1942. The War Department also directed Philippine army officers and soldiers who were stranded in the United States at the start of the war to report to the unit. An unusual point is the designation of the unit. Previous Filipino units in the U.S. Army had been designated “Philippine” such as the Philippine Scouts. All units raised in the U.S. during the war were designated “Filipino.” Also, it would not be until the end of the war that the Filipino military units would carry the designation “Infantry” in their title although their regimental colors from the very beginning were displayed on a blue field, the traditional color of the infantry branch of the army.

A number of wounded Philippine Army and Philippine Scouts had escaped to Australia from the Philippines on board the USS Mactan in December 1941. Some remained in Australia to form the nucleus of what would eventually become the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, but the rest were sent to the United States for further medical treatment. These men eventually reported to the 1st Filipino Battalion.

Contrary to popular belief, the 1st Filipino Battalion was not established as a result of the American policy of social segregation. Only Filipinos who volunteered for assignment to the unit were sent to it. Many others, such as Eutiquio V. “Vic” Bacho, served with distinction in “American” (white) units in the European theater of operations during the war. Doroteo Vite wrote in a national magazine that Filipinos should take the opportunity to serve in all-white units to educate them so that at the end of the war, white Americans would support the Filipino American agenda of equality….

In April 1942, Lieutenant General John L. Dewitt, Western Defense Commander, ordered the Japanese on the West Coast into concentration camps. Miguel Ignacio, secretary of the Filipino American community of San Francisco, called attention to several American-born Japanese women, citizens of the United States, who had Filipino husbands, and Filipino-Japanese children who were U.S. citizens by birth. Despite the efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union, Dewitt ordered the women and children to spend the duration of the war in the internment camps. Many of these Filipino husbands went on to serve in the 1st and 2nd Filipino Regiments, defending the nation whose racist policies held their families hostage.

In September 1942, the first group of qualified Filipino enlisted men was sent to the Officer Candidate School, Fort Benning, Georgia. Upon graduation, they were commissioned second lieutenants in the U.S. Army. The War Department planned to have Filipino officers eventually command the majority of the combat units in the 1st and 2nd Filipino Regiments. Events beyond the control of the military planners in Washington, D.C. intervened to prevent this from being fully implemented.

So many Filipino volunteers came from all over the United States that the 2nd Filipino Infantry Regiment was formed at Fort Ord, California on November 22, 1942. In January 1943, the 1st Regiment was reassigned to Camp Beale, near Sacramento and the 2nd Regiment to Camp Cooke, near Santa Maria. The two regiments were to be joined by a third regiment consisting of Filipinos from the Hawaiian National Guard. However, the Hawaiian Sugar Plantation Association argued successfully with the martial law commanders in Hawaii that not only was cheap labor on the plantations necessary to support the war effort, the Filipinos in Hawaii were forbidden by the Tydings-McDuffie Act from going to the continental U.S. The men could not leave the sugar plantations and were paid substandard wages for the duration of the war. This would have serious consequences in 1946 when the militant Filipino labor unions shut down the islands until their demands for wage increases and better working conditions were met.

As a result of a May 1942 Gallup Poll showing strong support for the naturalization of Filipinos, the Filipino Naturalization Bill was passed. Pinoy GI’s were urged to apply for U.S. citizenship. A mass swearing in of over 1,000 soldiers was held at Camp Beale on February 20, 1943. Many of the men, however, resisted becoming citizens. T-5 Julius B. Ruiz stated that although he had lived in the United States for many years and was now serving in the U.S. Army, his goal was to liberate his country, the Philippines. by the time the 1st Regiment left for the western Pacific in May 1944, over half of the men in the unit were U.S. citizens….

Before the 1st Regiment departed for the western Pacific in May 1944, Colonel Offley had a major dilemma on his hands. Even though his regimental chaplains were prepared to perform marriage ceremonies between the Filipino soldiers and their white girlfriends, the strict anti-miscegenation laws in California prevented the men from applying for marriage licenses. Colonel Offley solved this by sending his soldiers and their sweethearts to Gallup, New Mexico on chartered buses that soon came to be called the “honeymoon express.”

Meanwhile in New Guinea, the 1st Regiment quickly integrated its first batch of replacements consisting of Filipino Americans from Hawaii. Colonel Offley gave Lt. Col. Leon Punsalang, a West Point graduate, command of the 1st Battalion. This was the first time in the history of the U.S. Army that Asian Americans commanded white troops in combat.


Filed under Japan, Philippines, U.S., war

Yap’s Role in the Saipan Campaign, June 1944

When I was looking up stuff about Yap, Micronesia, for a recent post, I came across a very informative website, with both photographs courtesy of the Micronesian Seminar and the National Archives—and even video—about the bombing of Yap during the Pacific War, about which I heard many stories during my time there in 1974. I have corrected obvious spelling errors in the following extract.

At dawn, on the 15th of June 1944, American amphibious forces swept into Saipan to begin the hard ground fighting that was to bring the Japanese homeland within range of our Superfortresses. For more than two weeks prior to the landings, Thirteenth Air Force Liberators, based on Los Negros, had been pounding Truk to neutralize the strategic Japanese base and to prevent the enemy from reinforcing Saipan by air.

A large Japanese task force, estimated at 40 ships or more, was sighted some distance north of Yap Island, on the 19th of June 1944. Carrier planes from this task force lashed out at the powerful units of the United States Pacific Fleet which were then supporting Allied ground forces on Saipan. The conflict that followed was the first major battle between elements of the Japanese and United States fleets in nearly two years. As at Midway, two years earlier, all of the offensive action was by carrier-based aircraft. By the time the Japanese fleet broke off the engagement, U.S. Task Force “58” had destroyed nearly 400 enemy aircraft and had sunk or damaged 14 Japanese ships.

Liberators of the Thirteenth Air Force were called upon to reach out more than 1,000 statute miles from their Los Negros base to hit Japanese warships that might seek refuge or fuel in Yap Harbor. On 22 June, 33 Liberators were over Yap in the longest mass mission the Thirteenth had yet flown. Trained eyes peered down on the harbor far below. There were no warships to be seen. The heavies wheeled and made their run on the secondary target, Yap Airdrome. Their 33-ton bomb load struck the runway and the dispersal areas with devastating effect.

View a large Yap Area Map

The Japanese were caught completely by surprise; not a single one of the more than 40 planes on the ground was able to take off and fly into the air. Nineteen enemy planes were definitely destroyed, and 15 were damaged; the runway was cratered and rendered unserviceable.

For six consecutive days after the raid of the 22nd of June, the Liberators blasted Yap, keeping the runway unserviceable and preventing its use in ferrying planes from the Philippines to the Marianas to aid the hard-pressed defenders of Saipan.

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English as an Indigenous Pacific Island Language

From English on the Bonin (Ogasawara) Islands, by Daniel Long (Duke U. Press, 2007; Publication of the American Dialect Society, no. 91; Supplement to American Speech, vol. 81), pp. 3, 9-10:

IT IS A LITTLE KNOWN LINGUISTIC FACT that among a group of Western Pacific islands English is maintained as a community language of the indigenous population. These are the Bonin Islands. Today, these islands (also called Ogasawara Islands) are part of Japan and their population, Japanese citizens, but the English language has survived there, as both a tool of communication and a marker of their unique identity. This book attempts to provide an outline of the English of the Bonin Islands in its various forms and incarnations from 1830 to the present….

The Bonin Islands appear to have lain completely uninhabited until Pacific Islander women and European and American men of widely varying linguistic backgrounds began to settle there in the early 1800s (see sections 2.1 and 2.2). Evidence from a variety of sources indicates that a Pidgin English (with a substratum formed from the other settlers’ native languages) developed as the community’s common tongue. Later the children born and raised in this language environment are thought to have acquired this as their native language (i.e., creoloidization occurred).

In the 1860s and 1870s, Japan laid claim to the islands and they experienced a huge influx of Japanese settlers. The Japanese established the first-ever schools on the islands, initiating bilingual (English and Japanese) education. Increasingly intense bilingualism initiated the processes of SYNTACTIC CONVERGENCE, leading to the development of a second contact language (a Mixed Language) comprised of a Japanese substratum and a lexicon supplied by the earlier English-based creoloid.

After World War II, the linguistic situation on the islands took another sharp turn when the U.S. Navy took control, allowing only those islanders of “Western” ancestry to live on the islands and subsequently establishing a school conducted in English. This period of American occupation and absolute isolation from Japanese ended abruptly in 1968 when the islands were returned to Japanese rule and the displaced Japanese islanders (living then in mainland Japan for a quarter century) were allowed to return home. The Ogasawara Mixed Language and Ogasawara Creoloid English have long coexisted with Japanese and English acrolects, but increasing mobility and improved communication technology seem to be accelerating decreoloidization and (dare I say) “de-mixed-language-ization.”

In the 170-year linguistic history of the Bonin Islands, the dominant language has shifted from English (from 1830) to Japanese (1876), back to English (1946), and back again to Japanese (1968).

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Judt on Ceausescu and His Downfall

I’ve been rationing my posts from the eminently quotable Judt in order to excerpt this whole section on Nicolae Ceauşescu (illustrated with my own photos from 1984) from Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, by Tony Judt (Penguin, 2005), pp. 622-626:

[I]t seems clear that in December 1989 one faction within the ruling Romanian Workers’ Party did indeed decide that its best chance of survival lay in forcibly removing the ruling coterie around Nicolae Ceauşescu. Romania, of course, was not a typical Communist state. If Czechoslovakia was the most western of the Communist satellite countries, Romania was the most ‘oriental’. Under Ceauşescu, Communism had degenerated from national Leninism to a sort of neo-Stalinist satrapy, where Byzantine levels of nepotism and inefficiency were propped in place by a tentacular secret police.

Compared with Dej’s vicious dictatorship of the Fifties, Ceauşescu’s regime got by with relatively little overt brutality; but the rare hints of public protest—strikes in the Jiu mining valley in August 1977, for example, or a decade later at the Red Star tractor works in Braşov—were violently and effectively suppressed. Moreover, Ceauşescu could count not only on a cowed population but also upon a remarkable lack of foreign criticism for his actions at home: eight months after imprisoning the strike leaders in the Jiu Valley (and murdering their leaders) the Romanian dictator was visiting the United States as the guest of President Jimmy Carter. By taking his distance from Moscow—we have seen how Romania abstained from the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia—Ceauşescu bought himself freedom of maneuver and even foreign acclaim, particularly in the early stages of the ‘new’ Cold War of the 1980s. Because the Romanian leader was happy to criticize the Russians (and send his gymnasts to the Los Angeles Olympics), Americans and others kept quiet about his domestic crimes.* (*At least until the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, after which the West had no further use for an anti-Soviet maverick.)

Romanians, however, paid a terrible price for Ceauşescu’s privileged status. In 1966, to increase the population—a traditional ‘Romanianist’ obsession—he prohibited abortion for women under forty with fewer than four children (in 1986 the age barrier was raised to forty-five). In 1984 the minimum marriage age for women was reduced to fifteen. Compulsory monthly medical examinations for all women of childbearing age were introduced to prevent abortions, which were permitted, if at all, only in the presence of a Party representative. Doctors in districts with a declining birth rate had their salaries cut.

Stork nest, Rasinari, 1984The population did not increase, but the death rate from abortions far exceeded that of any other European country: as the only available form of birth control, illegal abortions were widely performed, often under the most appalling and dangerous conditions. Over the ensuing twenty-three years the 1966 law resulted in the death of at least ten thousand women. The real infant mortality rate was so high that after 1985 births were not officially recorded until a child had survived to its fourth week—the apotheosis of Communist control of knowledge. By the time Ceauşescu was overthrown the death rate of new-born babies was twenty-five per thousand and there were upward of 100,000 institutionalized children.

The setting for this national tragedy was an economy that was deliberately turned backward, from subsistence into destitution. In the early Eighties, Ceauşescu decided to enhance his country’s international standing still further by paying down Romania’s huge foreign debts. The agencies of international capitalism—starting with the International Monetary Fund—were delighted and could not praise the Romanian dictator enough. Bucharest was granted a complete rescheduling of its external debt. To payoff his Western creditors, Ceauşescu applied unrelenting and unprecedented pressure upon domestic consumption.

In contrast to Communist rulers elsewhere, unrestrainedly borrowing abroad to bribe their subjects with well-stocked shelves, the Romanian Conducator set about exporting every available domestically-produced commodity. Romanians were forced to use 40-watt bulbs at home (when electricity was available) so that energy could be exported to Italy and Germany. Meat, sugar, flour, butter, eggs, and much more were strictly rationed. To ratchet up productivity, fixed quotas were introduced for obligatory public labour on Sundays and holidays (the corvée, as it was known in ancien régime France).

Horsecart in Sibiu, 1984Petrol usage was cut to the minimum: in 1986 a program of horse-breeding to substitute for motorized vehicles was introduced. Horse-drawn carts became the main means of transport and the harvest was brought in by scythe and sickle. This was something truly new: all socialist systems depended upon the centralized control of systemically induced shortages, but in Romania an economy based on over-investment in unwanted industrial hardware was successfully switched into one based on pre-industrial agrarian subsistence.

Plowing with oxen in the western mountains of Romania, 1984Ceauşescu’s policies had a certain ghoulish logic. Romania did indeed payoff its international creditors, albeit at the cost of reducing its population to penury. But there was more to Ceauşescu’s rule, in his last years, than just crazy economics. The better to control the country’s rural population—and increase still further the pressure on peasant farmers to produce food for export—the regime inaugurated a proposed ‘systematization’ [sistematizare] of the Romanian countryside. Half of the country’s 13,000 villages (disproportionately selected from minority communities) were to be forcibly razed, their residents transferred into 558 ‘agro-towns’. Had Ceauşescu been granted the time to carry through this project it would utterly have destroyed what little remained of the country’s social fabric.

The rural ‘systemization’ project was driven forward by the Romanian dictator’s mounting megalomania. Under Ceauşescu the Leninist impulse to control, centralize and plan every detail of daily life graduated into an obsession with homogeneity and grandeur surpassing even the ambitions of Stalin himself. The enduring physical incarnation of this monomaniacal urge was to be the country’s capital, scheduled for an imperial make-over on a scale unprecedented since Nero. This project for the ‘renovation’ of Bucharest was to be aborted by the coup of December 1989; but enough was done for Ceauşescu’s ambition to be indelibly etched into the fabric of the contemporary city. A historic district of central Bucharest the size of Venice was completely flattened. Forty thousand buildings and dozens of churches and other monuments were razed to make space for a new ‘House of the People’ and the five-kilometer-long, 150-meter-wide Victory of Socialism Boulevard.

The whole undertaking was mere façade. Behind the gleaming white frontages of the boulevard were run up the familiar dirty, grim, pre-cast concrete blocks. But the façade itself was aggressively, humiliatingly, unrelentingly uniform, a visual encapsulation of totalitarian rule. The House of the People, designed by a twenty-five-year-old architect (Anca Petrescu) as Ceauşescu’s personal palace, was indescribably and uniquely ugly even by the standards of its genre. Grotesque, cruel and tasteless it was above all big (three times the size of the Palace of Versailles …). Fronted by a vast hemicycle space that can hold half a million people, its reception area the size of a football pitch, Ceauşescu’s palace was (and remains) a monstrous lapidary metaphor for unconstrained tyranny, Romania’s very own contribution to totalitarian urbanism.

Woodcutter’s pantheon, Maramures, 1984Romanian Communism in its last years sat uneasily athwart the intersection of brutality and parody. Portraits of the Party leader and his wife were everywhere; his praise was sung in dithyrambic terms that might have embarrassed even Stalin himself (though not perhaps North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, with whom the Romanian leader was sometimes compared). A short list of the epithets officially-approved by Ceauşescu for use in accounts of his achievements would include: The Architect; The Creed-shaper; The Wise Helmsman; The Tallest Mast; The Nimbus of Victory; The Visionary; The Titan; The Son of the Sun; A Danube of Thought; and The Genius of the Carpathians.

What Ceauşescu’s sycophantic colleagues really thought of all this they were not saying. But it is clear that by November 1989—when, after sixty-seven standing ovations, he was re-elected Secretary General of the Party and proudly declared that there were to be no reforms—a number of them had begun to regard him as a liability: remote and out of touch not just with the mood of the times but with the rising level of desperation among his own subjects. But so long as he had the backing of the secret police, the Securitate, Ceauşescu appeared untouchable.

Timisoara cathedral, 1984Appropriately enough, then, it was the Securitate who precipitated the regime’s fall when, in December 1989, they tried to remove a popular Hungarian Protestant pastor, Lázslo Tökés, in the western city of Timisoara. The Hungarian minority, a special object of prejudice and repression under Ceauşescu’s rule, had been encouraged by developments just across the border in Hungary and were all the more resentful at the continuing abuses to which they were subject at home. Tökés became a symbol and focus for their frustrations and, when the regime targeted him on December 15th, the church in which he had taken refuge was surrounded by parishioners holding an all-night vigil in his support.

The following day, as the vigil turned unexpectedly into a demonstration against the regime, the police and the army were brought out to shoot into the crowd. Exaggerated reports of the ‘massacre’ were carried on Voice of America and Radio Free Europe and spread around the country. To quell the unprecedented protests, which had now spread from Timisoara to Bucharest itself, Ceauşescu returned from an official visit to Iran. On December 21st he appeared on a balcony at Party headquarters with the intention of making a speech denouncing the ‘minority’ of ‘troublemakers’—and was heckled into shocked and stunned silence. The following day, after making a second unsuccessful attempt to address the gathering crowds, Ceauşescu and his wife fled from the roof of the Party building in a helicopter.

At this point the balance of power swung sharply away from the regime. At first the army had appeared to back the dictator, occupying the streets of the capital and firing on demonstrators who tried to seize the national television studios. But from December 22nd the soldiers, now directed by a ‘National Salvation Front’ (NSF) that took over the television building, switched sides and found themselves pitted against heavily armed Securitate troops. Meanwhile the Ceauşescus were caught, arrested and summarily tried. Found guilty of ‘crimes against the state’ they were hastily executed on Christmas Day, 1989.* (*The trial and execution by firing squad were filmed for television, but not shown until two days later.)

The NSF converted itself into a provisional ruling council and—after renaming the country simply ‘Romania’—appointed its own leader Ion Iliescu as President. Iliescu, like his colleagues in the Front, was a former Communist who had broken with Ceauşescu some years before and who could claim some slight credibility as a ‘reformer’ if only by virtue of his student acquaintance with the young Mikhail Gorbachev. But Iliescu’s real qualification to lead a post-Ceauşescu Romania was his ability to control the armed forces, especially the Securitate, whose last hold-outs abandoned their struggle on December 27th. Indeed, beyond authorizing on January 3rd 1990 the re-establishment of political parties, the new President did very little to dismantle the institutions of the old regime.

As later events would show, the apparatus that had ruled under Ceauşescu remained remarkably intact, shedding only the Ceauşescu family itself and their more egregiously incriminated associates. Rumours of thousands killed during the protests and battles of December proved exaggerated—the figure was closer to one hundred—and it became clear that for all the courage and enthusiasm of the huge crowds in Timisoara, Bucharest and other cities the real struggle had been between the ‘realists’ around Iliescu and the old guard in Ceauşescu’s entourage. The victory of the former ensured for Romania a smooth—indeed suspiciously smooth—exit out of Communism.

The absurdities of late-era Ceauşescu were swept away, but the police, the bureaucracy and much of the Party remained intact and in place. The names were changed—the Securitate was officially abolished—but not their ingrained assumptions and practices: Iliescu did nothing to prevent riots in Tirgu Mures on March 19th, where eight people were killed and some three hundred wounded in orchestrated attacks on the local Hungarian minority. Moreover, after his National Salvation Front won an overwhelming majority in the elections of May 1990 (having earlier promised not to contest them), and he himself was formally re-elected President, Iliescu did not hesitate in June to bus miners in to Bucharest to beat up student protesters: twenty-one demonstrators were killed and some 650 injured. Romania still had a very long road to travel.

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