Ever more often these days, people are asking again about whether to use the term "Burma" or Myanmar" to refer to the country between Thailand and Bangladesh, bordering India, China, and the sea. Not long ago, those asking were usually keen to discern the lingo to identify themselves as members of the "okay" crowd, those interested in political and social evolution in the nation. They were determined to avoid the sense of alliance to the oppressors, whether out of a genuine concern for human rights or a market sensibility to avoid any choices in language that might haunt one for years to come. When I was a co-founder of the US Campaign for Burma with Dan Beeton and Jeremy Woodrum over a decade ago, there was a simple binary to these issues: you were either for the brutal regime or you were against it. In that time, to use "Myanmar" was a marker of allegiance (real or imagined) for and to the regime and to use "Burma" was to show resistance against it.
Now one can use "Burma" or "Myanmar" without such easy distinction. But how much more complicated things have become since those darker-but-simpler days. Aung San Suu Kyi has not only been freed from house arrest but has won a seat in the Burmese Parliament. There are public attempts by the government at reconciling armed groups and ethnic nationalities to build a lasting peace. Censorship is falling away rapidly and journalism is beginning to be practiced in earnest. The country is seeing significant inflows of capital and trade since the moves towards settling the political impasse that has characterized the country for decades. Everyone talks about the breakneck pace of change in Burma and people speak with real hope for the future in a way that is unprecedented in recent years. It seems that things are poised for change to become even deeper and quicker in the coming years after the next major set of elections.
Decades ago, while the British still had the country under their thumb, Kipling wrote that "This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about." Aside from the problematic and disturbing Orientalism of that quote, it can be tempting to see Burma as different in essential ways to many other countries. Unfortunately, it is showing that it is not so different after all. Connected crony capitalists dismembering the parts of the country's resources for personal enrichment. Elements in the Burmese army, the Tatmadaw, are still targeting ethnic nationalities for unusual violence, including the use of rape as a weapon of war. Most disturbingly, there have been elements of religious violence that have been introduced into the tensions on the ground with Muslims in Burma, and particularly against the Rohingyas, bearing a disproportionate brunt of the violence foisted upon them in a sick perversion of Buddhism. Recently, the violence has begun to spill more regularly outside and into other countries where there have been reprisals against Burmese people based on their ethnicity, religion, or activism.
Burma stands at a crossroads. That there has been major change happening is certainly true. But much more needs to be done, and as quickly as possible in some areas. The very nature of human rights suggests (or certainly should suggest) that they are universal and irrevocable. While it seems incredible to suggest that the Rohingya should continue to have citizenship denied on the grounds of racist and religious bigotry, it should be irrelevant to the provision of their basic human rights. Just as so many Burmese peoples have sought asylum in other countries when their own rights were threatened, so to should the Burmese government extend basic rights to everyone in Burma if they want to be seen as really making progress. If it were only a problem with the so-called Rohingya question, this would be substantial enough to cause concern.
Let us be clear: There is much more to be concerned about. Displacements of people for large-scale development projects, often without consultation and with little of the benefits returned to the communities in question; education and health systems that are systems in name only; a voracious grab at land and non-renewable resources to enrich the few at the expense of the many; the continued imprisonment of activists and those who dared to trespass against the former regime's whims (though how much of this is "former" remains to be seen); a pressing need to tackle human trafficking, an HIV epidemic, and a growing drug trade; a critical juncture to wipe out corruption and the beginnings of an oligarchy in the new "reformed" capitalist Burma. These are only a handful of the issues at hand.
In the next year, there will be a census for the first time in more than 50 years. The results could have major ramifications for apportioning resources and voting campaigns. What are the chances that the nation will be able to pull this off without falling victim to the contentious greed of the connected entrenched wealthy? In the fairly near future, there will be another large election to transform the Parliament in both houses and to elect a new President. What are the chances that the military and the recently "retired" military will allow Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to take her place at the head of the nation? What are the chances that the choices made in the halls of Naypyitaw will continue to benefit the everyday lives of the majority of Burmese? These are complicated questions and with few short answers. We urge you to contact your congressional representatives to ask for full study of the range of implications before trying to remove (or reimplement) blunt instruments on the government of Burma without consultation with civil society groups and all stakeholders. We urge you to continue to support the NLD and the role of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as the most credible voice to maintain a positive motion in Burma's transition. We also urge you to support change within the NLD so that there is room for tolerance to grow and for younger generations to step into leadership roles before the older generations pass away. We have great hopes for Burma and grave concerns.
There is hope in places. There is hope in the fight against intolerance, against HIV, and to train people for better skills for better capacity for parliament. What is the last thing you thought about Burma? When is the last time you got involved? Contact the US Congress and ask them to ask themselves (or ask us) about how to support this nation in transition.