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Making sense of Burma

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 17:33 UK time, Monday, 24 September 2007

Burma - or Myanmar as many other news organisations now call it - could be on the brink of dramatic political change or on the brink of another bout of violent repression.

The World TonightWhy can't I say more than that? Because no-one really knows how the Burmese military - which has run the country since a coup 45 years ago - will respond to the current wave of demonstrations led by young Buddhist monks.

The current protests were sparked off by the military junta's decision to double fuel prices just over a month ago. Although most Burmese can't afford cars - the prices of many basic necessities have increased because of the rising cost of transport.

Young Buddhist monks emerged as the leaders of protests against the hardships that an already poor and hard-pressed population are facing, but over the last week or so the demands have become openly political - calling for an end to military rule and talks with the junta. At the weekend, they defied the military by marching past the home of the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for the most of the past 18 years.

Budhist monks in Rangoon, BurmaVery few observers saw these protests coming, but they are now saying this challenge to the junta is the most serious since 1988 when economic protests also turned into pro-democracy protests throughout the country. Those protests were eventually put down by force and an estimated 3,000 people were killed.

Since then, the Burmese authorities have continued to restrict the access of journalists to the country and Burma's diplomats very rarely accept invitations to do interviews on programmes like The World Tonight.

This means that the people we interview are predominantly exiled opposition figures, foreign diplomats, UN officials, journalists and analysts - and the one thing they can't tell you is which way is the junta going jump.

All this makes it difficult for us to give a fully rounded picture of what is going on. We do our best when deciding who to interview to find people either inside the country or who talk to people inside the country regularly and have good contacts, and who can give an informed perspective on what the junta - as well as the protesters - are doing and why. In this way we hope we are helping to make sense of things for our audience.


  • 1.
  • At 11:24 PM on 24 Sep 2007,
  • Dr J Lee wrote:

If Myanmar is the official name for the country which used to be called Burma, why on earth is the BBC still referring to it as Burma? Likewise, I believe that the former Rangoon is now called Yangon. We may not like what goes on in Myanmar, but I cannot accept that this is an excuse for using obsolete names. We don't like the behaviour of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe but at least we don't call his country Southern Rhodesia.

Joe Lee

  • 2.
  • At 02:01 AM on 25 Sep 2007,
  • Sindre K A wrote:

It's puzzling that the military junta never seems to be interested in giving their views to the international media. Have anyone asked for their comments? Or are the junta willing to make statements, but find themselves boycotted by the international media?

  • 3.
  • At 06:35 AM on 25 Sep 2007,
  • Geof wrote:

We should have much more coverage of Burma and far less coverage of news trivia - which is only 'entertainment' masked as something else. But, while accepting that it is difficult to report from inside Burma, why do we not have more reports of what outside governments are doing about it. Why is the US government making noises only now? Surely this government could not survive without enormous complicity from the international community?

  • 4.
  • At 12:14 PM on 25 Sep 2007,
  • keith fleming wrote:

To Joe Lee,

I believe that it was the military junta that changed the name of the country to Myanmar.

Opposition groups tend still to use the name Burma, as they do not recognise the legitimacy of the government (or its authority to change the name of the country).

While the UN uses Myanmar, I believe the EU uses 'Burma/Myanmar' (bit of a handful) - and the UK and US governments (and perhaps others) retain Burma.

I see your point, but I think the other view is that there is an unavoidably political dimension to what one calls the country - for some, accepting the use of the name Myanmar may well appear to provide legitimacy for the (counter-democratic) junta.

Had the junat respected the results of the election they themselves called (and lost) there would have been no name change; similarly, should the democratic will of the people in the future be respected, we may well revert to Burma as the 'official' name for the country.


My mother was born and brought up in Burma/Myanmar in the 1920s. She has recently completed a book written for the family about her childhood and more.

The place she describes, a place of beauty, of balance, of resources and opportunity seems like a dream compared to the modern stark realities.

At her school in Rangoon her friends were Burmese and Indian and Japanese and German and English and French and more.

It was not a trouble free paradise, the Burmese are a tribal and clannish people and the two sides have warred with each other for many centuries, but it was peaceful more often than it wasn't. The Burmese are a lively, intelligent, hospitable people with a rich culture and long history.

A Burmese friend of mine said that independence was a long overdue gift from the British, but he would rather be governed by us than see the Burma that is run by such a cruel regime.

A note about the name. Myanmar is the written form of the name, always has been. Burma was a slight British corruption from the Oral, colloquial form. All the Burmese have done is formalised the written form, so it is quite correct that other news organisations call it that.

  • 6.
  • At 01:30 PM on 25 Sep 2007,
  • Ruaraidh Gillies wrote:

The continued use of the name Burma (which is not an exclusive practice of the BBC) stems from the refusal of Burmese opposition groups to recognise the legitimacy of the military government - who declared the new name in 1989.

Many English-speaking governments, including the UK, Ireland, Australia and the USA, continue to call it "Burma".

  • 7.
  • At 04:27 PM on 25 Sep 2007,
  • Linda Lewis wrote:

What is happening in Burma is a chilling reminder of the tyranny of China in Tibet. As the much admired Burmese prisoner of conscience, Aung San Suu Kyi, has stated:
Of the four Buddhist virtues conducive to the happiness of laymen, saddha (confidence in moral spiritual, and intellectual values) is the first.
To instill such confidence, not by an appeal to the passions, but through intellectual conviction, into a society which has long been wracked by distrust and uncertainty is the essence of the Burmese revolution for democracy.

  • 8.
  • At 02:16 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • Sindre K A wrote:

Regarding BBCs refusal to use the country's proper name: I've noted that several international news outlets are using "Myanmar", this includes Reuters, AP, AFP and CNN.

I don't think it's relevant at all that the use of the name "Burma" is not acknowledged in Britain. What really matters is that the United Nations acknowledges that Burma became Myanmar in 1989 and I think BBC should follow suit if it intends to stay somewhat netural.

You don't say "Persia" when you refer to Iran, do you?

  • 9.
  • At 04:34 PM on 26 Sep 2007,
  • keith fleming wrote:

Sindre K A,

I'm not at all sure that using the name Myanmar would be indicative of neutrality: as I said above, there is an unavoidably political dimension to *whichever* name one uses: if one uses Burma, one is, for want of a better term, siding with opposition groups who do not recognise the legitimacy of the regime (which, we should remember, held democratic elections, then disregarded the result - as I pointed out above, had they respected the election result, the country would still be called Burma); on the other hand, if one uses Myanmar, one is, again for want of a better term, siding with the junta and offering it legitimacy. As I said, then, I'm not sure whether it would be possible to be 'neutral' as you suggest, whatever name one uses.

Pointing out a discrepancy between news agencies' use of names (the BBC and the FT use Burma, the Economist and CNN use Myanmar) hardly suggests that one of these is correct and neutral and the other not.

Finally, there are a host of reasons why the UN uses the name imposed by the junta - I suspect 'neutrality' is not one of these.


  • 10.
  • At 01:56 AM on 27 Sep 2007,
  • Alene Tunny wrote:

I recently lived in Burma for three years. Therefore, I am deeply concerned that the government's reaction to the recent marches will be to plant agitators posing as monks and civilians within the protest groups. The violent behavior instigated by these impersonators will then appear to give the military a reason to fire into the crowds.

  • 11.
  • At 12:29 PM on 27 Sep 2007,
  • Anyta wrote:

For Joss Sanglier
My mother grew up in Rangoon too and went to the Methodist Girls High School.
I visited Burma three years ago. Although it seemed frozen in time, the people were friendly and at no time did I feel unsafe except when the soldiers stopped us to ask questions if we walked outside the hotel instead of getting a taxi and/or tour guide.
It is tragic that both India and China who could influence the generals are chosing not to intervene.

  • 12.
  • At 05:36 PM on 27 Sep 2007,
  • michael bootzin wrote:

news flash- we are a world community now! we cannot pretend that we are not involved. We, the people who are saying they should do something about it, are the ones who need to do something about it.
Burma is the Only country in the world that has four pivotal issues occurring simultaniously;
1) In 1990 there was a fair, Democratic election which the Junta never honored
2) All of the Leaders from the many ethnic groups have publicly stated support for the national League for Democracy
3) Aung San Suu Kyi, the head spokesperson for the national League for Democracy, has been adamant about all resistance being non-violent
4) Aung San Suu Kyi is the only Nobel Peace Prize laureate to be under house arrest and now possibly moved to a prison situation.

Burma's main supporters are China and Russia and only economic pressure will work. There is talk about a boycott of the olympics next year which would hurt China a little, but we, as consumers need to step up to the plate.
1)Send petitions to the businesses that you do business with. Tell them that you will no longer do business with them if they continue to outsource from China( I understand electronic devices are almost impossible to get from another country, but everything else can be obtained...yes even good, healthy, comfortable shoes)
2)go to get in the streets! hold a demonstration in support of Burmas democracy. we are having one here in Milwaukee this Sunday September 30th 4p.m. at the sunburst(prospect and Wisconsin) keep the issue in the news and in the public eye
3) investors, pull your investments from all chinese companies and businesses that outsource through china, learn about socially responsible investing and shareholder political actions! go to
4) Talk about it, talk about it, talk about it, in the workplace, at home, on the streets, in the schools. talk about what freedom is and what democracy is. Talk about international military efforts and humanitarian efforts, talk about violent resistance and non-violent resistance and after all the talking DON'T POINT YOUR FINGER DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!!!!!!

  • 13.
  • At 07:29 AM on 28 Sep 2007,
  • Devonny wrote:

"You don't say "Persia" when you refer to Iran, do you?"
- Sindre K A

No, you don't, because unlike many narrow-minded people, the majority of the world knows that the Persian Empire was a huge empire, expanding several thousand miles past the borders of Iran, which happened to be the geographical center.

However, that does not really matter.

What matters is that the Burmese government is corrupt and the only people doing anything about are going to be killed, and some already have been. Why must it always be the U.S. who makes the first move? If someone would just be bold already, there will be less of a chance of death. I think the world can tell we have our hands full with the issues Bush has set up for us, so another country’s boldness to help Burma come to Democracy and end the tyranny would be greatly appreciated.
Especially to the monks! MONKS! MONKS are being killed! How could anyone not realize the enormity of this?! Every time I think about this situation, my heart drops in my chest, and I start to tear up. It is so horrible!
Someone please take a stand! Protest this atrocious act and the government behind it!

  • 14.
  • At 01:02 AM on 29 Sep 2007,
  • Nancy Ray wrote:

Currently various countries, including US, UK and Australia, are putting pressure on China to try to influence the Burmese military junta. They are making not-so-subtle threats about the future of the Beijing Olympics, if China doesn't convince the military they should transfer power to a "democratic government". How quaint is this! Reflect back a few years to what happened to a democratic uprising in China. Chinese must be quite comfortable with the current situation - a willing trade partner with a like-minded determination to maintain complete power. The world must look elsewhere - possibly to India, for a Burmese neighbour who might exert some influence.

  • 15.
  • At 12:13 PM on 02 Oct 2007,
  • Joyce Lukwiya wrote:

As an African, the current events in Myanmar take me back to Uganda in 70's under the dictatorship of Idi Amin. For those who watched the movie the Last King of Scotland, I am sure some of the scences of bloods shed mirror alot of images from the movie.
I admire the solidarity of the monks in defiance to the military junta. Anyone who has visited Kampala city in Uganda will have scence Bishop Luwum street. He was a prominent member of Anglican Clergy who was murdered by Amin for his defiance to the regime.

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