For years one of the few ways American diplomats had of protesting repression in Myanmar was to continue to call the country by its colonial name, Burma. Now there are signs this may be changing, along with Myanmar itself, which in the last year was transformed from rigid autocracy to fragile, fledging democracy.
To outsiders this seemingly sudden transformation has been a mystery, for on the surface it was initiated from the top down, not the bottom up. Normally, of course, revolutions, or even really rapid evolutions, are instigated by the powerless against the powerful. But, in this case, it appears it was the authorities themselves that took the lead, which makes one wonder, how did that happen, and why?
Even Osnos, writing on the subject in a recent New Yorker (“The Burmese Spring,” August 6, 2012), himself follows the script: “Burma’s opening has so far defied the narrative logic we’ve come to associate with political transformation: there is, as yet, no crowd picking through a ruined palace, no dictator in the dock.” But then, to his credit, Osnos goes on through his own narrative to make clear that change in Burma was not in fact the product of the powerful, of leaders, but rather of the powerless, of followers.
Consider just this:
• For decades Nobel Peace Price winner Aung San Suu Kyi has stood as largely silent witness to the autocracy that strangled her country. Her long years under house arrest underscored rather than undermined her status as symbol.
• In 2007 tens of thousands of monks took to the streets to protest the government. The so-called Saffron Revolution seemed, at the time, to have failed, a victim of the Army’s brutal repression. But it’s clear in retrospect the monks made a difference – their bravery and martyrdom were imprinted on Burma’s collective consciousness.
• More recently citizen activists began to emerge, some businessmen, journalists, and academics, all of whom seized the day together to organize against stasis, and for change.
What’s been happening in Burma is not, in other words, the result of officials waking up one fine morning and saying, “Gee whiz, time for us to do things differently.” Rather it’s the consequence of context – decay and decline – and of at least some followers brave and bold enough to marshal their forces against their leaders.
It’s possible and even probable that at some early point the U. S. State Department will drop its allegiance to “Burma,” and begin to call the country its preferred name, Myanmar. When this does happen it will not be the product of spontaneous combustion, but rather of long years during which plain people slogged on to take on a regime that was repressive in the extreme.