Getting past the name: How to learn about Myanmar and its opportunities
With the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) on the |near horizon
Unfortunately, what Thai students learn about Myanmar is quite limited and largely negative. Myanmar is seen as the major historical enemy that destroyed Ayutthaya. The Thai historian and Fukuoka Prize winner, Dr Charnvit Kasetsiri, argues that we should focus instead on the present and future.
A first issue in learning about Burma is the complex question of what to call the country: Burma or Myanmar? In dealing with the country formally, or officially, it is important to use the name, Union of Myanmar. However, there are other contexts in which "Burma" is more appropriate.
Prior to 1989 there was only Burma. So this is the word to use in most discussions about the past. I have a former student who was a leader in the pro-democracy movement among the Burmese living in America. With her and individuals like her we should use only Burma, not Myanmar. Such individuals associate Myanmar with a brutal repressive military regime.
Personally I prefer Myanmar, which I find more culturally democratic, since only about 68 per cent of the population are Burmans.
Actually, there a number of important similarities between Thailand and Myanmar. The topography and demography of both countries is quite similar and prior to World War II Burma was known as the "rice bowl of Asia".
Both countries have a long tradition of monarchy, though in Burma that system was abolished by the colonial British. Both countries are Theravada Buddhist and their language has Pali/Sanskrit roots and their writing scripts derive from ancient India.
Politically both countries have moved from military-dominated politics to a more democratic system, though this change in Myanmar is much more recent and ongoing at this very moment.
Myanmar has a 271-kilometre Western border with Muslim Bangladesh. In its western state of Rakhine there are 800,000 Muslim Rohingya people. Both now and over time there have been serious ethnic tensions between the Muslim Rohingya and the Buddhist Rakhine. This situation has striking similarities with the situation in the southern-most provinces of Thailand.
Both countries have considerable ethnic diversity, though Myanmar is even more diverse than Thailand.
The two most important differences are Thailand's never having been a colony and its rapid economic development in the past five decades - while Myanmar stagnated economically as an isolated country with a repressive military government. Burma as a colony was at one point even part of "Greater India".
With the AEC fast approaching, it is also imperative that Thais strengthen their English-language proficiency. One strategy is to integrate the study of English with the study of Thailand's neighbours. For the study of Myanmar, there are numerous exciting possibilities.
The Japanese novel "The Harp of Burma", by Michio Takeyama, is a delightful easy to read novel about the Japanese in Burma during World War II. It was made into an award winning movie, "The Burmese Harp," directed by Kan Ichiwaka. Both are available in English.
In 2011, the new film "The Lady" with Michelle Yeoh starring as Aung San Suu Kyi was released. Students could study this film critically.
There is also the popular 1995 film, "Beyond Rangoon", with a great performance by the Myanmar actor U Aung Ko.
The famous British writer George Orwell spent considerable time in Burma as part of the British Imperial Policy. These experiences inspired three major novels by Orwell, the first titled "Burmese Days".
Orwell's life in Burma inspired Emma Larkin to retrace his footsteps in Burma in her insightful and creative travelogue, "Finding George Orwell in Burma".
All of the above material could be used effectively in an integrated English-Asean curriculum.
As Dr Charnvit has emphasised, Myanmar has produced some impressive leaders such as Aung San, U Nu, U Thant, and Aung San Suu Kyi. It is important to learn about these leaders and their valuable contributions.
As a result of its colonial legacy Myanmar has one major advantage over Thailand, the English-language proficiency of its people. And, of all the colonisers, Britain was the least oppressive and many former British colonies have prospered, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia.
While it is valuable to study about Myanmar through films and books, for example, it is critically important to provide more Thais opportunities to live, work, and study in Myanmar to learn about the country firsthand through direct experience.
Dr Surin Pitsuwan, former secretary-general of Asean, and Dr Chetana Nagavajara, emeritus professor at Silpakorn University, have been advocating the establishment of an Asean Peace Corps. If this were to become a reality much larger numbers of Thais could have opportunities to live and work in Myanmar and to develop proficiency in the language.
Given Thailand's low fertility rate below replacement, Thailand has numerous and serious labour shortages. Thus, Myanmar can contribute to Thai development by providing even more migrant workers in critical areas.
Myanmar is probably the Asean country with the greatest unrealised potential and with the most new economic opportunities. Thus, it is exceedingly important for all Thais to have a deeper and more empathetic understanding of Myanmar.
GERALD W FRY
Distinguished International Professor
Department of Organisational Leadership, Policy, and Development, University of Minnesota