BANGKOK – There was some consternation earlier this month when US Senator Jim Webb abruptly cancelled a planned visit to Myanmar.
Webb, chairman of the senate subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific affairs, said his decision was due to new allegations “that the Burmese government has been working in conjunction with North Korea in order to develop a nuclear programme”.
A military defector from Myanmar had given an exile dissident group a collection of photos and files apparently showing that the regime was secretly working on missiles and nuclear weapons.
Subsequent evaluation by US experts, however, indicated that the defector’s material lacked evidence of North Korean involvement with Myanmar on the nuclear side – only for missiles.
Of course, the prospect of the wacky generals even building non-nuclear missiles at their new facility near Pyin Oo Lwin, north of Mandalay, was hardly reassuring.
But even on that point, the analysts did not signal any really serious concern about the defector’s material.
Joshua Pollack, an arms control consultant to the US government, said: “It reveals a very ambitious, but also very rudimentary programme, hobbled by its own drive for secrecy and Burma’s lack of serious science and engineering capabilities.”
Frankly, my sense, having been to Myanmar many times, is that the generals are not trying to build nuclear WMD – but that they would dearly like to give the impression they are.
But whether that’s correct or not, my interest here is in a perhaps less portentous matter; the issue of the country’s name.
Webb and Western analysts and commentators – and even the pliant Bangkok media – continue to use its British colonial name, Burma, not its natural name, Myanmar.
This is stupid and shortsighted. The name Burma is a recent concoction derived from the country’s dominant ethnic group – the Bamans of the central plains.
It is an inappropriate name because it excludes the nation’s many other ethnic minorities. So it was changed to Myanmar, the name its people have always used in their own tongue.
Of course, fuddy-duddies dislike any name changes and even regard Sri Lanka, Thailand and Zimbabwe with disdain.
But these natural names are eventually accepted because everyone knows Ceylon, Siam and Rhodesia are never coming back.
So, too, with Myanmar. Even pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi knows that.
An ambassador in Yangon once told me that when asked if she would restore the name Burma, she equivocated. “We took that to indicate she will stick with Myanmar,” he said.
Truth to tell, there is one usage for the old name that will be missed. In the last world war, troops writing home to their sweethearts would scrawl BURMA on the back of the envelope.
It meant: “Be Undressed and Ready My Angel”. If only for that, the name should stay in the lexicon.