Monday, July 26, 2010

Unmaking history--Burmese, er, Myamar style

I'm gradually reading Emma Larkin's  Finding George Orwell in Burma, and came across this interesting passage:

"'Mandalay' is one of the few place names in Burma that has not been changed by the Burmese military government. In 1989 the regime renamed streets, towns and cities across Burma. Maymyo, the old British hill station that Orwell visited, became Pyin-Oo-Lwin, and Fraser Street in Rangoon became Anawyatha Lan in Yangon. Most of the old names were Anglicized Burmese names that had been used by the Birtish colonial government and the regime claimed that the changes were a long-overdue move to discard these colonial tags. But there was a deeper-rooted motive. The generals were rewriting history. When a place is renamed, the old name disappears from maps and, eventually, from human memory. If that is possible, then perhaps the memory of past events can also be erased. By renaming cities, towns and streets, the regime seized control of the very space within which people lived; home and business addresses had to be rewritten and relearned. And, when the regime changed the name of the country, maps and encyclopedias all over the world had to be corrected. The country known as Burma was erased and replaced with a new one: Myanmar.

"The crucial event which triggered this rewriting of the past was the people's uprising of 1988. At eight minutes past eight in the morning on the eighth day of the eighth month of that year, students launched a countrywide demonstration against almost three decades of poverty and oppression under military rule. Thousands of people flooded into the streets of cities and towns all over Burma shouting, 'Dee-mo-ka-ra-see! Dee-mo-ka-ra-see!' The government response was brutal: that evening, soldiers marched into the streets and strafed the crowds with machine-gun fire. In Rangoon, doctors and nurses, overwhelmed by the wounded, hung a sign outside the general hospital begging the soldiers to stop killing people. The sign was written with the blood of the wounded and dead. When a column of nurses joined the protest in the streets, wearing their white uniforms, they too were shot. Among those who died during the days of chaos that followed were high-school children, teachers and monks. Smoke billowed from crematoriums as the authorities rapidly disposed of their corpses. The uprising did not end until more than 3,000 people had been shot or bludgeoned to death by government soldiers."

As if we didn't have enough  problems with memory without governmental forces actively working to undermine them...


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. An interesting memory case here and here.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  3. That's fascinating. I have to admit that I've never thought about this issue before.

  4. There can't be too many precendents for that Pennsylvania case.

  5. No, but I hadn't thought about the idea of expunging things from the public record doesn't include the newspaper. You can see how innocent people might want that to happen too, but it would sure be a weird thing if things started disappearing from the newspaper archives.

    Going to get easier in the digital age, though. I suspect this is not the last we've heard of this.

  6. Yep, our happy acquiesence in the digital age will make it ever easier for the past to be manipulated.

  7. I'm afraid we're going to regret our happy acquiescence in a lot of ways.

    Well, if we remember it.

  8. I am reminded of a remark, I think in The New Republic, about the irony of antiglobalization protesters using the Internet as an organizing device for their demonstrations.

  9. An irony that was probably lost on most of them.