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What’s in a name? Myanmar and National Identity

By on Feb 26, 2015 in Uncategorized, Viewpoints | 8 comments

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Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography at

I’m an American. That’s what I say if anyone should ask me my nationality. I’m a mutt made up of various immigrant peoples. My mother’s father was the child of a German immigrant mother and an Irish immigrant father. My mother’s mother was a Polish immigrant. My father’s father was a Scotch/Irish immigrant and my father’s mother was an Irish immigrant. So I am 3/8ths Irish, 1/4 Polish, 1/4 Scotch/Irish and 1/8 German. My daughters are 1/4 Ukrainian, 5/16 German, 3/16 Irish, 1/8 Polish and 1/8 Scotch/Irish. If you want to call us a derogatory name you have a choice of Mick, Babushka, Kraut, or maybe Yank. I was born in America. My oldest daughter was born in Myanmar but she is not a citizen of Myanmar. She once attempted to use the fact of her birth to get a better visa, arguing to the Embassy that she was actually a citizen. She wanted a dual citizenship but it isn’t allowed in Myanmar. It’s all very tricky, this citizenship business and we, we in America, are arguing it now. Being born in a country doesn’t make you a citizen of that country.

I don’t have any fear of losing my citizenship. Dreaming up a plot that would allow this to happen would make for an interesting dystopian novel but it won’t happen. I will always be an American and my children, my grandchildren, my great grandchildren and so on will also be Americans.

Major ethnic groups of Myanmar

Myanmar Ethnic Groups

In Myanmar this isn’t the case. Even before the British colonized Burma, there was a rich diversity of ethnicities. The Bamar kingdom was the strongest and various ethnic groups gave it allegiance, a feudal allegiance. When the British were in charge, they did what they were so masterful at doing as colonialists. They noticed that a particular group had a special facility or aptitude at something, say horsemanship, agriculture or war and then they utilized those natural abilities to their own ends. They were good coaches or occupational specialists. They still are today. As I said before in previous posts, the British ignored the dominant Bamar ethnic group and brought in specialists from their extended colonial empire. They imported Indians to run the bureaucracy and Gurkhas to fight their wars. It was the use of inexpensive, dedicated and, in British eyes, expendable mercenaries to fight their battles that allowed the tiny island nation of Great Britain to rule one of the most extensive empires in history. Within tight guidelines, ethnic groups were permitted self-governance.

In 1947 Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, a freedom fighter and former

Colonel Aung San

Aung San from an image

student at Yangon University, along with his fellow student fighters, created an army made up not only of Bamars but of other ethnicities, mainly the Shan, Kachin and Chin. On February 12, 1947, in the town of Panglong, they signed The Panglong Agreement. In it the various ethnic groups agreed to join General Aung San to fight and win independence from the British. This is explained in the following excerpt from an article dated October 19, 2009 from The Irrawaddy Newspaper entitled, “Panglong Agreement, Federal Principles and the 2008 Constitution”. The Irrawaddy is an independent newspaper based in Thailand originally founded in 1993 by a group of journalist/activists who fled persecution in Myanmar following the 1988 democracy uprisings.

With the Panglong Agreement, ethnic leaders entrusted their fate to Gen Aung San to determine their future by achieving absolute independence from the British followed by a power-sharing. In return for their cooperation, Aung San agreed to equal rights for ethnic people and assured them of a Union form of government with power sharing as well as a right of secession. A spirit of mutual trust and mutual benefit was born in the Panglong spirit. But it did not last long.

However, in the 1947 Constitution, ethnic leaders say that real power was not with the lower bodies, resulting in a semi-federal or unitary state in essence. The central government controlled all power at the local, state and central level, leaving non-Burman ethnic groups no power at all.

An attempt was made to save the Panglong spirit just before the Ne Win era. In June 1961, more than 200 ethnic leaders from Shan, Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Chin, Mon and Rakhine met at Taung Gyi in Shan State and held a constitutional review conference in which they demanded a “genuine federal union.”

As promised in election campaigns, U Nu, then the prime minister, convened a National Convention in February 1962 in Rangoon. In this convention, which political parties, ethnic leaders and government representatives attended, Chao Khun Cho, the minister for Shan State, addressed the convention.

He pointed out the flaws of the 1947 Constitution and submitted a plan to form (the) union they preferred; to unite Burma as one state; to assure equal power to two houses; to send equal numbers of representatives to a “house of nationalities” and to give limited power to (the) federal government whereas residual power remained in the states. [1]

As I understand it, the country of Myanmar was heading for what appeared to be a government notion similar to what we have in the United States. Some power goes to the federal government and some power remains with the states or ethnic minorities. I never before understood this and I’m glad to have it explained it to me. Ne Win had been a freedom fighter alongside of Aung San and U Nu during the war of independence. But he turned on them and the military, under his advisement, murdered them and their fellows in the military coup of 1962 which placed Ne Win in power. It was a move to preserve Burma for the Bamars and to keep ethnic minorities out. The minorities have been fighting ever since. We constantly read of uprisings in various areas of the country especially in the north.

1962 was a bad year for minorities in Myanmar. It was after Ne Win took power that the Indian/Burmese, Chinese/Burmese, Anglo/Burmese, the Gurkhas, the Rohingha, the Panthay and several other ethnic groups lost the citizenship they had enjoyed following independence from Great Britain and became, quite suddenly, foreigners in their own country, without the privilege of owning property or a business and without protection under the law. One day they were citizens and the next they were illegal.

Myanmar’s history is unique. I have recently read an article in The Irrawaddy entitled “Toward a More Perfect Union” that I found very helpful in understanding what is happening there. Wai Yan Hpone, a thoughtful, intelligent, young writer/translator living in Yangon, explains as no one else can, how the military (the Tatmadaw) has shaped thinking in the schools and created a myopic society of Bamars who have difficulty overcoming a natural fear of peoples who are different from themselves.[2]

As I read his article I started humming an old song, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” from the Rogers and Hammerstein musical, South Pacific, that came out in 1958 when I was an impressionable sixteen-year old. I couldn’t understand how the character Ellie could not marry the handsome plantation owner, Emile. It was high drama for me then. The story entered my bones as some stories will and caused me to reexamine a lot of the things I was being taught at the time. It was 1958. Blacks and whites had separate drinking fountains. We used separate restrooms. We ate in different restaurants. It helped me reexamine why, why was all that necessary. I think it helped my generation and it readied us for the changes about to come in the 1960s. It’s a wonderful song. I hope it means as much to you as it does to me.

This is what has happened in Myanmar in the schools for the past 40 or so years. Bamars have been “carefully taught” to be afraid “Of people whose eyes are oddly made” and to hate “People whose skin is a different shade.” I hope the people of Myanmar learn faster than we Americans do. It’s a hard but beautiful lesson and it opens up the world to new understanding and a new hope. The lyrics to “You’ve got to be carefully taught” are:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught![3]

What’s in a name? My mother said, “Sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you.” She was both right and wrong. Just because someone calls me a name doesn’t define me. It’s merely their opinion. I needn’t be affected by it. If someone calls me Fatty, that doesn’t make me fat. I am what I am and the names people call me reflect more on them than on me. If someone hits me, I’ll be bruised but if they call me a name and I don’t let it bother me, the name will evaporate into the atmosphere. It has no power in and of itself. That’s what she wanted to teach me and it was a good lesson. But she was also wrong. Names can hurt. Names, the wrong names, can hurt anyone.

There are 135 officially recognized minorities in Myanmar. These, the recognized minorities, are citizens and safe for now. I want to talk about the illegals, the so-called foreigners. These are the groups in danger. I’ve done three posts on one of these groups, the Rohingyas. The name Rohingya is an ethnicity not a nationality. Rohingyas are a people without a country. The government of Myanmar refuses to grant citizenship to them and they are slowly dying of hunger and neglect. The Bamars call them Bengalis and I can almost see their lips curl when they say it. Bengali for them is not just an identity. It is like referring to them as dogs or kalars, the word they use for people who are darker than themselves. And let there be no doubt about it. Skin color is important to Bamars and when they use the term, kalar, they are not saying something nice. I’m worried about the Rohingya. Nothing is being done for them.

Yanghee Lee

Yanghee Lee, image

Recently, Yanghee Lee, Special Rapporteur for the United Nations, criticized legislation that had been proposed by a coalition of nationalist Buddhist monks. She said that the legislation included a provision that would place curbs on interfaith marriage and conversions, saying they were discriminatory toward women and minorities and could inflame tensions.


In response to the criticism, U Wirathu, Myanmar’s ultranationalist monk

leader said this. “We have already made public the Race Protection Law, but this bitch, without studying it, kept on complaining about how it is against our human rights, just because some loud-mouthed women say so,” he told his audience. “Can this bitch really be from a respectable background? Don’t assume you are a respectable person, just because you have a position in the UN. In our country, you are just a whore.”[4]

Do you see what I mean, what my mother meant? U Wirathu’s words show him to be a bigot. I don’t have to bother telling you that he is. He did it himself. On the other hand, Yanghee Lee will not be hurt. She is a lady and a diplomat and unaffected by Wirathu’s name-calling.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, defended Lee and called on religious and political leaders in Myanmar to condemn Wirathu’s tirades. See CNN article, Top U.N. Official slams Myanmar monk over ‘whore’ comments.

Freedom of speech is new in Myanmar and people are testing the limits. Not too long ago Burmese journalists were arrested for reporting on something the government wanted to keep secret. So I guess it’s okay to say some things but not others. This leads me to believe that the government approves of Wirathu’s incendiary language. Is Thein Sein using Wirathu to say what he, as a leader of the country cannot? Thein Sein seems bent on genocide for the Rohinghas but he can’t openly slaughter them. He wants the people to be whipped up so he can tell the world he is only following the will of his people. For years Myanmar has been a closed country and the Tatmadaw, the army, has slanted school curriculum and history to reflect their own interests. It is only lately that new information is filtering into Myanmar. I hope the people will be intelligent enough to see that they have been systematically shanghaied intellectually and will seek alternate thinking in the wider world. Even if they do come to a new realization, I doubt it will be in time to save the Rohingha. The government doesn’t need to slaughter them. They are dying of hunger and disease.

Thein Sein has been playing a word game. He will not permit, he will not abide, anyone using the term, Rohingha, in his presence. President Obama visited Myanmar in November when it hosted the Southeast Asian Summit. He was warned not to use the word Rohingha but he did so multiple times in defiance during a meeting with Thein Sein. International pressure is on but seems to be falling flat against the intractable hate of Thein Sein and the military junta.

In the case of the Rohinghas, my mother was wrong. Names do hurt. God help the Rohinghas. Unless someone comes to their rescue soon, there will be no one to save.

As I said earlier, there are other groups in Myanmar without citizenship and protection under the law. I mentioned the Indian/Burmese, the Chinese/Burmese, the Anglo/Burmese, the Gurkhas, the Rohingha, and the Panthay. Of these, the Gurkhas previously had a superior status to the others. They had citizenship. They fought honorably and loyaly beside Colonel Aung San and were crucial in winning independence from the British. They earned citizenship with the blood of their fathers and they continued to fight next to the Bamars and their loyalty is unquestioned.

Gurkha Kukri sword from Wikpedia

Gurkha Kukri sword from Wikpedia

The Gurkhas are legendary warriors from Nepal. During the Gurkha War (1814-1816) between the Gorkha Kingdom in Nepal and the East India Company, the British were impressed by the Gokhali soldiers. They are reputed to be aggressive in battle, to possess qualities of courage, loyalty, self-sufficiency, physical strength, resilience, and orderliness. They are able to work hard for long periods of time and to fight with tenacity and military strength. [5] Gurkhas eventually became the backbone of the British Indian army. During World War I and II over 200,000 Gurkha troops fought for the British. The Gurkhas carry a Kukri, a curved sword and if a Gurkha unsheathes his sword, he must draw blood even if it is his own. Gurkhas are still fighting in the British and Indian armies.

One soldier, Corporal Pun, was recently given the Conspicuous Gallantry Crosse, the second highest award for bravery in the British Armed Services. Corporal Pun, from the 1st Battalion of the Royal Gurkha Rifles fired more than 400 rounds, launched seventeen grenades and detonated a mine to thwart a Taliban assault on his checkpoint near Babaji in Helmand Province, southern Afghanistan, last September. At one point, having exhausted his ammunition, he used his machine gun tripod to beat away the enemy climbing the wall of the compound. Read the story in The Daily Mail dated February 15, 2015.[6]

There are more than 300,000 Gurkhas living in Myanmar as foreigners. The citizenship they earned in 1947 was taken from them in 1962 when Ne Win took over the country in the coup that killed Aung San and his fellows. Presently, they are in a tight situation. They can’t go back home, home being Nepal. Nepal is a different country from what it was in the 19th century when they left. They don’t speak Nepalese and they don’t understand the culture. It would be like sending me back to Ireland, Poland or Germany. I wouldn’t fit in. I wouldn’t have a job or a place to live. These Gurkhas have lived in Myanmar for centuries. Their grandfathers and great grandfathers are Burmese. They can’t be sent back where they came from. It’s unthinkable.[7]

So what’s in a name? A lot it seems. That brings me to the point of this post. Why not drop all this name calling stuff? Settle on one name. How about Myanmarese? Everyone in the country regardless of ancestry would become Myanmarese. They would identify with their home country, the country of their birth, the country of their father’s birth and so on back, back to whenever their ancestors arrived. The term Myanmarese is universal. The country is Myanmar and the people in it are Myanmarese not Kachins, not Kayah, not Kayin, not Chin, not Mon, not Bamar, not Rakhine, not Shan, not Rohinghas or Gurkhas or Panthays but simply the citizens of one country, the country of Myanmar. This is just a suggestion and I’m an outsider. I can’t really know. I can’t really understand. I’m superimposing a set of values that comes from somewhere else. I hope an answer is soon found. Too many people are suffering.


Note to the Marines in my writing group and other military buffs. You may enjoy watching Gurkha School, an Al Jazeera video, part of their Witness program, about a Gurkha training camp and what it takes to be a Gurkha today in the British Army. 8,000 applicants start and something like 186 finish. In the end the youths, aged 18 to 20, become part of the British military, and at the end of their service they become British citizens and receive a pension for life. They are incredible; the best of the best and their training program is one of the toughest in the world. [8]








[8] Gurkha School Video

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  1. Cathy

    February 26, 2015

    Post a Reply

    Wow, this is so fascinating, and very sad — you explain this complicated situation very well — I want to go back and reread your earlier posts on the Rohingha. Thank you.

  2. Kathleen

    March 26, 2015

    Post a Reply

    Hannah, Thank you for the detailed development of the history of Myanmar citizenship to present day and linking it to the much more secure and unconsidered citizenship of many of your readers, including myself.
    Hmmm, but I did chuckle at the use of “shanghaied” which may simply demonstrate that for anyone, there always more lessons to be un-learned.

    • hannahpowers

      March 27, 2015

      Post a Reply

      It is good to hear from you. A voice from the past and I guess the use of the word “shanghaied” would make you laugh. Are you happy?
      I just looked it up, shanghaied that is, in Wikpedia. The word was first used in the 1850s. A crimper is a person who entraps or forces men into shipping as sailors or enlisting in the army. Crimpers were paid by the body and the body could be drunk or incapacitated at the time of capture. The crimper often got an advance pay of the first three month’s salary for his unwanted services. The theory behind the use of the word shanghaied was that men ended there, in China. They didn’t have to pay plane fare.
      You probably already know that. I didn’t. We miss you at the Wednesday group.

  3. Ahmed Vanya

    July 8, 2015

    Post a Reply

    Excellent, except the following is not correct:

    “That’s why Ne Win, who was a freedom fighter alongside of Aung San, turned on Aung San and U Nu, the Prime Minister, and murdered them and their fellows in the military coup of 1962.”

    He turned on them but did NOT murder them!

    • hannahpowers

      July 8, 2015

      Post a Reply

      Thank you for your correction. I’ll look it up before I change it but I’m sure you are most likely correct. Expect a correction.

  4. Lynn Morris Khan

    October 10, 2016

    Post a Reply

    Fascinating. Lovely to meet you today at the health club. We have a lot in common! More in person, but here’s my email address: Best wishes! Lynn Morris Khan

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