Burma (or Myanmar, as it was renamed by its military-led government in 1989) is a country of 50 million people. It has an extremely long coastline along the Indian Ocean, and is bounded by India and Thailand to the east and west. The north is bounded by mountains and beyond them, China. But despite its location and its vast natural resources, it is one of the poorest countries in the world.
Last month, on September 27, a movement of peaceful protest instigated by monks, over worsening economic conditions, was suppressed by the killing of an unknown number of protesters, including a Japanese photographer who continued to take photographs as he lay dying the street. (The government claims that nine people were killed, but other sources indicate that there may have been as many as 200 deaths.) Since then thousands of suspected protest instigators have been arrested and incarcerated.
This is a tragic reminder of the general protests and tragic repercussions of the 8/8/88, a general protest march which started on the eighth minute of the eighth hour on August 8, 1988. The military crushed this peaceful uprising by shooting directly into crowds and killing over 2000 people. General Ne Win, the country's military leader at the time, simply commented "When an army shoots, it doesn't shoot in the air. It shoots to kill."
Ne Win is no longer alive, but the severe repression that began when he took power in 1962 continues. In a 1990 election, the NLD, The National League for Democracy, won 82% of the parliamentary seats. The military junta refused to recognize these results, and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has since received the Nobel Peace Prize, has been under almost constant house arrest ever since.
Fortunately, world awareness and outrage at this situation is rising. Economic sanctions and rising publicity may have be having an effect. Burma's reputation as a charming backroad of history is changing into that of a country who's people, many of whom have been suffering this repression for their entire lifetime, desperately need our help.
I visited Burma on a one-week tourist visa in 1987. The people were wonderful. They were impeccably courteous, they were humorous and kind, and, yes, they were colorful. Perhaps as a result of over fifty years of enforced isolation from the rest of the world, the Burmese are extravagant in their use of color. This is reflected in their gardens, their clothes, and in the strange colors of their paper currency. Colors that the rest of the world holds in reserve, such as salmon pink, teal, and mauve, are celebrated by the Burmese. Even the government proudly displays these colors. When preparing for military parades, as Emma Larkin observes in Finding George Orwell In Burma,
"billboards promoting the army are hoisted above major intersections and roundabouts. The oversized boards look more like movie advertisements than army propaganda. Painted in soothing pastel colors, they depict handsome soldiers in pistachio green uniforms marching down pale yellow roads and cheered by crowds of onlookers. Above the parade, a fleet of pink fighter planes glides placidly through a postcard-perfect blue sky."
Since 1974 Burma's flag has consisted of a red field with a blue canton on the hoisted side of the flag. Inside this rectangle there is a cogwheel with a bushel of rice superimposed on it, surrounded by 14 stars which represent the administrative divisions of the government. The Burmese coat of arms features a red silhouette map of Burma on a white cogwheel surrounded by traditional Burmese floral patterns, two blue mythical lions, and a white star. This coat of arms is used on all official government documents and publications.
Burma's flag has a long and varied history, and these are just a few excerpts from it. The oldest known Burmese flag, flown by the Mon tribe between 1300 and 1500, features a yellow peacock on a green field. The peacock is to this day a proud symbol of Burma, and we see it in red, on a white field, on the Kongbaung Dynasty flag of 1700-1885. There is a green and blue peacock on a white field in this variation (depicted on a cigar box insert) and full color peacocks on a white field have been reported.
The peacock returns to the Burmese flag of 1942 through 1948, a green, yellow, purple and grey peacock over yellow, green and red bars. The bars return, with a white star, on a new flag proposed, but not adopted, in 2006. The last flag in this series, a red field with a white star and a yellow fighting peacock, is the official flag of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi's party.
I laughed at the oversaturated colors and primitive printing of some of the postcards I found in Burma, but now the color does not seem exaggerated at all. It captures the magical spirit of the place. I saw two of the most memorable sunsets of my life in Burma. And during the day the cloudy sky sometimes reminded me of an opal, as if it was reflecting the rich mineral and jewel deposits beneath Burma's soil.
In Pagan, by the wide and muddy Irrawaddy river, a man panned for gold, showing me the flakes as he found them. Nearby there is a plain which at one time was dotted by over 13,000 Buddhist temples. About 2,200 of these temples remain standing today. There is a sense of exotic adventure as you climb your way up and through each one. From the top of any one of these temples you can see the rest of them. They dot the land and remind you of jewels.
The Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon is one of the most sacred spots in Burma. It consists of a massive, stunning gold pagoda, and a complex of hundreds of smaller pagodas and temples, most of them white and accented with gold.When I visited it, the area was thronging with people and monks who were gradually circling the main pagoda on a beautiful day. There were playful things to look at, painted concrete animals and characters, in temple after temple, with spinning fortune-telling devices and other clever ways to give offerings. At one point a man showed me the way to a beautiful deep green temple. It was built, he said, expressly for green-eyed people. There was no Buddha in it, because green-eyed people tend to be foreign and non-Buddhist. The temple was very tall, because green-eyed people tend to be tall. And, he added, tapping his head and smiling, ‘they tend to have good brains.'
For me, the color that perhaps best symbolizes Burma is the deep red, darker than Coca-Cola red, color of the robes and parasols of Burmese monks. This red has deep historical roots, and now it has been adopted by Burma's National League for Democracy.
Colors are inherently symbolic. They seem to mean something. Sometimes this meaning becomes overtly political. In a similar way that the name (or re-naming) of a thing is an attempt to define it politically. And nowhere, perhaps, are these things more evident than in contemporary Burma. (Or Myanmar.)
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