A look inside Burma’s elite

This video of the wedding of Thandar Shwe, daughter of Burmese ruler Than Shwe, has been making rounds for a while.

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According to the Youtube description:

Movie footage of wedding of Thandar Shwe, daughter of Burmese dictator Than Shwe and Major Zaw Phyo Win in July 2, 2006. Held at the Zeyathiri Beikman (lit. “Royal Building of Splendour”) and Sedona Hotel in Rangoon.

And as the BBC comments on the video:

The newly-weds were reportedly given $50m-worth of wedding gifts, including, cars jewellery and houses.

Most Burmese will not see the video, since internet use inside the repressive country is restricted.

But some of those who have seen the video, both inside and outside Burma, viewed the wedding as a tasteless extravagance in an otherwise poverty-stricken nation.

One local reporter told a Thai newspaper that people were asking themselves where the money came from.

“It’s outrageous, just outrageous, especially when you consider that most Burmese live in extreme poverty,” Aung Zaw, the editor of Irrawaddy, a publication run by Burmese journalists in exile, told Reuters news agency.

Than Shwe himself is seen in the video, walking stiffly at his daughter’s side in traditional Burmese dress – a rare glimpse of him out of military uniform.

Is it Burma or Myanmar?

Following on the theme of my previous post on place names and decolonization, the BBC gives the best explanation I’ve seen for the confusion over the two names by which this country is known internationally.

The ruling military junta changed its name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of a popular uprising. Rangoon also became Yangon.

The Adaptation of Expression Law also introduced English language names for other towns, some of which were not ethnically Burmese.

The change was recognised by the United Nations, and by countries such as France and Japan, but not by the United States and the UK.

A statement by the Foreign Office says: “Burma’s democracy movement prefers the form ‘Burma’ because they do not accept the legitimacy of the unelected military regime to change the official name of the country. Internationally, both names are recognised.”

It’s general practice at the BBC to refer to the country as Burma, and the BBC News website says this is because most of its audience is familiar with that name rather than Myanmar.


They have both been used within Burma for a long time, says anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman, who has written extensively about Burmese politics.


“There’s a formal term which is Myanmar and the informal, everyday term which is Burma. Myanmar is the literary form, which is ceremonial and official and reeks of government. [The name change] is a form of censorship.”

If Burmese people are writing for publication, they use ‘Myanmar’, but speaking they use ‘Burma’, he says.

This reflects the regime’s attempt to impose the notion that literary language is master, Mr Houtman says, but there is definitely a political background to it.

Richard Coates, a linguist at the University of Western England, says adopting the traditional, formal name is an attempt by the junta to break from the colonial past.

I’ve always been slightly puzzled that the democracy movement was in favor of maintaining the country’s colonial name, but considering that the name was changed at the behest of the Junta, one sees how it makes symbolic sense. I look forward to seeing whether the democrats currently protesting can win their battle and topple the Junta (naturally I hope that they do,) and I am interested in seeing whether they restore the official name of Burma, or continue the linguistic decolonization policy that had been started under the Junta, but giving it a popular aegis.

First mention of comfort women in the English press?

The discussion over the proposed presumably well meant but ultimately pointless US congressional resolution condemning Japan’s wartime system of “comfort women” made me wonder, when was this first reported in the US? Since I have easy online access to the New York Times archive I thought I would check there. It seems highly unlikely that the NYT would have passed over mentioning the issue if some other paper had reported it first, so this is most likely as least an approximate date.


January 14, 1992

Japan Admits Army Forced Koreans to Work in Brothels

Three days before Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa takes his first official trip to South Korea, the Government admitted today that the Japanese Army forced tens of thousands of Korean women to have sex with Japanese soldiers during World War II, and hinted that women who are still alive might receive some kind of compensation.

Until today, Japan’s official position has long been that the “comfort girls” were recruited by private entrepreneurs, not the military.

But many historians have attacked that position as a convenient rewriting of history, and over the weekend Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers, reported that army documents found in the library of Japan’s Self-Defense Agency indicated that the military had played a large role in operating what were euphemistically called “comfort stations.”

Mr. Miyazawa is widely expected to address the issue on his visit to Seoul and to offer a fairly specific apology. The vast majority of the women were forcibly taken to Japanese-occupied China and Southeast Asia from Korea, which was a Japanese colony from 1910 until Japan’s defeat in 1945.. ‘Abominable Episodes’

Over the weekend Japan’s Foreign Minister, Michio Watanabe, said “I cannot help acknowledging” that the Japanese military was involved in forcing the women to have sex with the troops. “I am troubled that the abominable episodes have been unraveled, and they give me heartache,” he said.

Today Japan’s chief Government spokesman, Koichi Kato, offered a more specific apology, saying, “We would like to express our heartfelt apology and soul-searching to those women who had a bitter hardship beyond description.”

But he said that because Japan settled issues of wartime compensation for Korea in 1965, when the countries resumed full diplomatic ties, there would be no official compensation for the victims. For weeks the Government has been talking about finding private sources of money that would settle claims by surviving “comfort women,” without setting the precedent of reopening reparations claims.

In December, around the time of the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, three Korean women filed suit in Tokyo, demanding compensation for forced prostitution in China. Occasional Protests in Seoul

Though the Government said that officially all compensation issues have been settled, officials acknowledged that they could not openly contest the suit without roiling relations with South Korea. Periodically there have been small demonstrations in Seoul denouncing the Japanese for their failure to face the issue.

The question of Japan’s refusal to acknowledge official involvement in the forced prostitution has been a continual irritant in Japanese relations with South Korea and, to a lesser degree, with China. Many of the women were killed or brutally beaten. While historians disagree about how many women were forced to have sex with the troops, estimates run from 60,000 to more than 200,000.

The documents reported in Asahi Shimbun were found by Yoshiaki Yoshida, a history professor, who reviewed them at the Defense Agency. They have been in Japan since 1958, when they were returned by United States troops, and it is not clear why they have stayed out of view for so long.

The “comfort women” debate has been but one of the continuing tensions between Tokyo and Seoul in recent years. South Korean leaders have long complained that they have yet to receive an adequate apology from Japan for wartime atrocities. Last week, at a dinner for President Bush, President Roh Tae Woo of South Korea reportedly expressed concern that Japan has yet to apologize fully for the war.


January 18, 1992


Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa of Japan made a formal public apology here today for Japan’s actions in forcing tens of thousands of Korean women to have sex with Japanese soldiers during World War II.

In a speech to South Korea’s National Assembly, Mr. Miyazawa said: “Recently, the issue of ‘comfort women’ in the service of the Imperial Japanese Army has come into light. I cannot help feeling acutely distressed over this, and I express my sincerest apology.”

Mr. Miyazawa’s visit to Seoul has been preceded and accompanied by vociferous campaigning in the South Korean press for an apology from the Prime Minister, and for compensation from Japan for the surviving women.

This call has been echoed by protesters in South Korean cities.. Estimates Up to 200,000

Korean historians estimate that 100,000 to 200,000 Korean women were forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers before 1945, when Japanese colonial rule ended in Korea. It is not known how many survive.

Japanese and South Korean officials said Mr. Miyazawa had also offered an apology in his second round of talks today with President Roh Tae Woo.

Mr. Miyazawa said at a joint news conference afterward that Japan would sincerely investigate the issue.

But there was no mention in their talks of compensation for the surviving women, the officials said.

The question of compensation for 35 years of colonial rule in Korea was settled when the countries established diplomatic relations in 1965. Compensation Suit Filed

But last month three Korean women who say they were forced to have sex with Japanese soldiers filed a compensation suit in a Japanese court, which may set a precedent for other cases.

The issue overshadowed other topics discussed by Mr. Roh and Mr. Miyazawa, particularly South Korea’s growing trade deficit with Japan.

The two leaders agreed to set up a committee to work out by June a plan of action for closing the trade gap and increasing the transfer of Japanese technology to South Korea.

South Korea was $8.8 billion in the red in trade with Japan last year, accounting for nine-tenths of South Korea’s overall trade deficit.


WASHINGTON, Jan. 17 (Reuters) — High-ranking United States officials will meet North Korean leaders in New York on Wednesday to discuss the country’s nuclear program and other American concerns, the State Department said today. The United States Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, Arnold L. Kanter, will meet a delegation headed by the Secretary of the governing Workers Party, Kim Young Sun, a State Department spokesman, Richard A. Boucher, said.

[The North Korea bit was on the same page. Not relevant to comfort women but still amusing to see it was in the news at the time.]

Harvard-educated Burma democracy activist Adam Richards, 1996

Back when I was just 14 another Adam Richards was making a difference. From the Burma Library Archives:

April 8, 1996

Cambridge: Harvard University dining service has scuttled a $1 million
contract with Pepsi after Harvard students raised concerns over Pepsi’s
activities in military-run Burma.

Harvard is not the only top university where contracts with PepsiCo are
under fire: Stanford University Burma democracy activists have more than 2000
student backers for an effort to keep Pepsi-owned Taco Bell off their
campus. Dozens of high school and college campuses across the US are
involved in similar efforts.

“I’m a businessperson who says that we have to be socially and ethically
responsible” says Harvard Food Services director of dining services
Michael Berry. Regarding Pepsi he says “I do think there is a problem
doing business with such a company.”

As recently as Feb. 22, a Pepsi memo sneered at the Harvard students,
noting that a Harvard demonstration against Pepsi “involved a mere 25
students.” “This shows the power of the information we provided on
Pepsi,” says Harvard senior Adam Richards.

“What you have is America’s ‘best and brightest’ challenging PepsiCo based
on the facts” says senior analyst Simon Billenness of Franklin Research and
Development. “Students are at the heart of Pepsi’s target market. Pepsi
is extremely vulnerable.”

Pepsi entered Burma shortly after military authorities quashed an
overwhelming (82%) May, 1990 election victory by the NLD party of Nobel
Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. NLD spokespeople have repeatedly
called for Pepsi to cease operating in Burma. Pepsi’s Burmese partner is
also chairman of a joint venture with the military called JV3. In Burma,
“the army controls all major businesses. Not even a small scale merchant
can survive without solid army connections” says the authoritative Far
Eastern Economic Review.

To repatriate its profits from Burma, Pepsi engages in “counter trade” by
purchasing agricultural goods for export. Recent reports by the United
Nations and human rights groups note that forced labor has become pervasive in
Burma’s agriculture sector. The Burmese army has a practice of confiscating
farmland and using the evicted farmers as forced labor.

Despite several enquiries, PepsiCo has not disclosed the parties from
which the company buys farm products or provided any evidence that
PepsiCo is trying to avoid buying from farms that use forced labor.
Despite rising concern over its presence in Burma, Pepsi’s lawyers each
year work diligently to keep such issues off of the shareholder ballot at
its annual meetings.

Pepsi’s revenues in Burma, $14 million in 1995, are dwarfed by US sales of
over $10 billion.

Other US companies, including Coca-Cola, Levi Strauss, Eddie Bauer, Liz
Claiborne, Amoco and Columbia Sportswear, shun Burma. UNOCAL, Texaco and
ARCO remain, and along with Pepsi are the targets of consumer and shareholder

For More Info Contact: Adam Richards

BBC special report on Burma

We`ve mentioned Burma/Myanmar a few times before on this page, but rarely hear much about this bizarre and secretive nation unless they`ve, say, just extended the house arrest of their democratically elected president. Of course, one reason we hear so little about Burma is because, whatever newsworthy events may be ocurring within the borders, communication and traffic between Burma and the outside world is so restricted that it often doesn`t get out. This is why it`s so nice to see this series of articles written by a BBC reporter who was actually allowed into the country.

The first article can be found at this address, with links to the later parts contained within. Having previously posted about speculation that the sudden relocation of the Myanmar capital was inspired by, of all things. feng-shui, this tidbit from the second article was particularly amusing.

The latest government campaign is an initiative to grow nut trees, not only as a source of bio fuel but also because government fortune-tellers believe they will shore up the military’s power.

When everything you read about an entire country is depressing, you have to take whatever little amusement you can get.

Kayan Girl with Squirt Gun

Thanks again to the lovely Mrs. Adamu for the photo.

The Kayan (or Padaung) people live an uncertain existence in refugee camps on the Thailand/Burma border, where a chief activity is venturing outside the camps daily to wow foreign tourists with their freakishly long necks.

Mrs. Adamu reports that the girl pictured was especially skilled at attracting attention. You have to admit she has a sense of style.

Bomb Threats for fun and Profit: Japanese Terrorist Wants his Welfare, and an April Fools “joke” gone Wrong

Who could wish harm on such a pretty sunset?ZAKZAK!

Man Dials Emergency Hotline With City Hall Bomb Threat after “Being Denied Public Assistance”

The Tokai Precinct of the Aichi Prefectural Police arrested an unemployed male (55) on suspicion offorcible obstruction of business for calling in a bomb threat to the Obu City Hall on April 9.

According to the police’s investigation, the man is suspected of calling 110 [emergency hotline similar the 911 in the US] from a public phone from 12:12 until 12:23 on April 9 and reported that “the Obu City Hall building will be bombed at noon on April 12,” obstructing business. He was arrested by police from the Tokai precinct, who rushed to the scene while he was on the line.

The man has explained, “I applied for public assistance, but I was denied.”

ZAKZAK 2006/04/10

Meanwhile, unnamed foreign students in Burma apparently don’t get that it’s supposed to be an April Fool’s joke:

Myanmar junta says bomb was April Fools joke

Published: Monday, 10 April, 2006, 11:56 AM Doha Time

YANGON: Myanmar’s military junta said yesterday that a time bomb found at an upscale international school last week was likely planted by foreign students as part of an April Fools joke.

The bomb, similar in design to explosives that killed 19 people in the capital almost a year ago, had been found and defused at the International School of Yangon on Thursday, security personnel said.

Brigadier-General Kyaw Hsan, information minister of the ruling State Peace and Development Council, told a press conference that investigators had to consider other factors since the students of diplomats from the United States and other foreigners working in Myanmar attend the school.

Good one!