James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Burma

  • About that "ominous" building in Burma

    Two weeks ago, I posted this photo, with accompanying expert commentary about the possibility that the malign regime in Burma was using North Korean aid to build a nuclear facility:


    Subsequent commentary knocks down that speculation and comes to the (reassuring!) conclusion that it is very likely just a big industrial plant. Eg, Mark Hibbs of Nuclear Fuel, quoted on Arms Control Wonk, says this:

    According to some information that sources said has been made available to Western governments and the IAEA, the "box" in the photos is likely not a reactor but a nonnuclear industrial workshop or machinery center.

    That determination, the sources said, follows from the absence of certain "overhead signatures" for a reactor in the photos and from specific information derived from firsthand knowledge of the site and its activities, deemed to be highly reliable.

    'We can conclude that it's not a reactor with near certainty," the Western analyst said.

    And from Arms Control Verification.org, via The Interpreter in Sydney, extra photos and commentary supporting the same "less than meetings the eye" conclusion. Eg:

    We learned from two sources, independent from each other, that the box-like building has been under scrutiny by the IAEA's [International Atomic Energy Agency] Department of Safeguards for quite some time, and that the department is nearly certain that the building does not serve any nuclear programme. An official, associated with a Western intelligence agency, later told us that, "we've been looking at that site for years, since construction started. You cannot hide a reactor in a low building without a basement level". A relatively recent visit to the facility has reportedly confirmed with '99 per cent confidence' that it is a machine shop..

    We'll take our reassuring news where we can find it.

  • "Nukes in Burma": a traveler's report

    An email from a reader who was in Burma earlier this year. Background here and here, and generally on Burma here. FWIW, the reader's accounts of conversations on the streets in Burma resemble my experience in three trips there over the past 20 years:

    "For me, the strangest thing about the news of nukes in Burma is that I first heard it in January -- from a seemingly average guy on the street in Burma.
    "During my two weeks of travel around Burma, many people would come up to me when no one was looking, start with a few friendly words, then progress into a series of terrible stories about their government: beatings, arbitrary taxation, health care withheld from pregnant women, children forced into the military, monks who were taken by police and never seen again...
    "A few stories seemed at first to be possible paranoia, but I eventually started believing them:

    "Your rickshaw driver is a spy"

    "That seemed unlikely since he was a very poor looking guy, and why would they care about me?  But a shop keeper pointed out-- That guy speaks some English, so why can't he get a better job?  I've lived in this town all my life, I know every rickshaw driver, and I've never seen this one until recently... I sometimes see drivers like this with radios, talking to the police... They are spies who report what foreigners are saying and where they are going.  They rotate between different cities so that people won't recognize them.  I would never speak to you while he is nearby.
    "Many monks are spies"
    "That also initially seemed like paranoia.  But one day a monk started walking along with me and told his stories about the government-- he was one of the protesters from August 2007 who the police were still searching for.  Anytime another monk walked by, he would immediately drop the conversation and wouldn't resume for several minutes.  He said that was because the government had installed spies all over the monasteries, to the point that a monk couldn't trust another monk-- what better way to squelch organized protest?
    "China is teaching our government how to oppress"
    "This seemed to be the general consensus.  But how could people have any information about this while being poor and uneducated, with no news sources? (Other than the VOA broadcasts which I saw several people listening to.)  Then I also heard that the government has sold oil to China at below market prices-- in exchange for what?  China has paid for the development of roads-- that lead to China.  Burma has oil; China needs oil.
    (Apparently India, South Korea, and Japan are buying Burmese oil-- decreasing Chinese leverage, but giving more money to the government.)
    "The government is buying nuclear weapons from North Korea"
    "A guy in his 50's came up to me on the street and started telling some of the same stories of oppression that I had heard from so many other people.  He went on to say that the government is very rich from its monopoly on of the country's natural resources, and the money is used to buy weapons. "The government is buying so many weapons, but which country is their enemy?  The people are their enemy."   He went on to say that the government is now trying to buy nuclear weapons from North Korea.   How could a seemingly average guy on the street know something like that?  Wouldn't it be a closely guarded secret?  I dismissed it a paranoid rumor, until Hillary Clinton said the same thing six months later.
    "Another unexpected thing I heard was "I like George Bush".  In January 2009 that was an unlikely statement anywhere in the world. I didn't hear it often in Burma, but more than once.  The reason was simply that he had invaded Iraq and taken out an oppressive government. Another person asked "Why can't America do that to our government?  You can just use those planes with no pilots that you fly over Pakistan."  (Of course, this could have the same result as in Iraq, since Burma is similarly composed of people with a history of fighting each other.)   I've traveled a fair amount and Burma is certainly the only place I've been where people would suggest, with a glimmer of hope, maybe America will attack our country."

    More »

  • More Burma nuke background

    In this item, yesterday, from Jeffrey Lewis's Arms Control Wonk website. It discusses the implications of the feature shown below on the Burmese landscape, taken (I assume by Lewis) from a Google Earth shot.

    And, as several readers have written in to suggest, thought experiment: Might this development have something to do with Bill Clinton's sudden trip to North Korea?

    On a related topic, the implications of ever more-complete and higher-rez coverage form Google Earth, as in pic above, are only beginning to sink in. A friend mentioned yesterday that extremely fine-grained coverage of a number of places had just gone up in GE, including of my recent hometown of Beijing. I can now see the individual windows of the apartment building from which I used to take "Beijing air quality photos." Will put that up at some point.

  • Ready for this? Nukes in Burma report


    A friend I've known and trusted for years in the national security world sent me this report from the Bangkok Post yesterday. Obviously that means it's not "secret" material, and the report itself the result of reasoning and guess work rather than anything more definite. But the authors include Desmond Ball of the Australian National University, who is a well-established authority in nuclear weapons and strategic studies. (Nothing against the other author; I just don't know of him.) They begin their findings this way:

    "Our own starting position was one of deep skepticism, but the testimonies from two defectors forced us to consider the uncomfortable possibilities of a Burma with nuclear capability." (Photo Bangkok Post)

    The reason this would matter is that Burma has arguably the worst government in the world -- and if not the very worst, then right up there with North Korea in having its own concept of "rationality." (This was the government that would not allow outsiders to help the victims of the devastating typhoon/cyclone last year.) And the gist of this report is that North Korea has been working with the Burmese regime on nukes. To this point, the Burmese regime's destructiveness has been visited exclusively on its own country's people rather than against its neighbors. Of course, nuclear weapons can change things.

    We have seen in recent world history the danger of leaping to conclusions about which dangerous regimes have what new weaponry. But to me this was news worth putting on the worry-scope.

    Extra items from the Bangkok Post here and here. The Interpreter, from the Lowy Institute in Sydney, today has a thorough rundown of the rumors and counter-arguments here. After the jump, my friend's informed gloss on the affair.

    From my friend, who has worked in various public and private roles in defense-related efforts. After he sent the report I wrote back saying, is there any reason to think this is true? His reply is below. He says Myanmar; I say Burma, as explained here:

    "Unfortunately, I do believe that the story should not be dismissed.  What is most concerning to me is the fact that it follows by just 10 days or so, Secretary Clinton's 21 July statements in which she expressed concern over the possibility that North Korea is sharing nuclear weapons-related technology with Myanmar.  NYT story here:

    "At the time of that story, I thought how bizarre, how out of nowhere the Clinton accusation seemed to come.  Now, given the Ball story, I can't help but think that the Obama Administration has some intelligence indicating that the North is engaging in such activity and that they were aware that it was about to leak via the Ball story or perhaps other avenues, and that they wanted to get a jump on it, so as not to be accused of having been caught unaware.  Further underscoring my tendency to believe that there is in fact a there there is that I cannot believe that Secretary Clinton would have made such an accusation -- now echoed in the Ball account -- unless the Administration had something substantial.  They are painfully aware -- certainly the intel community -- is painfully aware of the fact that the U.S. cannot afford to be revealed as peddling false accusations.

    "As far as the content of the Ball story goes, the first and main question that I would bring to any such story in which a state is accused of laying the groundwork for a nuclear weapons materials program would be: what have they done to escape notice (the notice of eyes in the sky; the notice of foreign travelers through the country) and, unfortunately, the contention that Myanmar now has a reactor constructed in 8 different locations and an underground secret facility buried deep within a mountain -- the  Naung Laing facility -- supplies a credible response to my question.  The second question would be how can a country so desperately poor, so bereft of well, just about everything. . . but then I stop and think:  North Korea, Pakistan...

    "It's way too early for anyone to be talking in terms of "slam dunk" evidence; certainly Clinton's remarks didn't go that far and neither does Ball's.  But the bottom line is that Ball's story is technically credible in its own right and it supplies a follow-up piece to Clinton's earlier remarks that fits a little too neatly (too uncomfortably neatly) with those remarks."

    More »

  • Burma background (updated)

    Once again I must unavoidably be on the road, and away in particular from Chinese earthquake news and coverage, for the next six days.

    In the meantime let me highlight and commend a series of articles from a Special Supplement on Burma that the Atlantic published in .... 1958.

    That year our magazine published a 72-page section of perspectives on this one little country (the magazine biz was a little different in those days....), mainly written by Burmese themselves. Many addressed questions of national character, historic memory, the role of religion, etc that remain important today. Five of these essays, for a start, are now on line. Just because I know the Burmese-American novelist Wendy Law Yone, I point out that one is by her father, the prominent Burmese journalist U Law Yone.

    It's a credit to the magazine that we published this material in the first place (under Edward Weeks, editor in those palmy days) and that, thanks to hard, fast work by Sage Stossel, Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, and the Atlantic team of interns (Ben Carlson, Conor Friedersdorf, Theodore Kahn, Herschel Nachlis, Sara Tisdale), so much of this material went from printed form on crinkly 50-year-old paper to being digitized and online within about one day. I believe that more of it is to come. James Gibney's accompanying overview of the subject also is extremely good.

    We hope this material is useful for Westerners trying to learn more about the country -- and, significantly, for members of the large English-speaking Burmese diaspora around the world, most of whom would never have seen these essays before.

    Update: 16 articles now on line. Really, what can be found in the Atlantic's archives is incredible.

  • Evil in Burma

    I have not said anything about the disaster in Burma, because I haven't had anything to say beyond "It's a disaster." And, that people should call the country Burma -- as the Bush Administration, Senators Clinton, McCain*, and Obama, and the Washington Post do -- rather than Myanmar, the term chosen by its junta and now accepted by CNN, NPR, and the New York Times.

    My wife and I have been to Burma several times over the last twenty years. The first time was in the summer of 1988, around the time of the August 8 uprising and subsequent bloody repression of monks and students. The most recent was a little more than a year ago, a few days before another bloody round of repression. Like almost everyone who has been in the country, we have viewed its regime as a peculiarly pre-modern and backward form of evil. It does not seems capable of thoroughly-organized evil and repression, as in the old Soviet system. Rather it displays a benighted, superstitious, and almost unthinking indifference to whether its people suffer and die.

    A minor illustration would be the decision that effectively bankrupted many Burmese people and helped bring on riots 20 years ago. This was the out of the blue decree that most denominations of Burmese currency, except those in "lucky" denominations like 45 and 90 kyat, would be valueless. The major illustration is of course its refusal to allow relief workers from around the world to spare tens of thousands of Burmese people disease and likely death in the wake of the cyclone.

    Unfortunately, saying that the regime is evil doesn't automatically indicate how to help its unfortunate people. Invasions -- even for humanitarian purposes -- should be a very last resort. And without spelling out the whole reasoning, the U.S. is not in a great position now to be organizing an international invasion force, no matter how noble the cause. As the international frustrations of the last week have suggested, the main option is the unsatisfying one of putting together as much pressure from as many sources as possible, including China**, to force the regime away from its outrageous refusal to allow aid workers in.

    (*About McCain: if it really is true that he has given a major convention role to a lobbyist who represented the Burmese junta, McCain needs to dump that person forthwith -- or be pilloried for not doing so every day between now and the election. Update: I see that the lobbyist, Doug Goodyear, has just quit the convention job. Next, maybe giving back the $300,000+ the generals paid him, to a human rights group? **About China: the latest outrage by the Burmese generals should not become the latest reason to threaten China with an Olympic boycott or disruption. The Chinese government has some influence over the Burmese regime -- but just some. It is better to make China part of the solution to this problem, by pointing out that a regime's refusal to save its own people is the strongest possible reason for an exception in China's "non-interference with other sovereign states" doctrine.)

    A year ago, during the time of riots and crackdowns, I posted several pictures of what Rangoon looked like just before the fighting began. Here and after the jump, a few other pictures from that time.


    1: Village on the Irrawaddy delta, south of Rangoon, showing why a storm surge would do such damage. (Click for larger version that shows pagoda):


    2: Street scene in Rangoon:


    3: Spiffed-up colonial-era office buildings, downtown Rangoon:

    4: Workers wearing sarong-like Burmese longyi preparing to spiff up another building:

    More »

  • Concord across the Atlantic blogs: re Burma

    Of course I agree with Andrew Sullivan that ruling out ineffective, self-righteous, needlessly bellicose, or simply stupid steps in dealing with Burma should not mean: Hey, let's do nothing at all!

    As with North Korea, as with Iran, as with anything important, it's a matter of knocking off the bombast and posturing -- about pre-emptive air strikes in the case of Iran, about Olympic boycotts in the case of China and Burma -- and using our brains, that neglected tool in Bush-era foreign policy, to figure out where we might most effectively apply pressure. Ingloriously, but realistically, for Burma this will probably involve some scheme to buy the generals' way into exile, before they have further chance to slaughter more of their own people.

    So in solidarity with Andrew: slogans and hollow threats, No. Continued pressure to enlist the Chinese, the Indians, the ASEAN countries, and others toward removal of the junta, Yes.

  • Maybe this is just me, but....

    ... If I had been vociferously, prominently, moralistically, and disastrously wrong on the major foreign-policy issue of the time -- that is, if I had been all-out in favor of invading Iraq and had been withering in my dismissal of those not man enough to support that step or who said "what's the rush?" -- then I might, conceivably, be a little hesitant before striking similar cocksure poses about new issues as they came up.

    But apparently this is just me. Because there is an emerging overlap between those who were 100% sure about the need to invade Iraq, and the certain success of that endeavor, and those who are 100% sure about the need to teach China a lesson about its coddling of the Burmese junta, and the moral righteousness of getting tough with the Chinese.

    The generals who tyrannize Burma are indeed terrible. By my lights (and as I was saying back in "axis of evil" days), they are at least as great a menace to their own people as Saddam Hussein was to his, though it's hard to cook up any scenario in which they menace the world.

    But the direness of a situation is not a reason to become blind to its its practicalities -- as happened with Iraq (Shiites? Sunnis? Kurds? Who cares!) and is happening with China and Burma now. It's a reason to understand the realities more thoroughly.

    In Burma's case, this would mean being sure we had answered questions like: how much leverage, exactly, does China have over the brutal generals? What other countries -- India? Singapore? Thailand? Their neighbors in the region who chose to welcome Burma as a member of ASEAN? -- should be part of a coordinated anti-junta effort? Which approach -- ultimata in public, consultation in private -- is most likely to get the Chinese to do what they can? Etc. Again, think how nice it would have been if people had spent more time before the Iraq invasion asking comparable questions about what we were stepping into there.

    But as I say, this may be just me.

  • Boycott the Olympics? There's no point in hollow threats

    Three days ago, Fred Hiatt, who runs the Washington Post's editorial page, published a column about China's tolerance and support for the brutal junta in Burma. Its action point was this:

    And here's something else I would do: Tell China that, as far as the United States is concerned, it can have its Olympic Games or it can have its regime in Burma. It can't have both.

    I thought that was a bad and shallow idea -- and I say that even having some awareness, from trips to Burma over the last 19 years, how dark the situation there is. (The day after George Bush's 2002 State of the Union address identifying Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as the axis of evil, I said on a radio interview: if he is serious, he should have added Burma.)

    At the invitation of the paper's "Post Global" feature, I laid out some of the reasons I think an ultimatum is foolish strategy. The text of that argument comes after the jump; the Post Global feature itself is here.

    I didn't say there something else I think: that the idea of taking a brave, clear stand on China and Burma, and waving away as mere details any thought about the consequences, is reminiscent of the Post editorial page's relentlessly pro-war stance in the year leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Then the editorial page, under Hiatt, was impatient with any suggestion that we should wait, that we should think hard about the consequences of an occupation, that we should be very careful before launching a discretionary war. All of that was for wimps.

    The tone of the Post's editorials was not the major factor, but was a factor, in cowing people in DC who might have objected to the rush to war. I've got nothing against Hiatt personally, whom I like; but I do have something against his page's pro-war tone in those days. I mention it because, again, I think there is a similarity in the "don't bother me with details, goddammit" tone.

    Text of Post Global article follows:

    Ultimatums Won't Move China

    If a country makes a threat, it must be ready to carry it out. The plain fact is, virtually no country in the world, certainly not the United States, is ready to carry out the threat to boycott the Olympics. Therefore other countries should pressure China. And talk with China. And leave in the background the suggestion that China’s grand and gala opening-to-the-world event, toward which so much of its money and attention is now being devoted, will be forever tainted if the Chinese government continues to look like the evil Burmese junta’s only foreign friend. But it would be foolish to waste time with ultimatums to the effect: Olympics or Burma, take your pick. The Chinese would know that the foreigners didn’t mean it.Why would they know that? Because the foreign governments understand a point that some foreign editorialists miss: that China as a whole – not just its government but also the great majority of its people — would take such a boycott as a deeply hostile act.

    For every one Chinese person who said: “Yes! We respect Foreign Nation X for showing our undemocratic government the importance of human rights in foreign policy!” there would be a thousand more who said this instead: “Those foreigners! They humiliated our nation during the Opium Wars. They stood by while the Japanese humiliated us 70 years ago. And now, as we are preparing to welcome them and show them what we have achieved, they are determined to spoil our great event. That is because they simply cannot stand the idea of our success. Our long drive over the last 25 years should earn us success in the world, and the bastards simply won’t give it to us. We cannot trust them, because they will never accept us.”

    I don’t see a lot of evidence of Chinese walking around with that chip on their shoulder right now. The Olympic Games cause a lot of grumbling – the shady land and construction deals, the razing of neighborhoods. But my observation is that many more people – average people – are actually proud of this upcoming event than skeptical of it, and that most of them think the world will be pleased and impressed by it, too. Foreign governments who deal with China surely understand this. If they don’t, they need new diplomats telling them what is going on.

    I am constantly amazed, and I think most Americans here feel the same, by how little overt anti-Americanism I encounter in China. (Japanese expats here might tell a different story.) But those who were here when the U.S. bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade say that the rage against Americans then was physically frightening. All at once the mood turned angrily hostile. (I have not met anyone in China who thinks that bombing was an “accident.”) The potential for nationalistic reaction against “disrespect” toward China is great. Again, the point: the prevailing outlook by average Chinese toward Americans seems positive, and about the only thing that could change it would be something perceived as a slap at national dignity.

    It would be perceived as an unprovoked slap, too. Part of the reason, obviously, is that the Chinese media aren’t carrying the slaughter-in-Rangoon footage now appearing in the West. Moreover, Chinese people have heard for years their government’s line about “non-interference” as the guiding principle of foreign policy. I’m not saying that everyone takes the principle at face value. But, to put it mildly, the population has in no way been prepared for the idea that what its government calls “non-interference” in Burma has become so dire an indictment in the world’s eyes that its years-in-the-planning Olympic festivities must be called off. In numbers again: for each 1000 Westerners who think the Burmese outrages have reached that point, one person in China will think so.

    Is such an embittering step toward China – not just its regime but also its population – one that other countries are willing to take? I don’t think so. It is not a matter of (to use the inevitable term) kow-towing to the Chinese leadership. It simply is recognizing the view of the Chinese population. The U.S. was way too slow to think about the consequences of alienating a billion or so of the world’s Muslims with its Iraq and “global war on terror” policies. I think it would at least pause before alienating another billion or so people.

    And, to cap it off: There is almost no reason to think that the ultimatum would work. You show me someone who has studied Chinese politics and thinks the leadership responds well to outright “or else!” threats, and I’ll show you, umm, an unusual scholar or diplomat.

    So does the outside world simply ignore the horror in Burma, and China’s role as the regime’s main source of support? Of course not. Other countries should be denouncing the Burmese generals as forcefully as they can. Meanwhile, they should look for any solution that will lead to getting these tyrants out of office and out of Burma, including, if necessary, letting them keep much of the loot they have plundered. Publicly, governments like America’s should urge China to take a more active role in saving lives in Burma; privately, they should make the same point to the Chinese leadership in much tougher terms. But the crux of their argument should be: Welcome to the big leagues! This is the kind of responsibility you take on when you have more influence in the world. And you’re going to look bad in everyone’s eyes, and have your long drive toward respect and trust and influence be damaged, if people think that China stands for nothing more than reliable raw-material supplies. Even if you don’t care about Burma’s people, if you do care about China’s standing, then you need to do more than you have done.

    Every diplomatic resource that other countries have, they should use. But leave off the pointless, “Or else we won’t come to the Olympics” ultimatum. It comes across as: Or else I’ll hold my breath until I turn blue.

    More »

  • Yet more on CNN, Burma,and Myanmar

    Perhaps I was unfair to single out CNN for its relentless insistence on the name Myanmar rather than Burma. Lamentably, the New York Times is doing the same thing (for instance, here). The Economist is bizarrely schizophrenic on the question. Its latest cover boldly says, "Burma's Saffron Revolution," but in the accompanying lead story all references are to Myanmar. Good for the Washington Post, which on its front page goes unashamedly with Burma, as does virtually all of the British media (BBC, Times, Guardian, Telegraph) except for the inexplicable Economist.

    I suppose CNN sticks in my craw because they were the first media outlet in which I'd noticed such ostentatiously PC-sounding Myanmar-ization, especially in their arm's-length treatment of G.W. Bush's speech about "Burma." And just now they nonchalantly introduced comments "on Myanmar" from Archibishop Desmond Tutu, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, a Burmese democracy advocate, and America's own Condoleezza Rice, only to have each of them begin, "The problem in Burma is" or "The people of Burma hope..." Take a hint, CNN and NYT!

    One more thought experiment, on the argument that Burma is a "colonial" name: If a country changes its name in the process of becoming independent, no problem. Today's Ghana had been the Gold Coast as a British colony; when it became independent 50 years ago, it became Ghana too. New country; new name. But suppose a junta took over Mexico tomorrow and said that henceforth the world must call the country Atzlan. (Or, to choose a country with a name more obviously traceable to the colonial era, the Dominican Republican, or the Philippines.) It's not a new country; it's just a new regime, and there would be no need to oblige them, just there is no need to dignify the brutal Burmese generals

  • Background only: how Rangoon looked quite recently

    For discussion tomorrow: whether China can do what many outsiders hope, and be the deus ex machina in the tragedy of Burma. It's pretty to think so, and to hope that Chinese intervention might spare Burmese monks and civilians from what looks like impending crackdown or massacre from the heavily-armed thugs who rule the country. I fear it's not realistic to think that China can or will play such a role. More later.

    For now, street scenes from Rangoon, four months ago:

    Rangoon city hall, with its somewhat eerie combination of British-colonial and traditional Burmese design. This appears in the background of many current protest videos. Here is how it looked on a weekday midmorning this May:

    Entrance to internet cafe (although "foreign" email services like Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail, etc were all forbidden, and general services more tightly censored than in China):

    Local transport:

    School books for sale:

    Local toothpaste ad:

    More »

  • More on Burma v. Myanmar

    A reader in Yangon/Rangoon says this about the "Burma" v. "Myanmar" question:

    In your article you miss one critical point.

    Burma was the name given by the British, and is a corruption of Bamar. The Bamar people are the ethnic majority of the lowland areas of the country, referred to as divisions eg, Yangon Division, Bago Division, Mandalay Division. The other parts of the country are known as States, where other ethnic groups form the majority eg Chin State, Shan State, Karen State each named after majority ethnic group.

    Therefore, to insist on calling the country Burma (Bamar) falls into the trap of Bamar nationalism, identifiable not just to Military but to the NLD as well, but always to the exclusion and the expense of the many other ethnic groups.

    Unfortunately, Burmese nationalism has been a problem in the country for centuries (and made worse under the British policy of divide and rule), and unless the more inclusive Myanmar is used will continue to be so no matter who is in charge.

    If you decide to use this info, please attribute it to ANON in Yangon (the historically correct name for Rangoon), and be assured I am not a stooge, but have friends here from pretty much every community !

    Actually we don't disagree. As I said the first time around, within Burma there have been serious arguments for years about what the country should call itself, to reflect the relations among its component ethnic groups. If Burma wants to call itself Myanmar for internal purposes, no outsider should object.

    But as for the name outsiders use, here is the plain fact: nearly 20 years ago the brutal SLORC commandos insisted on the change to Myanmar as a way of aggrandizing and legitimizing themselves and of suggesting a Year Zero, history-starts-with-us outlook on the country. There is no reason for outsiders to go along with them, especially now.

  • For once, I'm with Bush on a language issue: it's Burma, not Myanmar

    I'm watching CNN in Beijing, which keeps tut-tutting President Bush for saying "Burma," rather than "Myanmar," in his just-completed UN speech, as if this were merely another of his gaffes.

    I'm with Bush. For nearly twenty years, since first visiting the country during the violent protests in 1988, I've followed arguments about the twists and turns of what to call the country in Burmese. The complications mainly involve what the various names say about the relations between the Burmese people proper and other ethnic groups within the nation.

    But when it comes to referring to the nation in English, there's little debate. Myanmar is the name invented 18 years ago by the benighted junta, known as SLORC* back then and the State Peace and Development Council now, when it seized power through force. When Westerners say "Myanmar," they're not being culturally respectful to the people of a beautiful but oppressed nation. (We don't call China Zhongguo or Germany Deutschland just because the locals do.) They're bowing to the whims of the generals who still imprison Aung San Suu Kyi.

    There is no reason to humor them. Say Burma, as George Bush did. And CNN, grow some backbone when it comes to terminology!


    * "State Law and Order Restoration Council."

    Update: Thanks to my Atlantic colleague Graeme Wood, I learn that I am agreeing here not merely with George W. Bush but, it seems, even with John Derbyshire! Sort of....

  • Burma: Life in the ruins

    In the summer of 1988, my wife and I traveled through Burma mainly at night. We rode in the back of an open-bed pickup truck that held, in addition to us, half a dozen 10-gallon jerrycans full of gasoline. This was just after the military crackdown that left large numbers of students, civilians, and even monks dead and that cemented control over the country by the notorious junta later known as “SLORC” – the State Law and Order Restoration Committee. We had made a deal with a moonlighting Army officer to drive us north from Rangoon to Mandalay and Pagan and the upcountry regions. To minimize contact with the authorities, he drove only in the dark; to minimize wear and tear on his truck, he kept the headlights off. Our children, ages 11 and 8, were at a two-week summer camp on an island in Malaysia, where we then lived. When we finally got out of Burma and collected our children, it occurred to us to ask ourselves: What were we thinking???

    What we thought about frequently while in Burma was its living-in-ruins effect. Rangoon’s downtown had a surprisingly intact array of stately colonial-era structures – none of them demolished, since there had been essentially no economic activity in the country for 40+ years, but none of them painted, repaired, or maintained in that time either.

    Nearly twenty years later, the old buildings are still standing, and a few look better than before. The venerable Somerset Maugham-era Strand Hotel, a frozen-in-time rattletrap when we stayed there, with an ancient dining-hall staff who spoke with English accents and spent evenings watching Heckle & Jeckle cartoons on Burmese TV, is now spiffed-up and elegant. One or two modern office towers have appeared.

    But this image suggests what is still the general effect. Shoeless squatters playing soccer in what was some kind of Socialist- architecture compound near the famed Shwedagon Pagoda.


    And this is the city hall, in the heart of Rangoon’s downtown, a surreal “Anglo-Burmese” structure from the 1920s. This picture was taken at 3pm. The overall air of bustle is representative of what we saw.


    And here is a city bus:


    The one place where wealth, money, attention, and activity are all obvious is, of course, at the vast Shwedagon complex surrounding the gold-covered main stupa.


    Each society leaves the mark it chooses. Burma with its stupas and pagodas. Modern America with — its shopping malls? Its jails? Those would be depressing, so I’ll say: perhaps with its universities.

    More »

  • How the world works: Burma edition

    The three things that Burma (Myanmar, to its military regime) has to export are: drugs, gems, and rain forest timber. Most Western countries have applied a range of trade sanctions and import-prohibitions against Burmese goods. China has not and is Burma’s main trade partner.

    I don’t know what the drug- or gem-export business looks like, and I’m not likely to get pictures of shipments as they occur. But recently in the port area of Rangoon (Yangon), I got an idea of how the timber trade looks.

    Here are supplies waiting for shipment:


    And here is the merchant ship Hua Shan, home port Guangzhou, waiting for its cargo.


    The wheels of commerce turn.

    More »


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