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Burma to Myanmar and Back?

NEW DELHI – In ways big and small, Asia is still living with the tainted legacy of imperialism. Consider the debate now underway in Myanmar – or Burma to some. Because the imperial tongue found it difficult to pronounce “Myanmar,” the country’s no-nonsense British masters renamed it Burma (redrawing its borders as well for good measure).

The new name stuck until the military regime that ruled the country for decades restored the original one in 1989. Ironically, however, the newly empowered democratic opposition would like to bring back the name Burma, viewing “Myanmar” as emblematic of the dictatorship that they wish to leave behind.

But the past can never be truly erased. Not even Mao Zedong, with the fury unleashed during China’s Cultural Revolution, could make the “Four Olds” (old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas) vanish. And whether one uses “Yangon” or “Rangoon” to identify Myanmar/Burma’s capital, the place still remains what the British travel writer Norman Lewis described as “imperial and rectilinear…built by a people who refused compromise with the East.”

The British-built Rangoon was, of course, the Victorian colonizer’s response to what Lewis called the “unsubstantial glories of Mandalay.” As he put it, “These massive columns now rise with shabby dignity from the tangle of scavenging dogs and sprawling, ragged bodies at their base.”