originally published February 23, 2012
Flags can tell a lot about a nation’s history. And the story is always that much more interesting when the nation in question has a history as full of defeat, imperialism and international bitch-slapping as Burma.
This is the Golden Hintha flag, used by Burma from about 1300 to 1500. The Hintha (also called the Hamsa) is an aquatic bird, considered to be similar to a goose or a swan. It looks like a chicken to me, but I suppose that may be offensive to Burmans. No, forget that, this bird hasn’t been the country’s symbol for more than 500 years. It’s a chicken. Sorry Burmans, but you used to be symbolized by a chicken.
Around this time the nation was ruled by a series of unsuccessful kingdoms, including one called the Mons, who had apparently named themselves after the “fleshy eminence atop the vaginal opening”. Suddenly a chicken mascot doesn’t sound so bad.
In 1752, Burma upgraded to the peacock. At this time the region was at the mercy of the Konbaung Dynasty. Within five years the Konbaungs had reunited the entire nation. It was a delightful affair, lots of hugs, and the caterers brought a fine assortment of pastries. Burma was peaceful for about three years before starting up about 125 years of warfare with Siam, China and Britain.
This was not a pleasant time to be living in eastern Asia. Now that I think of it, the 1700s was not a pleasant time to be living anywhere. For Burma, the 1800s weren’t any better. In 1878 King Mindon made peace with the British, only to then flee the palace when two of his sons decided to stage a rebellion in protest. Thibaw, one of these sons, took control of the throne, and the third Anglo-Burmese War began.
That’s right, Thibaw looked at the Burmese, then he looked at the British at the height of their Empire and thought, “Yeah. We can take ‘em.” He held out an impressive seven years before the British won and kicked the peacock to the curb, replacing it with this flag:
Strangely, the Burmese were less than thrilled at being a British colony. Riots ensued, and Buddhist monks became the symbol of the independence movement. In the late 30s, Burma became a “separately administered colony”, which meant that they got their own Prime Minister, and were allowed to change their flag again, this time allowing the peacock to return, though clearly as the subservient bitch of the Union Jack:
Then came World War II. Burma was conveniently located in between British-run India and Japanese-run Japan, with Japanese-hating China right around the corner. It wasn’t pretty. By 1942 the British were defeated, and Burma became a Japanese puppet-state. Replacing millions of Burmese people with Japanese puppets wasn’t easy (the demands on the felt industry alone were untenable), but they tried. They even established a new flag:
Of course, the Japanese occupation didn’t take. I’m sure the Burmese were thrilled to see the war end, since the four ethnic and/or governmental Burmese armies were split in allegiance between the Japanese and Allied forces. Burma looked like Mad Max country by the time that mess was done. They needed another flag.
This flag commemorates the Union of Burma as a wholly independent country after 1948. One big star to commemorate the Union, five smaller stars to signify the five ethnic groups within the state that they felt deserved recognition over the other 130 or so who did not. I believe one of the honored groups was the Wookiee.
So a new Union means peace, right? Of course not, I still have 400 words left. They held democratic elections and even had their representative to the UN, U Thant, get bumped up to Secretary-General of the United Nations. The following year, in 1962, Burma went back to kicking itself in the ass.
A military coup d’etat booted out common sense and replaced it with an aspiring socialist government. Everything was nationalized, and the new government combined “Soviet-style nationalization and central planning with the governmental implementation of superstitious beliefs.” Brilliant strategy.
Feeling that their transition period was successful, and having successfully downgraded Burma from ‘rebuilding’ to ‘impoverished as hell’, the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma was instituted in 1974. Of course, that meant a new flag:
Lest that globby configuration in the corner confuse you, that’s a machine gear encircling a rice plant. The fourteen stars represent the 14 states. The red part represents the color red.
When the Burmese government wasn’t busy shooting protesting students or transforming the nation’s landscape from an impoverished wasteland into a socialist impoverished wasteland, they were… actually no, that’s about all they did.
In 1988 the pro-democracy demonstrations were escalating. It wasn’t a great time to be a socialist, and something called the 8888 Uprising (which launched on August 8, 1988 – I know, hey?) led to another coup. Security forces were murdering thousands of demonstrators, but a military uprising installed the State Law & Order (SVU) Restoration Council, which led to the first free elections in 30 years.
Hooray! Except, no. The new boss was indeed the same as the old boss, and they refused to give up power to the newly elected Burmites. They did adopt a new name, the Union of Myanmar, but no new flag and no new democracy. Things held pretty steady to the status quo until about 2007. That’s when the Monks of Ass-Kickitude stepped in.
That’s right. Democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest. She was the woman who should have been head of the nation after the 1990 elections, and she had a Nobel Peace Prize and (for some reason) an honorary citizenship of Canada to her name. The Buddhist monks were pissed (as much as Buddhism allows, I guess), and they staged a demonstration at the gates of her home.
The military stepped in and killed a bunch of monks, which really helped to turn public opinion against the assholes running the nation. General elections were held in 2010, and liberal democracy, complete with a mixed economy and a New Golden Age of election fraud, happened shortly thereafter. As did their new flag, pictured below. According to the Wiki page, the three colors of the stripes are meant to signify solidarity, peace, tranquility, courage and decisiveness. Five meanings, three colors, one star, probably because they’re huge Tony Romo fans in Myanmar.