New Flag, Same Country

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New Flag, Same Country

Burma’s ruling junta has changed the country’s name and flag. But what about real, democratic change?

The Union of Myanmar (Burma) is now officially known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, and its new flag was unveiled for the first time last week. Is the change part of the so-called democratic reforms that the ruling junta promised to deliver in time for the widely anticipated November 7 elections?

As the image on the left shows, the new flag has a star at the centre set against a yellow, green and red background. According to the government, the green stripe represents peace, yellow solidarity, and red valour.

But many of the country’s netizens were both surprised and disappointed to see the introduction of the new flag. Commenters on message boards were quick to dismiss the flag as a poor imitation of the Lithuanian, Ethiopian and Ghanan flags. One commenter said the flag looked like it had been inspired by a drawing by one the junta generals’ grandchildren when they were testing out crayons. Another commenter, though, remarked that at least with its bright colors it might look good on souvenir t-shirts.

Some critics of the junta have linked the white star on the new flag with the star on the flag of Burma's Tatmadaw—its navy, air force and police force—and claim that the new flag effectively only represents the country’s armed forces.

Part of the criticism over the new design likely stems from nostalgia for the flag that has been dropped. The old flag, which was introduced in 1974, also had specific meanings attached to its design—the red represented bravery and incisiveness, the blue peace and tranquility, white purity, and the 14 stars the 14 states and divisions. The rice stalk and the pinion represented farmers and workers.

The pro-democracy movement, which prefers Burma to Myanmar, accused the junta of violating its own Constitution by presenting the new flag last week. They say the junta-sponsored 2008 Constitution allowed for the changing of the flag only after the new parliament was convened. Since elections haven’t taken place yet, the new flag certainly seems a little premature.

Some still cling on to the hope that Burma’s decision to adopt a new flag and name will lead to more substantial reforms in the future, and that the upcoming elections might even produce genuinely democratic results. But realistically, the prospects for change seem remote as the junta won’t even allow dissident groups to participate in the polls.

The new flag and name, therefore, should be seen as a token reform meant to convince the public and the international community that change is happening in the country. But despite its new flag and name, Burma is still the same old place.