In Burma, a Vexing Vexillology

By Andrew D. Kaspar 21 October 2013

RANGOON — It was a superficial facelift coming just weeks before the 2010 elections that would shake up Burma’s power structure and lead to a raft of substantive political and economic reforms in the country: Burma three years ago today got a new flag, as well as modified its anthem and state seal. The country’s name also got a tweak, from the Union of Myanmar to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.

In the waning days of the military junta’s half-century rule, the flag of Burma on Oct. 21, 2010, swapped its 14 stars for one big one, and traded the canton style—an offset square in the top left corner—for horizontal yellow, green and red stripes. On that Thursday afternoon, the citizens of Burma looked up to see an unfamiliar flag fluttering unexpectedly from state buildings and flagpoles across the country.

Because of the secretive nature of the flag’s inception, the design of which took its final form within the pages of the 2008 military-drafted Constitution, much speculation has surrounded its intended symbolic meaning, and many question whether it is representative of a people who had little say in its creation.

For one Rangoon-based tour guide, vexillology—the study of flags—yields nothing profound.

“This flag, it looks like a traffic light. I would say for 99 percent of Myanmar people, there is no love for this flag,” said the freelance guide, who requested anonymity.

The old banner, which replaced the independence-era flag of the Union of Burma in 1974, left much less to the imagination.Within the former flag’s blue canton, 14 white stars, symbolizing Burma’s 14 states and divisions surrounded a stalk of rice and a cogwheel, representing agriculture and industry, respectively. That flag, adopted by the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma, would survive through another image makeover when the country changed its name to the Union of Myanmar in 1989.

That is not to say it was universally beloved. Student protestors in 1988 were known to flip the flag upside-down in street demonstrations to show their discontent with the ruling socialist government of Gen Ne Win.

Burma expert Mikael Gravers, like many familiar with the superstitious ruling generals and their penchant for fortunetellers and other dubious governance strategies, told The Irrawaddy that the current flag was likely “the result of an astrological consultation.”

Some have noted that the white star is the shared symbol of all branches of the Burmese military, also known as the Tatmadaw. Others have theorized that the consolidation of 14 stars into one symbolizes unity—or for critics, a “unified” Burma at the expense of a more decentralized federal state.

Khin Ohmar, a prominent Burmese democracy advocate, was in Bangkok on Oct. 21, 2010, having just attended a press conference on women’s issues in her home country.

“­­­A black diplomatic car pulled up to the red light as we waited to cross the road and I noticed that it had the new flag of Burma on the front,” Khin Ohmar, coordinator for the Burma Partnership, told The Irrawaddy.

“We had just been talking about the sexual violence committed against the women of Burma by the Burma Army and I was angry at the military regime for all the suffering they have caused in our country. I tore the flag off the car because it symbolizes the military regime’s dominance over all the people of our country.”

In the Jan. 2, 2007, edition of state mouthpiece The New Light of Myanmar, a transcript of a constitutional convention meeting lays out a more rose-tinted explanation of the new flag’s design. Quoting delegates from a group of “intellectuals and intelligentsia” charged with helping to craft the new design, the newspaper reported that the flags of 194 nations were studied, as well as Burmese flags from the Bagan, Innwa, Konbaung and pre-independence periods.

“The national brethren of Myanmar have been living in unity and amity. A big white star representing the love and unity of the Myanmar people should be included in the State Flag,” a member of the group, Win Maung, was quoted as saying.

“Green representing agriculture that is the main business of Union of Myanmar which is peaceful, lush and verdant should be portrayed. Yellow which reflects the unity and amity of the national races should be included. Moreover, red, which means valour and decisiveness, should also be portrayed.”

“We considered that the proposed State Flag marked with green, yellow and red stripes in a proportionate ratio is endowed with essence and meaning. The big white star, which reflects perpetual existence of the consolidated Union, should be on the left end of the green stripe at the top.”

This proposed design would ultimately be altered slightly when the white star was moved to the center and enlarged.

Reuters on that day three years ago quoted a government official as saying they were taken by surprise when the order came to switch the flags. The news agency also said the old flag was to be lowered by someone born on a Tuesday and the new one raised by an individual born on a Wednesday, lending credence to the theory that astrology played some hand in the new flag’s coming-out party.

The old flags were ordered burned, Reuters reported, citing the same government official.

“A lot of people, including myself, were skeptical about the change,” Poe Kwa Gyi, who was living in a refugee camp in Thailand when word of the flag change reached him, told The Irrawaddy.

“Does the flag represent all the ethnic people who are living in Burma, or were any representatives of ethnic people involved in making decisions for the flag change? Or was the decision and the process completed by just a small group of people? It seemed to me that the people were excluded from the process and the flag was possibly just as military-drafted as the 2008 Constitution itself,” added Poe Kwa Gyi, cofounder of Burma Link, a democracy and human rights advocacy group.

The outgoing junta also appears to have caught the country’s sporting contingent off guard. When Burma’s athletic delegation competed in the Asian Games in China’s Guangzhou just a month after the flag change, many athletes wore solid blue uniforms, the color of the former flag’s canton and a hue nowhere to be found on the current banner.

The change required some Asian Games athletes to fast summon allegiance to their country’s new banner: Burma’s sepak takraw gold medal winners Si Thu Lin, Zaw Lat and Zaw Zaw Aung are seen in a Reuters photo from Nov. 27, 2010, parading across the Guangzhou arena with a flag they’d only come to know a little more than a month earlier.

The flag’s fate from here remains unclear, with some like Khin Ohmar supporting adoption of a new national banner as part of broader ongoing discussions over amending or rewriting the 2008 Constitution.

For Poe Kwa Gyi, whatever the symbolic meaning of the flag and motivations behind the 2010 swap, any move to change it once more should take a backseat to more pressing reforms.

“Instead of discussing changing the flag, all efforts should be directed toward changing the country and the 2008 Constitution,” he said.“If people feel that they live in a peaceful, democratic and free country where their rights are respected and their voices heard, they will also respect and be proud of their country and their flag.”