Tag Archives: Burma

Speaking Freely in the New Burma


This summer, Aung San Suu Kyi will be stepping out onto an international stage. She will finally be picking up her 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, and speaking her mind  in various European capitals.  It will be a far cry from the 15 years she spent under house arrest, unable to participate in elections and speak to her Burmese compatriots.

Suu Kyi, now a member of the Burmese parliament, recently completed her first trip out of Myanmar in 24 years. In a speech in Thailand, she praised President Thein Sein’s efforts to bring democracy to the country. But she didn’t shy away from criticizing more entrenched forces that are less open to change, in particular the military which she called a “force to be reckoned with.”

Next, Suu Kyi heads to Paris, Oslo, London and elsewhere for a series of high profile appearances. Her words will be closely analyzed back home– by those who love her and those who fear her.

It’s clear that the government of Myanmar is giving Suu Kyi freedoms that it previously denied her: to travel, to vote, to speak. More than that, the government’s actions appear to have given her belief that these new freedoms are permanent. That belief is almost as significant as the freedoms themselves.

Still, it’s early days, and not everyone can afford to be confident as Suu Kyi. “Most of the people still think that politics is dangerous,” said Kaung Myint Htut, chairman of the Myanmar National Congress Party. He’s has trouble getting his people to support him publicly.

Press censorship has been relaxed. But it has not disappeared. About 75 percent of stories are published uncensored, said Saya Mg Wuntha, founding editor of a journal, People’s Age. “But it’s very difficult to write about corruption…and about the military,” he said.

Some are more fearful. Aung Zaw is a political dissident who has lived in Thailand for 25 years, where he is the editor in chief of The Irrawaddy newspaper. He won’t return to Burma until he is guaranteed the “freedom to criticize and write without fear.”

Also in the pod this week:

  • Young Burmese are flocking to language schools to learn English. More on that story here.
  • Burmese punk ban Side Effect and their free speech challenges. More on that story here. And while we’re on the subject of punk, here’s a conversion between Marco Werman and me on the Sex Pistols and British royalty.

Finally, if you’ve been wondering why this is the first podcast in more than a month, here’s what I’ve been up to. Thanks for your patience.


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A Right Brain Religion Translated into a Left Brain Language

Is Ancient Greek a left brain language? And Ancient Hebrew a right brain one? Yes, says Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. And, he says, it has a huge bearing on how the Bible has been understood.

Most of the Old Testament was written in Ancient Hebrew. Like most early scripts, Ancient Hebrew was written like Hebrew and Arabic are today—without vowels and written from right to left. It is a right brain language, says Sacks, because to understand the meaning of any word, “you have to understand the total context in which it occurs.”

Sacks sees it this way:

Ancient Greek was the first language ever to be written from left to right, which activates the left brain. You don’t need to understand the total context here. You derive meaning word by word, in small components.

The emergence of the world’s first left brain language also coincided with the first instances of “left brain thinking”: the philosophy of Aristotle, Epicurus and other Greek scholars. This atomistic, evidence-based approach to interpreting the world eventually led to modern-day science.

Most of the Old Testament was written in Ancient Hebrew. It was translated into Greek between 300 BC and 200 BC. It was the Greek translation of the Old Testament that the early Christians used to spread the religion.

Judaism and Christianity began as right brain religions, based on that Ancient Hebrew way of thinking. But early in its evolution, Christianity took a turn. The word of Christianity—the Old Testament—was translated into Greek (and the New Testament was written in Greek).

Sacks concludes that Christianity was a right brain religion translated into a left brain language. And the religion encompassed those two ways of thinking: the metaphysical and the analytical. For many centuries – until the Enlightenment—the prevailing view in Europe was that religion and science were part of the same thing.

I don’t know enough about all this to draw any conclusions. (Readers: please comment…) But I think it’s important to maintain some skepticism. For example, Sacks seems to be arguing that we can infer a certain mindset based on language—that, for example, the lack of vowels in written Ancient Hebrew means that its speakers were big picture rather than piecemeal thinkers. Here’s a good reminder that it’s unwise to jump to conclusions about what a language reveals about beliefs.

Aside from Jonathan Sacks, the pod has several other segments, most of them related either to Modern Hebrew or to the Bible:

Nina Porzucki profiles the Hebrew Language Academy, a charter school in Brooklyn, NY.

Matthew Bell takes a tour of Tel Aviv’s Occupy-like tent city, with its Hebrew (and occasional English and Arabic) signs and slogans.

Michael Erard, author of the forthcoming Babel No More, talks about 19th century Italian Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, and his policing of erroneous translations of the Bible.

British philosopher A. C. Grayling and former Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral in London Giles Fraser debate Grayling’s secular re-imagining of the Bible, The Good Book.

Finally, a conversation with ethnomusicologist Heather MacLachlan. She’s just written a book called Burma’s Pop Music Industry. Particularly popular in Burma are well-known Western songs that sound almost identical to the originals—except they are sung in Burmese with totally different lyrics.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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