Come July, Burma to begin rolling out health insurance

Working in the American health care sector has intensified my fascination with the health care landscape, the complex interplays between patient and provider, government and business sector, and the competing motivators of money versus care.

And the bottom line is that the wellbeing of individuals, communities, and populations is at stake. Yet most people overlook what underpins these medical transactions: insurance policies and legislation.

So the Finance Ministry’s announcement that health insurance is coming to Burma let me feeling like this was a bit premature.

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Burmese Americans

How big is Burmese America?

We Burmese Americans are an elusive bunch. We’re rather underrepresented among Asian Americans. But our exact numbers are unknown. The other day, my mom asked me how big the Burmese American community was, and to that I had no answer. So I turned to some numbers from the 2010 Census, which shed some light on the size of the Burmese American community.

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Will Burmese numerals ever fall out of fashion?

Throughout the rest of the world, local numeral systems are quickly being replaced with Hindu-Arabic numerals (i.e., 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9). This holds true across Asia, where countries with native sets of numerals, like Thailand, Cambodia, and China, increasingly prefer the Hindu-Arabic forms in daily use, relegating the indigenous sets to ceremonial usage. In Europe, Hindu-Arabic numerals had replaced cumbersome Roman numerals by the 1400s.

Yet Burmese remains a curious outlier in Asia. Record-keeping is still largely done in Burmese numerals, even after nearly a century of British colonization. And although mathematics is taught using the Hindu-Arabic set, the traditional set of Burmese numerals is still widely used, in literature, newspapers, and handwriting. But why?

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Lanna script vs Burmese script

How to transcribe Pāḷi in Lanna and Burmese

As descendants of the Old Mon script, both Burmese and Lanna can and are used to transcribe Pāḷi, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism, akin to Latin’s role in Roman Catholicism. In fact, for hundreds of years, both Burmese and Lanna have historically served as vehicles of knowledge transfer in Mainland Southeast Asia, used in to transcribe Pali texts and religious commentaries on inscriptions and manuscripts.

I explore the conventions of Pali transcription in both Lanna and Burmese below. The similarities almost render Lanna transcriptions readable to a literate Burmese speaker.

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Map of Siam

How to transcribe Thai place names into Burmese

Burmese is quite inconsistent in its transcription of foreign place names. Historical practice has tended toward preservation of the original language’s orthography. For example, the Burmese word for France is ပြင်သစ်, pronounced Pyinthit in modern Burmese, but spelt prang sac, which is much closer to the Roman spelling of France.

Nowadays, the prevailing trend is to imitate pronunciation of the place name in the English language. However, when it comes to place names that use obvious Indic loanwords, especially in neighboring countries like Thailand, Burmese speakers, on occasion, employ equivalent Indic spellings. For one, Bangkok’s International Airport, called Suvarnabhumi, is rendered into Burmese as Thuwunnabumi (သုဝဏ္ဏဘူမိ), in line with the actual Indic orthography, not with the actual Thai pronunciation (Suwannaphum) nor with the expected English pronunciation.

Unfortunately, this is an exception, not the rule. In many instances, Burmese speakers fail to recognize the Indic origins of the Thai place names they transcribe. Instead, they create Frankenstein transcriptions that are neither based on original orthography nor the intended pronunciation, ultimately doing a disservice to the longstanding literary and linguistic heritage shared by both Thais and the Burmese.

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