The christening of countries

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A woman, holding a photograph of a Greek Orthodox Metropolitan chants slogans on Sunday against Greece’s name deal with neighboring Macedonia near Evzonoi border crossing in Greece. Associated Press

Names, especially of countries, can sometimes cause serious problems. Observe the referendum which the people of Macedonia have just gone through. The country’s prime minister was compelled to call the referendum because without it there was little chance he would be able to take his country into the European Union. Of course, it was Greece which put up an objection to the use of the name Macedonia, a country which came into its own when Yugoslavia, so carefully cobbled into shape by the late Josip Broz Tito in post-Second World War conditions, came apart when socialism began to collapse in Europe. And Greece has its own province called Macedonia, which is again a throwback to the times of Alexander the Great. It certainly did not want to part with that heritage.

And so Macedonia has gone through a referendum, even though only thirty five per cent of its people turned out to vote. The plan is to have the country known henceforth as North Macedonia. That is something of a solution, a step which could have the country see its dreams for entry into the EU realised. But do name changes in recent times, or even in the distant past, really make a difference? Yes, they do, in a very large number of instances. In others, they sometimes spell disaster. Think here of South Sudan, a nation which came into existence through freeing itself of Sudan. Since that moment, it has been riven by conflict among its many political factions, to a point where the government finds it enormously hard to make any plans for the future. One will simply have to wait and see how conditions pan out.

We have been living through some stirring moments in our times. Much to our consternation, indeed to our disappointment, the Soviet Union simply collapsed, with its constituent republics quickly rushing out to independence. Mikhail Gorbachev broke our hearts, leaving us with a pain which refuses to go away. And we have today the Russian Federation where the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) once used to be. The ramifications of the fall of the Soviet Union were felt in Czechoslovakia, which is today two countries, known as the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

But even as countries break up, there are in happy measure nations which come together in unification. In the aftermath of the Nazi defeat in the Second World War, Germany was knifed through the middle by the Allied Powers. Two countries, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR), emerged. One became a model of capitalism, with the other professing socialism under the tutelage of the Soviet Union. The two halves of divided Germany came together again as a single nation-state in October 1990 and are today a powerful player in global geopolitics.

There is, if you recall, the story of the glorious reunification of Vietnam in 1975, when North Vietnamese soldiers and Vietcong guerrillas stormed Saigon, symbolizing a coming together after thirty years, a coming together of the divided north and south of the country. The Vietnamese fought the French and then the Americans to reinvent the concept of national unity. Today Vietnam is a model of economic progress and to its doors go its former oppressors. Its neighbours are, however, yet to reunify in the political sense. Communist North Korea calls itself, ironically, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), while democratic South Korea is known as the Republic of Korea (ROK).

History in the Indian subcontinent has been particularly harsh on its people. The partition of 1947 clearly left behind a legacy of mistrust and hate which is not likely to end anytime soon. Out of the old country emerged a new state calling itself Pakistan. The Punjab and Bengal were segmented along communal lines between the Indian Union and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. East Bengal, part of Pakistan, was soon renamed East Pakistan and within a span of twenty four years of Partition fought its way out as the sovereign People’s Republic of Bangladesh. The other half of Bengal continues as West Bengal, though in the political and geographical absence of East Bengal. In India, the British-era Upper Provinces were transformed into Uttar Pradesh. In recent years, the North-West Frontier Province in Pakistan was renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

Back in 1958, Gamal Abdel Nasser persuaded Syria into joining Egypt in a union known as the United Arab Republic. The UAR lasted till 1961, when Syria moved out of the union. Egypt continued to call itself UAR for ten more years, until 1971, and then reverted to being Egypt. In Africa, the process of decolonization led inevitably to a renaming of colonies waging wars for freedom. Northern Rhodesia became Zambia in 1964 on achieving independence. The other Rhodesia, led by the white supremacist Ian Smith, tottered on till 1980, when it became the independent state of Zimbabwe.

In the old days --- and we speak of 1860s’ America --- southern politicians upset by the move against slavery by Abraham Lincoln decided to secede from the union. They called their enterprise the Confederate States of America. The secessionist movement collapsed in 1865 and the country went back to being the United States of America.

In 1967, Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu, governor of Eastern Nigeria, led the movement for the secession of the province from the rest of Nigeria. He called his new country Biafra. For three years, Biafra waged war imposed on it by the Nigerian military regime of Col. Yakubu Gowon. It capitulated in early 1970.

There was once a country known in history and folklore as Burma, and it was there until the military junta keeping it in its grip thought that Myanmar sounded better. Once upon a time there was East Timor. It gave way, at one point, to Timor Leste.

And remember Siam? People call it Thailand nowadays.

  • DhakaCourier
  • Vol 35
  • Syed Badrul Ahsan
  • Issue 13
  • The christening of countries

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