What’s in a name – Burma or Myanmar?

I AM always amazed at the utter confusion on people’s faces if I ever mention the name Myanmar. Yes Burma they know but Myanmar – where’s that exactly? Well there are plenty of places in the world that have changed names over the years such as Kolkata (Calcutta), Iran (Persia) and Cambodia (Kampuchea).

There are often political reasons for these name changes and it’s good to understand so you can then decide how you will refer to the place yourself.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi

Well let’s go back in time then. The country was called the Republic of Burma when it became independent from Great Britain in 1948. It was called that until 1989 when the military regime took over and changed the name to Myanmar.

As a result the pro-democracy movement and those that want to undermine the legitimacy of the ruling regime have elected to continue calling it Burma. The U.N. has recognised the name Myanmar, “presumably deferring to the idea that its members can call themselves what they wish” according to linguist Richard Coates.

In the media the BBC refers to it as Burma, the Washington Post will too but add, “also known as Myanmar” in each story. Lonely Planet calls it “Myanmar (Burma)”, CNN uses Myanmar, Wikipedia says “Burma, officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar” and here at Travel Wire Asia, and sister publication Asian Correspondent, we prefer Burma.

Anyway that gives some of the history but the name options are a lot more complicated than just that. So let’s dig a bit deeper.

Essentially linguists hold that both words actually mean the same thing, that one is derived from the other. “Burma” is the colloquial form of “Myanmar”, considered the formal and literary form of the word. “Myanma” was the word often used and “Bama” the spoken word that derived when the “m” eroded into a “b” over time.

Burma or Myanmar.

A Buddhist novice walks past posters of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Pic: AP.

Hold on to your hats though, because it’s more complicated still. The name Burma is also seen to refer to the country’s ethnic majority, the Burmans or Bamar, and naming a country after one group of people is not considered particularly inclusive in a nation that is actually multi-ethnic.

The ruling regime has adopted the new name not only to break from the nation’s colonial past but claims it’s a way of being more ethnically inclusive. Sure, sure the cynics might say but many ethnic groups do prefer the name Myanmar for this exact reason.

However, even though the name changes are closer to their actual Burmese pronunciations and more inclusive, opposition has developed largely to the way in which the name was changed – without a referendum, with bloodshed and above all with the air of assumed authority.

In an article in the Washington Post was this comment:

“In some ways, Myanmar makes more sense,” said Aung Din, a former student protester and leader of the pro-democracy group U.S. Campaign for Burma. “But you look at the way the government did it. As if by changing the name, they could change the past … as if it could make people forget all those killed in the streets, all the suffering they caused.”

And have caused since, many would add. The BBC has similarly done an expose on the name in which there was this quote:

Mark Farmener, of Burma Campaign UK, says: “Often you can tell where someone’s sympathies lie if they use Burma or Myanmar. Myanmar is a kind of indicator of countries that are soft on the regime.

“But really it’s not important. Who cares what people call the country? It’s the human rights abuses that matter.

“There’s not a really strong call from the democracy movement saying you should not call it Myanmar, they just challenge the legitimacy of the regime. It’s probable it will carry on being called Myanmar after the regime is gone.”

It’s a good point and one I tend to agree with, particularly as the overwhelming majority of locals I spoke to defer to the name Myanmar. There didn’t even seem to be a question to them about what the country was called – it was simply Myanmar. They spoke largely of the ethnic and colonial overtones of the other name. There were many interesting discussions (for those interested these were people of varying ages, ethnicity, locations and education). One man even told me that Aung San Suu Kyi herself only used “Burma” with foreigners and English media, but at home she called it Myanmar like everyone else. Although in an interview with Lonely Planet last year she stated she preferred Burma (read this here).

So do you defy the regime or offend the locals? Well there’s no doubt the renaming of the nation will remain a contested issue and the only way it can be resolved is to put it to the people that matter – the 58.8 million that live there. And when a democratic government takes up the reins, they can decide once and for all, in a referendum, the official name of their own country.