Burma or Myanmar: What’s in a name?

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“InsideBurma Tours? But isn’t it supposed to be Myanmar now?”

Ahh, Burma or Myanmar. The oft-asked question. And how we all wish there a simple answer. Just what is in a name? Well, when it comes to a certain country in Southeast Asia – quite a lot. Follow me as we dive into etymological history…

Burma or Myanmar: Where do they come from?

Most Westerners are surprised to learn that in fact, Burma has pretty much always used both names. The Burmese language (like many Asian tongues) has various registers that are used in different situations, mainly to make a distinction between formal and informal situations. The names Myanma and Bama are thus both correct in Burmese – but they are used for different purposes: the former in written language; the latter in spoken. Both have been used concurrently for centuries, and are derived from the name of the largest ethnic group in Burma, the Bamar. (‘Burma’ and ‘Myanmar’ may not sound like they have the same root, but the transformation of m-sounds into b-sounds in colloquial Burmese is actually pretty common.)

The military government in Burma argues that the name ‘Myanmar’ is more inclusive of ethnic minorities, but as the two names mean the same thing, critics are quick to point out that this argument doesn’t make sense. Neither ‘Burma’ nor ‘Myanmar’ is particularly inclusive toward non-Bamar ethnic minorities – of which there are a great many in Burma.

Making a statement

The ruling British chose Burma as the name for their colony, and after independence in 1948 it was decided that ‘Burma’ would stay. In 1989, however, the military junta took control of Burma, brutally crushing pro-democracy demonstrations and blocking the National League for Democracy. They quickly set about changing things – including the English spellings of many Burmese place names. Rangoon became Yangon, Pegu became Bago, Maymyo became Pyin Oo Lwin – and Burma became Myanmar.

Why? Part of the reason was to introduce place names that better reflected the actual pronunciation of Burmese words – which made sense – but officials were also motivated by a desire to do away with the relics of the colonial regime. Angry pro-democracy campaigners refused to adopt the new ‘Myanmar’ appellation, however, on the grounds that they did not recognise the legitimacy of the military government – and just like that, the Burma/Myanmar question became a debate between democracy and dictatorship.

Aung San Suu Kyi explained her preference for ‘Burma’ in the Indian newspaper The Hindu in 2012:

“Well, I think it’s up to you. I’ll explain why I use Burma. Burma was known as Burma since independence. Suddenly, after the military regime took over in 1988, one day, just like that, out of the blue, without so much as a by your leave from the people, they announced that Burma was going to be known as Myanmar in English from now on officially, and it would be Myanmar at the U.N. and so on. And the reason they gave is this, that Myanmar referred to all the peoples of this country whereas Burma, first of all, is a colonial name; and secondly, it had only to do with the ethnic Burmese.

“To begin with, I object to a country’s name being changed without reference to the will of the people, without so much as the courtesy to ask the people what they might think of it. That of course is the sort of the thing only dictatorships do. So I object it to it on those grounds. And then secondly, it’s not true that Myanmar means all the ethnic peoples of Burma. I think it’s just the literary name for Burma, which is the ethnic Burmese [usage]. And thirdly, this business of colonial name, that it is a name imposed by the colonial power, I think that is the kind of reason which is based on xenophobia rooted in lack of self-confidence. Look at India, look at China, look at Japan. The biggest most powerful nations in Asia: none of the names are native to them. And look at Indonesia, look at the Philippines. So I think this is petty and narrow-minded. And some say it was because of astrological calculations, and that of course puts my back up entirely. ” Source.

Burma or Myanmar? Aung San Suu Kyi states her preference
Aung San Suu Kyi: Preference for ‘Burma’

Adoption

All this nomenclative hoo-ha left the rest of the English-speaking world wondering what they ought to do. The UN and ASEAN swiftly adopted the new name but, following the lead of Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy supporters, the UK, USA, Australia and Canada did not. Refusal to comply became a tacit indication of support for the opposition, while the reverse could be seen as endorsement of the regime.

And if you thought it was tricky in 1989, time has done nothing to simplify matters. As The Country Formerly Known as Burma gradually moves toward democracy – beginning with the reforms in 2011-12, and culminating in the victory of the National League for Democracy in last year’s elections – what are we to do? As you can imagine, with the name Inside Burma Tours, this is a subject we’re pretty interested in.

What now?

When Aung San Suu Kyi stepped up to the plate in November 2015, we were on tenterhooks to hear whether she would reiterate her rejection of the name ‘Myanmar’ or finally accept its adoption. To our surprise, she did neither. The Lady explained that everyone was free to use whichever they pleased, “because there is nothing in the constitution of our country that says that you must use any term in particular”.

Of course, we shouldn’t really have been surprised at all. President Obama used the exact same hedging tactic on his 2012 visit to Burma/Myanmar, employing both appellations interchangeably. What both Suu Kyi and Obama recognise is the importance of diplomacy. The Burmese military leaders are finally playing ball, and it would be sheer stupidity to anger them over something as trifling as a name. It may not be the most convenient solution, but for now it is the best one we have.

For the time being, we’ll be sticking with ‘Burma’ at Inside Asia Tours, but you’ll also find ‘Myanmar’ in brackets on many of our materials. If you’d like to begin planning a holiday to Burma (Myanmar), don’t hesitate to get in touch with one of our expert travel consultants now!

 

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