I am currently in a class on displacement and development, so of course various refugee crises have been brought up in the course of our lectures, including what is currently happening in Myanmar. I remembered doing some research in the past on the distinction between calling the country ‘Myanmar’ or referring to it as ‘Burma’, its former name. This post will serve as a refresher for me, and perhaps some new information to you as to why the labelling of something can be political and should not be taken lightly, regardless of officiality. If you are interested in the topic of labelling, take a look at my post on Unaccompanied Minors and the process of documentation that highlights their ‘illegality.’ (Find it here: searchfortheshift.wordpress.com/2018/10/13/documentation-and-illegality/)
Currently, both words are used for the name of the country. Linguistically, ’Burma’ is a ‘corruption’ of the word ‘Myanmar.’ Because they have a cultural history, both names are used internally and externally to the country. Internally, ‘Myanmar’ is used in written documents while ‘Burma’ is used colloquially in speech. Many everyday Burmese will refer to their country as ‘Burma’ and their capital as ‘Rangoon’ (instead of the official Yangon). Externally, countries differ on what they prefer to use. The UN utilizes ‘Myanmar’, while the US and the UK have not accepted that change in the name.
In 1989, the military junta of the time changed the name from ‘Burma’ to ‘Myanmar’ one year after suppressing a pro-democracy uprising. There were several reasons given for this name change. Part of the change was to dispose of British colonial influences (which is why many Brits who are aware of the history feel uncomfortable using the name Burma). ‘Burma’ was also thought to describe specifically those who identify as ethnic Burmese, whereas ‘Myanmar’ was thought to be more inclusive of everyone within the country. Yet, the question of the name change was not put to the people of Myanmar, and some international entities have used this as a reason to continue to use the name of ‘Burma’. Some have argued that utilizing ‘Myanmar’ leans toward legitimizing the military regime and the atrocities it perpetuated.
Current state counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has stated that she personally prefers the term ‘Burma’, but will use both to make sure everyone feels included:
‘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.’
While that seems like a good argument for the use of ‘Burma’, this is also a woman who has stated that the Rohingya crisis is not genocide, and has done nothing to help her country’s refugees. This is an ad hominem argument when it comes to the issue of naming the country, but it does help shed light on the fact that labelling is always political, and usually complex.
Sources and Further Reading:
“Aung San Suu Kyi: The Democracy Icon Who Fell from Grace.” BBC News, BBC, 13 Sept. 2018, www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-11685977.
Fisher, Max. “Why It’s Such a Big Deal That Obama Said ‘Myanmar’ Rather than Burma.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 19 Nov. 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2012/11/19/why-its-such-a-big-deal-that-obama-said-myanmar-rather-than-burma/?utm_term=.f1bdc07ad6d9.
J. F. “Should You Say Myanmar or Burma?” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 20 Dec. 2016, http://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2016/12/20/should-you-say-myanmar-or-burma.
Seth, Andrew, and Adam Gallagher. “What’s in a Name: Burma or Myanmar?” United States Institute of Peace, 17 July 2018, www.usip.org/blog/2018/06/whats-name-burma-or-myanmar.
Teng, Tiffany. “Why This Beautiful Country Is Known by Two Names.” Culture Trip, 15 Apr. 2017, theculturetrip.com/asia/myanmar/articles/burma-v-myanmar-why-the-country-is-known-by-two-names/.