Burma or Myanmar: Will the US make the switch?

Published in The Myanmar Times on 19 November 2012

A t-shirt worn by someone welcoming Obama at Yangon airport on 19 November 2012
A t-shirt worn by someone welcoming Obama at Yangon airport on 19 November 2012

During my first language lesson in Yangon with my teacher Zar Chi and a fellow student from the United States, the “Burma” versus “Myanmar” question arose.

Our topic that evening was “Making Friends” so we were learning how to ask and respond to questions about national and ethnic origin. When I mentioned that I was surprised to have seen references to “Rangoon” rather than Yangon on the US embassy’s website, Nathalie said – with complete sincerity – “That’s because the US is a country that believes in human rights.”

Yet to me, “Rangoon” conjures up the gin and tonics sipped on the balcony of the British Club in the 1920s (albeit in Katha and not the capital), described so hauntingly by George Orwell in Burmese Days.

Like Yangon, Burma is a British name; a corruption of Bamar, which is actually the colloquial term for Myanmar. Both historically refer to the majority Bamar ethnic group, which today comprises about 68 percent of a population that includes some 130 ethnic minorities.

Colonisers and invaders, whether the British, the Mughals or so on, often had difficulty pronouncing indigenous place names: Like a young child who creates their own version of a three-syllable name, it often sticks.

Myanmar’s former military rulers changed the country’s official name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, which they claimed better represented the country’s ethnic diversity. However this remains hotly disputed.

When I arrived in the country four months ago, I was a staunch “Burmist,” because in years past, the BBC and other Western media outlets – not to mention Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – had instilled in me a political, pro-democracy association with the word.

However I quickly learnt to mimic my local colleagues and friends, the vast majority of whom refer to the language and people as Myanmar (which I also learnt is pronounced Me-An-Mah). When speaking to expats, I sometimes (somewhat guiltily) revert to Burma. Among politically minded people living outside the country – mostly in the US and the United Kingdom, using the “M-word” is likely to result in icy stares and a huffy change of subject.

Crowds ready to welcome Obama at Yangon International Airport, 19 November 2012
Crowds ready to welcome Obama at Yangon International Airport, 19 November 2012

As Mark Farmener, of Burma Campaign UK told the BBC in 2011, “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.”

However this perception is changing, as is the country itself.

Nevertheless, among the less travelled (including my Melbourne-based travel agent in 2006), “Myanmar” often results in blank stares – a fact several Myanmar people acknowledged when interviewed.

“I say Burma when I travel overseas,” said a citizen called Aung Min.

Although Germany officially uses Myanmar, as does the United Nations, ASEAN, Russia, Norway, China, India (itself also officially known as Bharat in its constitution), Australia and Japan, a German tourist in Yangon called Yudith told The Myanmar Times, “I’ve heard it’s politically incorrect to say Myanmar. Informally, in Germany we call it Birma.”

Her friend Ran chipped in, “If I knew what I should call [the country], that would be really good.”

Although the names confound many well-meaning foreigners, the majority of locals interviewed by The Myanmar Times said they were totally unaware that Myanmar and Burma have different political connotations in the West.

Aung Min, 49, said, “I like the sound of Myanmar. Most Myanmar people prefer it, as well as Yangon. It’s easier to pronounce.”

However he did say that his friends sometimes argue about which name should be used – although Zar Chi’s parents accept Myanmar, she said that many older people remain fond of Burma.

A former government officer, 73-year-old Ram Gopal, told The Myanmar Times, “I like the name Myanmar, because I like the government. I had no problem with Burma being a British name, but whatever the government does, I like.”

Twenty-two-year-old Naw Naw explained things a little differently.

She said, “We usually say Burma whenever we speak in English, and always have, so many wondered why the government changed the name to Myanmar for English use. However my opinions on the issue aren’t very strong – I just see people, not a label.”

Naw Naw added that citizens’ identity cards never state “Myanmar” as a nationality – in Naw Naw’s case, it says, Bamar + Mon + Karen, because her father is Karen and her mother is both Mon and Bamar.

“It’s confusing,” she said with a shrug.

A sign at Yangon airport the morning Obama landed in Yangon
A sign at Yangon airport the morning Obama landed in Yangon

A former insurgent whose ethnicity is Mon and Bamar who spent 10 years living in the jungle told The Myanmar Times, “People inside the country have called it Myanmar for a very long time, so at the time the name was changed it was no big deal to us. It was more about the army trying to control everything. I would accept either name if it were put to a vote. I didn’t like it when the government told people like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi not to say Burma.”

Until pre-publication censorship was abolished in August this year, the word ‘Burma’ was prohibited in news reports.

The former insurgent said, “The government has stopped telling people what to call the country and little by little, other countries are beginning to use Myanmar. But both names are problematic: Burma was inherited from the British and when the military government took over, the name was changed to Myanmar. The young generation is confused.”

And yet the confusion isn’t new. When the independence movement took root in the 1930s, there was no consensus among nationalists about whether to use Bamar or Myanma (incidentally, the ‘r’ is still often dropped today).

Zaw Win, 30, said he has grown up knowing the country as Myanmar and the term is his preference – but he remains saddened that the national flag was changed in 2010, because the stripes of the previous one represented the 14 provinces of the country, whereas the design of the new flag is meaningless to him.

The former insurgent said that some ethnic minorities believe that Myanmar, like Burma, only represents the majority ethnic group. Neither is totally representative of the estimated population of 55 million – though few countries’ names in this world can claim to be so either.

He also pointed out that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi says Myanmar when speaking in the Myanmar language, but uses Burma when speaking in English: a fact little known to many in the West.

Mr Derek Tonkin, a prominent Myanmar analyst and former British diplomat, told The Myanmar Times that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is “taking a softer line” on the Burma versus Myanmar issue.

Mr Tonkin said, “While in the US, she said it was more a generational thing and because she belonged to the older generation, she prefers to call the country Burma. That’s a shift, but the fact remains that there is no escape from ‘Myanmar’ in terms of formal UN procedures and diplomatic protocol, since Diplomatic Notes or Credentials using ‘Burma’ are simply ‘returned to sender.’”

During US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar last year, she said neither Burma nor Myanmar, but instead referred to it as “the country”. The EU also dodges a decision by officially calling it Burma/Myanmar.

Zar Chi said, “It’s frustrating. Other countries should respect our official name.”

Hillary Clinton - a (barely visible) wave
Hillary Clinton – a (barely visible) wave

In recent times, the linguistic waters of international relations have been further muddied due to Myanmar’s rapid, albeit incomplete, series of political reforms that began with elections and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest in 2010. The same year, Burma Campaign UK ended its call for tourists to boycott the country.

Today, Myanmar is welcoming US President Obama, whom Vanity Fair described in 2009 as “the most famous living person in the history of the world.” The significance of the visit from the very man who repopularised the true meaning of “change” cannot be underestimated.

Whilst life in Myanmar remains a daily struggle for millions, Mr Obama would be the first to acknowledge that life in America can also be calamitous, and I believe he would seek to work together with Myanmar to improve the lot of both nations, while respecting the name of a sovereign, non-military-led nation. For as Louis Armstrong famously concluded about the metaphorical difference between saying potatoes or potahtos and tomatoes or tomahtos in Let’s call the whole thing off, “For we know we need each other, so we better call the calling off off!”

6 thoughts on “Burma or Myanmar: Will the US make the switch?”

  1. Not to forget the Socialist Programme Party, founded in 1963. The party membership application form then asked for the applicant’s Ethnicity, and individuals like Sein Lwin wrote in their membership application form that he was Mon, while Dr Maung Maung and General Ne Win wrote they were Myanmar.

  2. Excellent article! Thank you for covering this confusing, and sometimes contentious, topic in a way that is honest and opinionated. After months working with Karenni refugees, I took to calling the country “Burma” because that’s what they called it; however, for most ethnic groups, the name of the place has less to do with the fact that they do not consider themselves its citizens… Is it too naive to suggest a third, new and more uniting, name be considered?

    1. Hey Kelli! Hope things are going well. A third name seems a logical possibility, but as both names are so old…. I don’t know if that could lead to bigger disagreements?! Perhaps if ‘citizens’ were given the chance to vote on it, with a third name as an option. That’s interesting about your experiences – mine are solely based on Yangon… Obama did say Myanmar, though also Rangoon when in the presence of Aung San Suu Kyi…. I will wait and see if the US embassy ever changes!!

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