• Myanmar? Burma? What’s in a name….

    I suppose I feel the need to explain why in my blog posts and tweets etc about Burma/Myanmar I have failed and will fail, to decide on a single name for the place despite travelling there for 26 days and have instead insisted on calling it by both names every time I have referred to it.

    If you are unaware of some of the issues at play here it is, to say the least, a bit complicated and using one or another term seems to have the potential to upset people, or just leave them confused as to where you are even talking about. By the way a word of warning, this post is by no means definitive, and there are likely errors, I’m not exactly an etymology expert, it took me long enough just to find out how to spell etymology, but hopefully it gives a quick insight into some of the issues at play…

    The yellow green and red stripes of Burma/Myanmar flag in balloons

    The colours of Burma/Myanmar’s flag, their third since independence – but that’s another story…

    #Istanbul, (Not Constantinople)#
    The country it seems actually has a long history of having two names. In colloquial speech it has long been referred to by the people of Burma/Myanmar as Bama, from which the name Burma derives, but it has also long had the literary name of Myanma, which was what the last independent Burmese/Myanmar kingdom refereed to itself as before being consigned to history through the course of three wars with Britain in the nineteenth century.

    Both names appear to have come about from the name of the largest ethnic group in the country, the Bamar. It was called Burma by the British when it was part of the British Empire (a name they appear to have derived from the Portuguese name for it, who had a history of trade/contact with Burma/Myanmar long before the British came along). Upon independence in 1948 the name was retained as the Union of Burma until in 1989 the government announced it was renaming the country in English to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. (At the same time as making other changes like Rangoon becoming Yangon) The official reason for the re-namings were that names like Burma and Rangoon are links back to its past as a colony (something most countries like to move on from) and to correct the inaccurate ways in which the British tried to Anglicise place names and that as the name Burma arises from the Burmen majority in the country it is not particularly inclusive of all the other ethnicities that live in the country.

    In this context it seems like a simple choice, but alas its slightly more complicated, because the military government has not and does not have a particularly good track record of being at all nice to the ethnic minorities in the country. Discrimination exists, violent clashes between militias and the army still continue sporadically in some areas, and the borderlands of Thailand such as around Mae Sot and other places are full of refuges from Burma/Myanmar’s  minorities. Many of the these have been fighting almost since independence for greater autonomy from the central government since Burma/Myanmar got its independence in 1948. (Several of the states outside the Burman heartlands had a generally high degree of autonomy in the days of the British Empire and wanted to retain it this) For many who work with minority groups and refuges, renaming the country to make it more “inclusive” of its minorities whilst in their view still repressing them rings as a rather hollow act and so they continue to refer to the country as Burma. Even before independence from the British Empire had been achieved there were many in the country who felt the name Burma was more inclusive of its ethnic minorities. After all Myanmar is just derived from the Burman literary name of their country so in itself is not any more inclusive than Burma anyway.  Many ethnic groups who don’t speak Burmese are apparently used to the name Burma and feel that the name Myanmar is in fact just another expression of the Burman majorities dominance. Aung San’s National League for Democracy, have also objected to the name change because, amongst other reasons, no one actually asked the people what they wanted before the military unilaterally renaming the country…

    Illegal boat crossing the border at Mae Sot

    Boats regularly cross the border illegally between Mywaddy and Mae Sot in Thailand

    World War 2 and popular culture
    For me, before this trip at least, I would most likely have referred to it as Burma. There are some cultural reasons for this. Burma was a major front in the fight against the Japanese in World War 2, many thousands of British, Australian, and other Commonwealth troops including a huge and largely forgotten number of soldiers from Africa, fought and died here. They were awarded medals such as the Burma Star, veterans associations carry similar names, a number of war films and books deal with the conflict all using the name Burma.  Outside of war, Orwell wrote “Burmese Days” not “Myanmar Days” and all of this helps to explain why the name Burma is rather more culturally ingrained than it might be in some other parts of the world. If I told my mum I was off to Myanmar she wouldn’t know where I meant – and nor would most of my friends. If I said I was off to Burma though, they would at least have some idea where I meant (although I would still question if my Mum would be able to place it on the map…)

    A number of English place names in Burma/Myanmar were also changed at the same time as the countries name. Here I have generally tried to adopt the new place names as I don’t feel the same cultural ties to them, although after some really butchered attempts to pronounce some of them I have at least developed a significant degree of sympathy with the motives of those who Anglicised some of these names in the first place… Linguistically its a fact that not every group of people is easily able to correctly pronounce place names as they might be called by their native inhabitants.

    A rose by any other name….
    Anyway the point of this piece is to say that there doesn’t at this stage appear to me to be an obvious right answer in which name to take forward, and regardless of the name its a beautiful and fascinating country to visit, so as I couldn’t decide between the two, I have instead just referred to it as Burma/Myanmar throughout. Ok it’s a bit long winded, but then again it could have been much worse – what if I had visited the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia instead?

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One Responseso far.

  1. […] should you call it? I’ve blogged about this in more detail in an earlier post here. But in short, most people won’t mind whether you use either Burma or Myanmar as the name of […]

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