The Myanmar Times
Tuesday, 02 September 2014
The Myanmar Times
The Myanmar Times

Burma or Myanmar: Will the US make the switch?

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.

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.”