Some people refer it as Burma while others call it Myanmar. Sometimes, it is referred to as “Myanmar (Burma).” Why is it that some Southeast Asia nations possess two different names? How should it be referred to?

Let’s go back to the history of the country. During colonial times, the British Emperor referred to their province of British India as “Burma” and its people as “Burmese”. The military regime then changed it to “Myanmar” in 1989, a year after a massive uprising and pro-democracy protests. Not only did they alter the country name at this time but also a number of other “wrong pronunciations” from the British colonial period such as “Mergui”, “Rangoon”, “Pegu” that were changed to “Myeik”, “Yangon” and “Bago” respectively.

A number of locals believe that “Bamar” (which is Burma in English) represents only one ethnic group out of eight major ethnic nationalities in the country while “Myanmar” represents a combination of all ethnics. Thus, they like to use “Myanmar” when they mention the country but prefer “Bamar” (Burma) to talk about the most predominant race of the nation. In addition, the use of the word “Burma” to refer to the country stepping towards democracy in fact reminds them of the sense of being colonized.

The flag of Burma, also known as Myanmar. Pic: AP.

But in contrast, some locals see “Myanmar” as representing the race rather than the country. In some historical poems, when Mon and Rakhine were established kingdoms, the term “Myanmar” was used to reflect only the one kingdom of “Myanmar” people – not the modern day country which comprises all ethnic nationalities. For that reason, some people are resistant to change their usage from “Burma” to “Myanmar”.

In layman’s terms, Myanmar sounds positive about the country while Burma seems to be used by those who are more cautious about the emerging reforms. In other words, people who like to work with government, for instance Southeast Asian countries, may prefer to say “Myanmar” while those who are less confident about the future changes by the military backed government would call the developing country “Burma”. The majority of exiled people, exiled media and a lot of Western countries still like to use “Burma”.

An interesting point to note – Aung San Suu Kyi always refers to her beloved country as “Burma” in English but in her statements published in Burmese she has used “Myanmar” instead of “Bamar”. The only reason she has provided for this is that she is not fond of the “forced” name change by the military who did so without consulting the peoples’ desires.

The other weakness of “Myanmar” is that it has no proper adjective like “Burmese”, hence the sentence “I am a Myanmar from Myanmar who speak Myanmar” might sound pretty odd for native English speakers. To worsen the case, some countries such as Singapore even invented the terms “Myanmarese” and “Myanmese” which will not be used by any Myanmar (or Burmese) to refer to themselves. Locals in Burma (Myanmar) are still debating what term they should use to represent themselves internationally, although in several casual Facebook polls “Myanmar” usually got more votes .

Different newsrooms, several organisations and even individuals have established their own preferences when it comes to picking between “Myanmar” and “Burma”. Down the road, the government will need to brainstorm a fair solution for the country’s name. Perhaps after the 2015 election, people may be able to vote about it. Regardless of the prefix the “Union of” or “Republic of”, the nation is in need of one official name that the whole world can use. This would also eliminate questions such as, “Is Myanmar a part of Burma?”