What’s in a name? The great ‘Myanmar’ or ‘Burma’ debate
Share this on

What’s in a name? The great ‘Myanmar’ or ‘Burma’ debate

After holding out for more than quarter of a century, the UK’s Guardian newspaper announced Monday that it would no longer be using ‘Burma’ to refer to the Southeast Asian nation, switching instead to its official name, ‘Myanmar’.

The switch again raises an issue that has dogged media outlets since the military junta adopted ‘Myanmar’ in 1989. The choice has always been a tricky one: stick with the British colonial name Burma, or adopt the new name imposed by a violent military dictatorship?

In Monday’s editorial, The Guardian argued: “We will from today be using the name Myanmar, partly because it has become almost universal and partly because colonial names should be part of the past.”

The decision brings another major publication into the ‘Myanmar’ fold, an increasing trend since the nation’s so-called move towards democracy in recent years. The BBC made the switch to Myanmar in 2013, while major news agencies such as AP, AFP and Reuters have been using it for years.

Nevertheless, the universal adoption of Myanmar is far from complete. Many publications in the UK and the US are sticking with Burma, including The Independent, The Washington Post and the Atlantic.

English-language outlets with strong anti-military and pro-democracy leanings, such as The Irrawaddy and Democratic Voice of Burma, also continue to use the old colonial name, and are likely to do so for the foreseeable future. Burma remains Asian Correspondent’s preferred usage.

Outside of the media sphere, most governments use the official name, Myanmar. Interestingly, the U.S. State Department still prefers Burma and U.S. President Barack Obama used both during his historic visit in 2012. Whether it was intentional or not, he referred to the country as ‘Myanmar’ when speaking with President Thein Sein, and ‘Burma’ when speaking with opposition leader and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi has gone on the record to say that Burma is her preference, and has been criticized by the government for using it.

BarackObamaAndAungSanSuuKyi

U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Burma’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, right, walk back to her home following the conclusion of their joint news conference during his visit last year. Pic: AP.

Even in the human rights sphere, there is no consensus. Amnesty calls it Burma, while others, such as Human Rights Watch and Fortify Rights, call it Myanmar.

Often ignored in this debate are the opinions of the Burmese people themselves. Burmese blogger Chan Myae Khine wrote in 2013:

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”.

Fellow Asian Correspondent blogger Jo Lane, a frequent visitor to Burma, felt that Myanmar is the preferred choice of the people:

There didn’t even seem to be a question to them about what the country was called – it was simply Myanmar. They spoke largely of the ethnic and colonial overtones of the other name. There were many interesting discussions (for those interested these were people of varying ages, ethnicity, locations and education). One man even told me that Aung San Suu Kyi herself only used “Burma” with foreigners and English media, but at home she called it Myanmar like everyone else.

While the name Myanmar isn’t yet universal, it does appear to have the upper hand. November’s upcoming general elections will tell a lot. If the military backed government convinces the world that it is genuinely committed to moving towards full democracy, the use of Burma could soon be a thing of the past. We’re going to wait and see.