When you first travel to Myanmar or just search some information related to the country, you may find it confusing about the name of the country: Myanmar vs Burma. Though Barack Obama referred to Myanmar when he met the country’s former president, Thein Sein, for the first time, the American embassy still gives its address as “Rangoon, Burma”. Upon landing at the country’s busiest airport, your pilot may welcome you to Yangon, but your luggage will still be tagged RGN. And ordinary Burmese tend to refer, at least in conversation, to their country as “Burma” and its largest city as “Rangoon”. So which name should we use?
Having a Myanmar vacation, most of us may be surprised to learn that in fact, Burma has pretty much always used both names. The Burmese language (like many Asian tongues) has various registers that are used in different situations, mainly to make a distinction between formal and informal situations. The names Myanma and Bama are thus both correct in Burmese – but they are used for different purposes: the former in written language; the latter in spoken. Both have been used concurrently for centuries, and are derived from the name of the largest ethnic group in Burma, the Bamar. ‘Burma’ and ‘Myanmar’ may not sound like they have the same root, but the transformation of m-sounds into b-sounds in colloquial Burmese is actually pretty common.
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The military government in Burma claims that the name ‘Myanmar’ is more inclusive of ethnic minorities, but as the two names mean the same thing, critics are quick to point out that this argument doesn’t make sense. Neither ‘Burma’ nor ‘Myanmar’ is particularly inclusive toward non-Bamar ethnic minorities – of which there are a great many in Burma.
The ruling British chose Burma as the name for their colony, and after independence in 1948 it was decided that ‘Burma’ would stay. In 1989, however, the military junta took control of Burma, brutally crushing pro-democracy demonstrations and blocking the National League for Democracy. They quickly set about changing things – including the English spellings of many Burmese place names. Rangoon became Yangon, Pegu became Bago, Maymyo became Pyin Oo Lwin – and Burma became Myanmar.
When Aung San Suu Kyi stepped into office in November 2015, we were on tenterhooks to hear whether she would reiterate her rejection of the name ‘Myanmar’ or finally accept its adoption. To our surprise, she did neither. The Lady explained that everyone was free to use whichever they pleased, “because there is nothing in the constitution of our country that says that you must use any term in particular”.
Of course, we shouldn’t really have been surprised at all. President Obama used the exact same hedging tactic on his 2012 visit to Burma/Myanmar, employing both appellations interchangeably. What both Suu Kyi and Obama recognise is the importance of diplomacy. The Burmese military leaders are finally playing ball, and it would be sheer stupidity to anger them over something as trifling as a name.
It may not be the most convenient solution, but for now it is the best one that we should use when having Burma tours.