Is it “Burma” or “Myanmar”?


by C. S. Kuppuswamy

“I call my country ‘Burma’ as we did a long time ago. I’m not insulting other people. Because I believe in democracy, I’m sure that I can call it as I like,” –Aung San Suu Kyi at a press conference on her return from the European tour (The Irrawaddy – July 3, 2012).

“There is a strong emotional and moral connotation in the name Burma. It should continue to be called that way” – Cesar Chelala in a commentary on THEWIP website. 

In India, one is used to frequent changes in the name of the cities and states such as – Bombay to Mumbai, Calcutta to Kolkatha, Orissa to Odisha and Banglore to Bengaluru.  Despite the adoption of the change in the official circles both names are used in common parlance and life goes on as usual.  But, there is more to it in the case of the change from Burma to Myanmar. 

David I Steinberg writes “that many countries have changed their names (Siam-Thailand, Ceylon-Sri Lanka, etc.), but none has caused as many problems as the Burma-Myanmar split, which has unfortunately become the surrogate indicator of political persuasion. In July 1989, the military junta changed the name of the state to the Union of Myanmar, from the Union of Burma.  Myanmar was the official written designation and an old usage, and this change was insisted on by the military to lessen (in its view) ethnic problems.” 

Aye Aye Win elaborates this point (AP-29 June 2012) that “then-military rulers changed the English name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, ostensibly to better reflect the country’s ethnic diversity. The term Burma connotes Burman, the dominant ethnic group in the country, to the exclusion of ethnic minorities.” 

It is of interest to note that in the official state language both the country and the people are both pronounced as Myanmar.  It is incorrect to call the people Myanmarese. 

The opposition parties, the exile groups, most ethnic groups as well as the United States and Western nations continue to call the country as Burma.  The United Nations, China, India and other South East Asian nations have accepted the change and call the country as Myanmar. 

Kanbawza Win (Burma Digest- 01 July 2012) refutes the argument that the military has effected the change to reflect the country’s ethnic diversity.  He is of the view that “they (the military) to justify their ethnic cleansing policies and want to be what we call in Burmese Ma Har Myan Mar, the policy of a great nation where eventually all people residing in Burma must speak Myanmar, must belong to a major race Myanmar and worship only one religion the Theravadha type of Buddhism.”

This controversy about the name has been there since 1989.  However this has again come to the fore in end June 2012 when the Myanmar Election Commission has complained through the official mouth piece New Light of Myanmar that “Suu Kyi’s repeated references to the country as Burma during her landmark trips in recent weeks to Thailand and Europe, and it said she and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party must “respect the constitution” and use the proper name.” 

Nyan Win the spokesperson of the National League for Democracy dismissed the complaint as a non-issue.  He said “Referring to the country as Burma does not amount to disrespecting the constitution.” 

Kanbawza Win also argues that while communicating with each other in English it is natural that we call a country’s name in English and not in their native tongue.  He cites some examples such as Spain and Espania, Germany and Deutchland and so on.  He goes to explain that phonetically also it is wrong “because there should not be an ‘ r’ at the end and should be spelt as Myanma as the word mother in English where r is pronounced softly.  Politically wrong because it is the Union and not under the big race of Myanmar only.” 

Aung San Suu Kyi had also mentioned in the press conference that “The State Law and Order Restoration Council changed the name without a public consensus. They did not bother to consider what the public opinion about the new name was. They did not show any respect to the people” (The Irrawaddy—July3, 2012).

May Ng, a political analyst, writes “the cynicism of real Burmese politics is already heating up over the issue of the word “Burma,” the name by which the country has been known in the English language, until recently. By changing Burma to Myanmar the military government tried to rewrite Burmese history without the consent of the people”.  (Mizzima news 02 July, 2012)  

Another analyst has even suggested that perhaps a national referendum be conducted to decide the name by which the country should be called. 

Myanmar seems to be getting embroiled more in semantics than on substantive issues. 

In April 2012, the NLD had objected to the wording “safeguard the constitution” in the oath and wanted it to be amended as “respect the constitution” before its elected members were sworn in.  However it soon relented after realising its folly. 

The present case of the country’s name is a more serious issue and requires to be tackled by consultations at the top level and perhaps by an open discussion in the parliament to find a permanent solution acceptable to the majority if not for all.



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