We get this asked a lot
- and for a good reason:
Should one say Myanmar
or Burma? And what's that discussion all about anyway?
Until 1989, the official English name of the
country was Burma, a name that its English colonisers had used for centuries
and that was also adopted after independence.
In ’89 then, Burma’s military regime decided to get
rid of English place names that had been chosen by the former colonial rulers
and to substitute them with spellings closer to the Burmese pronunciation. The
same happened when India changed Bombay to Mumbai, Calcutta to Kolkata etc.
Today, the official English name of the country is
Republic of the Union of Myanmar - and the world is still divided about which
name to use. The controversy is highly political and only partly linguistic:
Myanmar is a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual country
dominated by a majority ethnic group, the Burmese. Similarly to Japanese, the language of
that ethnic group has different varieties used for different purposes or
social settings. In Burmese, Bama
is the spoken name of its ethnic group and Myanma
is the written, literary version.
It’s important to realise that the dispute is only about the English language version of the name. The regime did not change the official Burmese name and in Burmese both versions are being used. The national anthem still refers to bama pyi or “the country of Burma”.
Critiques of the name change say that over time
minority peoples had accepted Burma as an English name for the whole country
whereas Myanma/Myanmar was perceived as a purely ethnically Burmese name,
reflecting a policy of domination. The government claims the opposite.
Many of those wanting to criticise the country’s
military regime generally refused to use the new name in a desire to show their
disapproval, rather than for any linguistically sound reasons.
We stick to Barack Obama’s usage during his
milestone visit to the country in 2012 – and use both, Burma and Myanmar!
Plus, “Burma Boating” just sounds so much nicer
than “Myanmar Boating”, don’t you agree?