Myanmar: why we call it Myanmar not Burma

Myanmar: why we call it Myanmar not Burma

Our first problem with researching and planning for this new country was what the heck do we call it?

Is it Myanmar (pronounced Mee-anmar) or Burma? And why is one name sometimes put in brackets like on our Lonely Planet:

Our Myanmar (Burma) Lonely Planet

Our mangled Myanmar (Burma) Lonely Planet guide book

‘Burma’ was the old colonial name used during British rule and the accepted name after independence in 1948.

But, the (unelected) military junta that took over in 1962 following a military coup (and still in place today) unilaterally changed the name to Myanmar in 1989.

General Saw Maung

General Saw Maung as head of the military government oversaw the name change in 1989.

The military government argued this was to shake off the British colonial history and have a more inclusive name for all ethnicities in Myanmar, not just the main Bamar people.

This move was heavily criticised particularly by the very popular opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who argued that the military regime lacked the legitimacy to change the country’s name, especially without a referendum.

Aung San Suu Kyi

The popular opposition leader in Myanmar: Aung San Suu Kyi

The US and UK supported Aung San Suu Kyi’s position and up until recently called it Burma.

Under Thein Sein’s current government, a large number of democratic reforms were made since 2010, earning it more respect, particularly from the US and UK, and with it a gradual acceptance of the new name.

President Thein Sein of Myanmar

Thein Sein – the current leader of Myanmar since March 2011

So what the heck do we call it on our blog without offending? We looked at what others do…

The Burmese language: uses both!

In the Burmese language, “Myanma” is the written name and “Bama” is the spoken name. Also, the national anthem refers to “bama pyi” or the “country of Burma”.

UN and Asian neighbours of Myanmar

The UN accepted the name change to Myanmar after 5 days it was announced, as did Japan, China, India, Russia and other Asian neighbours.

We noticed in Bangkok it’s Myanmar not Burma: when we applied for our visas for Myanmar, we had to visit The Embassy of the Union of the Republic of Myanmar.

Queuing for a visa at the Embassy of Myanmar in Bangkok

The Embassy of Myanmar in Bangkok

Europe: a mix of both

The EU sits on the fence and officially calls it “Myanmar/Burma”.

Germany accepted the name change as did France. But interestingly, whilst the Germans call it Myanmar in German, the French still refer to it as “La Birmanie” in everyday French.

(Stefan also points out that the Greeks call it “Βιρμανία” – pronounced ‘Virmania’).

Stef with village ladies Stef with kaunbaom turban2

Stefan trying to radiate his Greek roots in Myanmar

The UK doesn’t officially accept the name change and the FCO official foreign travel advice website refers to it Burma, yet the Embassy in London website refers to it as Myanmar not Burma.

USA: Burma

The official name for Myanmar in the USA is Burma.

But when Obama recently visited the country to support the democratic reforms of Thein Sein’s government, he used both names out of respect, showing a shift in attitudes.

Obama meeting Thein Sein

Obama meeting Thein Sein at the White House in May 2013.

The Media: a mix but leaning to Myanmar…

Wikipedia calls it “Burma”

– The most recent editions of Lonely Planer (July 2014) and Rough Guide (February 2015) are about the country referred to as “Myanmar (Burma)”:

Rough Guide to Myanmar (Burma)

The most recent edition of Rough Guide book to Myanmar (Burma)

– The BBC is the most interesting and telling: historically it called it “Burma” because of familiarity. But we noticed this recent BBC article from February 2015 referring to it as just “Myanmar”.

The Economist calls it Myanmar arguing they adopt the official position regardless of politics.

– The Financial Times used to call it Burma but in January 2012 changed its position arguing that Myanmar has now become more accepted internationally.

So, we have decided to refer to this country as just “Myanmar”

We were going to sit on the fence and copy the EU, referring to it as Myanmar / Burma on our blog, but that’s clumsy.

Myanmar has gradually become more and more accepted internationally and more interestingly, when we asked Burmese people we met what they thought, we noticed there wasn’t a strong opinion about it either way (only 1 passionate supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi in Yangon we met insisted we call it Burma).

So, we’ve decided to stick with “Myanmar” in our blog and refer to its people as the “Burmese”, speaking the “Burmese” language.

Afterall, the national beer is named “Myanmar”:

Our Myanmar beer selfie

Our Myanmar beer selfie in Mandalay

Watch our video Myanmar travel video as we made our way from Mandalay to Bagan, Inle Lake and Yangon:

4 Comments

  1. Thanks boys for this little lesson on a very sensitive topic! Lots of other place names that have changed (for anti-colonial or linguistic purity reasons) such as – probably the most well known – Mumbai (Bombay) and Beijing (Pekin). Then there is the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) of course. No doubt the most acceptable approach is to go with the flow, what the country officially (or currently) calls its place names. But we still have Bombay Mix and Bollywood and Pekin Duck – all of which don’t quite work if we updated them using the new names. Can you remember “The King and I” when Thailand was called Siam? France still calls China’s capital city Pékin….. So, keep opting these fascinating pieces of information – and remember to stay pc!!

    Reply
    • Thanks Wilfrid 🙂

      Reply
  2. Thank you. Great article.

    Reply
    • Thanks for reading Granja 🙂

      Reply

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