Burma or Myanmar?

September 30, 2007
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Burma's famous Shwe Dagon pagoda, in Rangoon (or is it Yangon?)

Over the past week, we have been discussing the protests in Burma in the Geography of Asia class. Several students have asked me whether it is correct to refer to the troubled Southeast Asian country as Burma (as President Bush did in his recent UN speech) or Myanmar. (Or, perhaps, as some cautious news outlets have done as “Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.”) As is the case with many good questions, the answer is “It all depends.”

It depends first on whether you are Burmese. The people who live in the country don’t call it either Burma or Myanmar. I learned from I learned from a not-necessarily-reliable source that they call it

(pronounced Myanma) when using formal or literary language, and

(Bama) colloquially. Our dilemma is which of the Anglicized versions of the name to use.

Burma was the name used for the country by the British when the country was a colony. At independence, the country opted to keep the name. It was changed to Myanmar in 1989 by the new military regime. Members and supporters of the country’s democracy movement prefer to use the name Burma, though, as a signal of the fact that they do not recognize the legitimacy of the current regime or its actions.
The US State Department goes along with this, as does the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. James Fallows agrees:

When Westerners say “Myanmar,” they’re not being culturally respectful to the people of a beautiful but oppressed nation. (We don’t call China Zhongguo or Germany Deutschland just because the locals do.) They’re bowing to the whims of the generals who still imprison Aung San Suu Kyi. There is no reason to humor them… Say Burma, as George Bush did.

So which name to use turns out to be a political question.

Unsurprisingly, the rulers of Burma don’t call themselves “the military junta” or “the generals.” Their regime began its life as SLORC, the State Law and Order Restoration Council. Apparently satisfied that Law and Order had been restored, they adopted the Orwellian name “State Peace and Development Council” in 1997.

Can anyone think of any other examples of countries which, like Burma/Myanmar, which might have different names, each indicating a political or ideological point of view?

For news and background information on recent events in Burma, take a look at the BBC’s Special Report: Burma.

Update: I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Burma in June 2010. You can read about my visit here and see some photographs on my Picasa web album.

4 Responses to Burma or Myanmar?

  1. Ted Minniear on July 20, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Palestinians and Palestinian supporters would call the West Bank Palestinian territory. The Israeli government, having occupied most of the West Bank since 1967, has different names for different part of this area including Judea, Samaria, and the Jerusalem District. The United Nations Security Council and the United Nations General Assembly refer to the West Bank as a Palestinian territory occupied by Israel.

    Does anyone know the Arabic name for the West Bank or what Palestinians refer to it as? This is what I found online and I don’t know if it’s correct: ????? ???????ý, al-diffä l-?arb?yä.

  2. Ted Minniear on July 20, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    Oops it looks like the Arabic script didn’t come though on the computer in my last post.

  3. Ted Minniear on July 21, 2010 at 9:53 pm

    Also Xizang and Tibet

  4. Omio Chowdhury on July 18, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    The name for Rangoon has also been changed to Yangon. The city was the former capital. Burma has an ethnic group called the Rohingyas. They are an Islamic group who struggled in the country. The frequently clashed with Rakhine another ethnic group. I first heard of the conflict in 2005-2011 when many Rohingyas tried to flee Burma by boat and came for refugee to my country of Bangladesh. Even though the country now has some form of democracy they still have a long way to go. A lot of human rights are violated there.

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