The Name Debate: Burma Or Myanmar?

A pagoda in Myanmar (or Burma).
A pagoda in Myanmar (or Burma).

When a Country Changes its Name

Countries around the world have been changing their names throughout history. The reason for these changes vary and may occur after gaining independence, due to a change in political framework, or for purposes of historical accuracy. Sometimes, country name changes are controversial in nature, not widely accepted, or both the previous and current name are used simultaneously. This article takes a closer look at one such case: the name debate between Burma and Myanmar.

Burmese Language Name

The official language of Myanmar, also known as Burma and the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, is Burmese. To understand the root cause of the name confusion, one must first understand the local language. In Burmese, this country is referred to by using one of two names: Myanma or Bama. Both names are also used to refer to the Bamar people, an indigenous group that immigrated to the region in the early 9th century AD and founded the Pagan Kingdom (sometimes known as Bagan Kingdom) in 849.

The term Myanma derives from the original word Mranma; over time the local dialect has changed the 'r' sound to a 'y' sound. According to Burmese language rules, this word is used in writing to refer to the country. The oldest known written record of this word dates back to 1102 AD.

The term Bama, according to proper use of the Burmese language, is used for spoken communication rather than written.

History of Name Changes

Since the Pagan Kingdom, several different dynasties reigned over this country until the Anglo-Burmese Wars, the first of which lasted from 1824 to 1826, the second from 1852 to 1853, and the third in 1885. Great Britain gained control over the area as a result of the wars. As a British colony and province of India, this region was known as Burma and its capital was known as Rangoon.

By the 20th century, a nationalistic movement had evolved and a significant percentage of Burmese citizens wanted independence from Great Britain. As part of this movement, conversations began about what the name of the country should be once independence was achieved. The debate was largely divided between 2 names: Myanma, the name of the previous Burmese kingdom, and Bama, perceived to be more culturally inclusive.

Japan occupied the region during World War II, calling it Bama. This country gained its independence in 1948, 3 years after the end of the war. Its new autonomous government decided to call the region the Union of Burma. Many of the colonial names were changed during this time to take on more traditional Burmese names. Rangoon, for example, became Yangon and remained the capital.

In 1974, the Union of Burma became the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma, in response to the growing Socialist ideology known as the Burmese Way to Socialism. This name lasted until 1988, when its former name was restored. Toward the end of 1988, the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma entered economic crisis, political instability, and social protest. The military responded, establishing martial law and overthrowing the Constitution of 1974. The new military-ruled government renamed the country to the Union of Myanmar in 1989.

Why Was the Name Changed to Myanmar?

The name of this country was only changed in its English form. The Burmese language version of the country’s name remains the same as it was prior to the military regime taking control. The new government offered a number of reasons for changing its English name. These reasons include: Myanmar more closely resembles the Burmese name for the country, Myanma; Myanmar is a more culturally inclusive term, and the English term Burma sounds similar to the colloquial term Bama.

The Controversial Name Change

The English name Myanmar has not been accepted on a global level. Opponents give several reasons for refusing to adopt the new name. The first of these reasons is that many people believe the military regime was not within its authority to change the country’s name. Additionally, the change took place without a public referendum, which would have given the general population a chance to vote on the issue. Since they believe the new regime acted outside of its powers, the new name cannot be valid.

Opponents also suggest that the Myanmar (Myanma) term is not actually more inclusive of the multi-cultural society living within the country. Some of those who oppose this change claim that the term is simply the written version of the same concept as the term Burma. Others argue that many of the minority groups living in the country do not speak Burmese. These individuals have grown accustomed to referring to the country in its English name: Burma. By forcing them to now call the country Myanmar, critics say minorities are forced to use a more Burmese-sounding name. Since Burmese is not their spoken language, it reinforces the idea that the majority Burman ethnic group holds power over minority non-Burman ethnic groups.

Who Uses Burma? Who Uses Myanmar?

Given that this name change is still under strong debate, its use around the world is not uniform. The name change was accepted almost immediately by the United Nations, of which Myanmar is a member. Other governments that recognize the name Myanmar include: Russia, China, India, Germany, and Japan.

Other English-speaking countries continue to call the nation Burma, including: Canada, Australia, the UK, and the US. One of the reasons for this refusal to recognize the English name Myanmar is that it is a show of solidarity with the political party that won the 1990 election. This party, which opposed the name change, was not allowed to take power by the military government.

Various media outlets also tend to use both English names. Several US news sources use the new official name when referring to the country, including: CNN, Reuters, The International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, the Associated Press, and the Wall Street Journal. Some media organizations opt for including both names by saying, “Myanmar, also known as Burma”. These include: NPR and the Canadian Broadcasting Association. Recently, the BBC has switched to using Myanmar to refer to the country, citing an increased international acceptance of the name.


More in Politics