Burma or Myanmar: The name game

Aung San Suu Kyi has given the Burmese authorities the cold shoulder after being warned not to refer to the country as "Burma." "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," ...

Soe Than WIN/AFP/GettyImages
Soe Than WIN/AFP/GettyImages

Aung San Suu Kyi has given the Burmese authorities the cold shoulder after being warned not to refer to the country as "Burma."

"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," the Nobel laureate explained at a July 3 press conference in Rangoon about her recent 17-day tour of Europe.

Burma’s election commission, which supervises laws dealing with political parties, issued the complaint in the state-run media last Friday, warning her to "respect the constitution." Authorities said she should use the constitutionally-decreed name for the country: The Republic of the Union of Myanmar.

But Suu Kyi told the reporters that the previous junta, which seized power in 1988 after crushing a popular protest, changed the name without a public consensus: "They didn’t bother to consider what the public opinion about the new name was. They didn’t show any respect to the people."

The Lady has a valid point. In the wake of the massive crackdown and coup at the end of the 1980s, the much-despised generals announced plans to change the name of the country, and many of the places inside it. The junta considered this renaming exercise to be so important that they appointed a 21-member commission to look into the matter. (Only four of the people on the commission were academics. The rest were soldiers and bureaucrats.) From now on, they decided, the capital Rangoon would be "Yangon." The ancient city of Pagan would be spelled "Bagan." And so on.

They claimed that the old words used for these places were symbols of the "British colonial past," and that the newer, supposedly more authentic, names would "give a previously divided and fractious country a sense of national unity under a new banner of the ‘Union of Myanmar.’" The military was, in effect, proclaiming its ownership of the country.

As Suu Kyi notes, no one among the powers-that-be took the trouble to ask the citizens if they agreed. In a politically polarized country like Burma, the name of the country is both a cause and consequence of the vast divide between rulers and ruled. The rulers of Myanmar live in their country. The citizens of Burma live in theirs.

The U.S., which has always supported the pro-democracy movement, followed the opposition’s lead by refusing to accept the new name. (This has led, for example, to the rather odd situation that the U.S. Embassy in Burma doesn’t refer to itself using the country’s official name.) Just to make matters even more confusing, the United Nations and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations accepted the name changes, while the European Union followed the U.S. at first, but later on invented a new name for the country: "Burma/Myanmar." When Hillary Clinton visited Burma at the end of last year, she dodged the controversy by referring to "this country."

I’ll spare you the linguistic details. The renaming of the country, however, did not make virtually any difference to the people of Burma who speak the Burmese language, because they refer to the country interchangeably as Burma as well as Myanmar. The former is taken from a spoken and colloquial language. The latter is rooted in literary language.

But the renaming had even more serious implications for ethnic politics, which concern me more than the legitimacy contest between the opposition and the generals (now generals-turned-civilian rulers). Burma is a hodgepodge of many different ethnic groups. One of the effects of the renaming effort was to give new Burmese names to many places that had previously been officially known by names in local languages. For instance, the Burmese renaming of towns of the Shan, which is the second largest ethnic group in Burma after the majority Burmans, invariably leads to a corruption of the original pronunciations, and often also to completely inauspicious meanings in Burmese. The Shan word for "town" is "Mong," but it is now spelled as "Mine," which means "bomb" in Burmese. As a result, the Shan town "Mong Kerng," which means "a town producing saddles," becomes "Mine Kaing" — "holding a bomb." And so on. Even though the generals claimed to be unifying the country with their renaming project, the effect was actually deeply divisive.

Over the past two years, senior U.S. officials have quietly sounded out the opinions of some Burmese opposition activists about whether Washington should start referring to the country as "Myanmar." In the aftermath of Clinton’s visit in December, some policymakers even suggested rewarding the Thein Sein government by adopting the new name, thus offering an incentive for continuing the reforms. (A few months ago, the Financial Times changed its usage from "Burma" to "Myanmar" — the change was then assailed by leading Burma-watcher Bertil Lintner, who argued that the paper had its linguistics wrong.) On the face of things, I find it hard to dispute the argument that promoting real change in this ill-fated country is a lot more important than fussing over names.

However silly it might seem to outsiders, though, there is serious political substance to the whole dispute. It’s impossible to accept the renaming project by calling Burma "Myanmar" without also using the Burmanized versions of ethnic minority names.

Until Burma enjoys genuine freedom and equal rights for all its citizens, regardless of ethnicity, the feud over what to call it will continue.


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