What’s in a name?


The military junta formerly running this country, and still pulling the strings behind the scenes, changed the name from Burma to Myanmar in 1988.

They had a bit of a point when they described the use of Burma as the ‘last vestige of colonialism’; Burma’s what the British called somewhere much more than simply where the Burmese live.

The junta did not pick the new name from thin air. It is a more literary version of the old name for the Bamar part of the country – Myanma – and its use pre-dates the British occupation.

The Burmese or Bamar make up the largest group (68%) in the country, coming from the flat lands at the heart of it but on the mountains and along the coasts people call themselves other names.

Despite Myanmar being derived from the Bamar people, its use is very widely accepted. My friend’s Rakhaine coming from the west coast. Calling him Burmese is akin to calling a Welshman English. He’s Rakhaine and Myanmar just as I am English and British.

This goes for many non-Bamar people though not in my recent experience the Karen or Kayin (and I suspect other groups still fighting the army on the country’s margins) who see Myanmar as embodied only by an army that has repressed them and continues to do so.

A generation of young adults has grown up with the new name. Little resentment of it is expressed. People speak “Myanmar”. The number one beer is called Myanmar. Most people are proud to be from Myanmar. Proud to be Myanmar.

Aung San Suu Kyi persists in using Burma. It makes her seem very behind the times but she is a populist appealing in the first instance to Bamar Buddhist voters and by using it she emphasises who she is first and foremost.

Obama on his recent visit used Myanmar which was described as a matter of protocol rather than a change of policy. I use Myanmar almost all the time when talking about the country, most of the time, but not always, when talking about the language.

To some extent the boat has sailed. It’s Myanmar unless you are talking to someone who you do not think knows any of the above. Like tourists from countries that still call it Burma, Birmanie or whatever.

And it’s a moot point. Of more importance than the right name to call the place is how to judge it on the basis of what is happening to a number of minorities. Of course those in Karen and Kachin areas where fighting is going on, but perhaps most urgently the stateless citizenship-denied Muslim Rohingya.

They are treated as an underclass in Myanmar (there is a general enmity towards Muslims amongst much of the rest of the population; good old fashioned ignorance-based racism) even if their ancestors came to the country as far back as when the British still called it Burma.

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