Editor's note: On Sunday, Burma will hold its first general election in two decades. But with the main opposition party boycotting the vote, few political observers and human rights advocates believe the process will affect any change in the country. In this special report, GlobalPost goes inside Burma and the refugee camps along the Thai border to give voice to civilians who are often silenced under a repressive regime.
BANGKOK, Thailand — Officially, the oblong country sandwiched between Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent is called the “Republic of the Union of Myanmar.”
If that sounds unfamiliar, there’s a reason: Many American and British media outlets, following their governments’ lead, use the name “Burma.” Many in the West still cling to this title even after the country’s leadership nixed “Burma” in 1989.
The leadership’s switch to “Myanmar” was explained as a move to shed its British colonial past, which ended in 1948 after a more than 60-year occupation.
The name was also presented as more inclusive of the country’s ethnic minorities than “Burma,” a name that suggests the majority Burman ethnic group over the nearly 100 other tribes amounting to 40 percent of the population.
Fair enough, right? Not in the eyes of Burma’s pro-democracy movement and the Western powers that back them. The name switch took place in 1989, amid an urban revolt against military rule.
One year later, the junta voided the election of Aung San Suu Kyi to the prime minister’s seat. Thousands were later imprisoned for pro-democracy activism. And the military government’s war on ethnic tribes is mired in horrid human rights abuses: torching villages, forced labor, rape as an intimidation tactic and more.
“This is a military regime that staged a coup and changed the country’s name all of a sudden,” said Khin Ohmar, head of the Thailand-based non-profit Forum for Democracy in Burma. Ohmar, 42, fled the country in 1988 during a crackdown on activists.
“I think they used anti-colonial sentiment to their advantage,” she said. “Fine, maybe there’s something to that. But what gives them the legitimacy to change it? Without consulting the people?”
So divisive is the name debate that some pro-democracy activists regard the use of “Myanmar” as outright offensive — even though the United Nations, France, Japan and all of Asia have accepted the name.
Pitched by the junta as less offensive to minorities than “Burma,” the name “Myanmar” is actually just a more formal, literary name for the Burman tribe. Ohmar, a mix of Burman and other ethnicities, remembers seeing the name in textbooks as a child.
There is also a disconnect between refugees from ethnic groups, like the Karen, who were schooled in the Burmese school system. Their tribal political leaders promote the use of “Burma” to signal junta resistance. But most born in the last two decades are apt to feel more comfortable with “Myanmar.”
Naw Khin Htay Kyi, 19, fled from her village after it fell under siege by Burma’s army. She walked for weeks with her mother, nearly dying from fever in the jungle, until they reached Mae La, Thailand’s largest refugee camp.
And though she’s against the junta in spirit, she accepts its argument for “Myanmar.”
“I think Myanmar includes all the ethnic groups in Burma. The word ‘Burma’ is just for Burman people, not Karen tribe like me,” she said. “My teachers in camp from America and Australia say Burma. But we say Myanmar at home.”
In October, the junta changed the country’s name again, albeit slightly: from the “Union of Myanmar” to the “Republic of the Union of Myanmar.” The flag was also changed without warning, as was the national anthem.
Universal adoption of “Myanmar” appears likely in the future, though the colonial name may stick around for a while. Decades passed before many in the West stopped calling Iran by “Persia,” even though the nation’s Shah asked heads of state to give up the old name in the 1930s.