Easing out 'Burma' for 'Myanmar'?


YANGON, MYANMAR: A Burmese fisherman at a Yangon seaport on February 17, 2012.


Paula Bronstein

Eliminating a complex and multi-layered set of sanctions against Myanmar – as America is beginning to do – is a slow, time-consuming process.

Deciding to call the country "Myanmar" instead of its colonial name – "Burma" – is much easier. And there are signs that the US State Department is warming to "Myanmar," a title officials have previously refused to acknowledge to signal their displeasure with the autocrats who instigated the name change.

As I wrote recently in advance of Myanmar's recent election:

The election could also lead to a change in protocol: diplomats, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, could start saying the word “Myanmar.”

To the current government’s displeasure, US and UK officials still use the colonial name “Burma” in defiance of the military’s abrupt 1989 name swap. (The word “Myanmar,” in the Burmese language, is a more ceremonious form of “Burma.”)

But in this recent US State Department Q&A with unnamed reporters, you can sense officials' growing comfort level with "Myanmar."

I wouldn't be surprised if US diplomats ditched "Burma" by the year's end.

Here's an excerpt from the briefing:

I think, as you know, there are only two countries really who use the term Burma officially in the current context. That is the United States and Great Britain. Many publications, most of our interlocutors in Southeast Asia and elsewhere – we in almost all circumstances use the term Burma in official settings. And occasionally in private meetings, we will refer to the country either by its capital name Nay Pyi Taw, Burma, or Myanmar.

It is the case that in certain meetings that government officials are – in the country are occasionally unhappy with the use of the term, because in their view, our concern has always been Aung San Suu Kyi’s concern, which is not the name itself as much as the process of how the decision was made to change the official name from Burma to Myanmar.

For some of the country, however, it is the concern about the name itself. Remember that Myanmar/Burma is a multiethnic country, and Burmans are a majority group but there are a number of others. The name Myanmar has been used historically, and in fact, Burma is the bastardization; it is what some of the British original settlers thought they heard when the people they interacted first used the term Myanmar. And even members of (Aung San Suu Kyi's party) and others, when they write their country out in a letter, they use the word “Myanmar.” However, it is the case that we – official practice – and you will have seen it today when Secretary Clinton spoke – is to continue to use the term “Burma.”