A nation-state by any other name: Burma or Myanmar?

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — In May, when President Obama referred to Myanmar as “Myanmar” in an Oval Office meeting, it was a minor diplomatic coup for the country’s visiting president, Thein Sein. That’s because, to many people, Myanmar isn’t Myanmar. It’s Burma.

The choice of term carries political baggage, because the country’s military changed the name from Burma to Myanmar after the country’s failed democratic uprising in 1988. The West and opposition figures boycotted the name change because it came from an oppressive dictatorship. But as United States’ relationship with the country thaws, the Obama administration has begun acknowledging it.

In fact, May’s “Myanmar” name-drop came six months after Obama greeted the crowd at Yangon University with “Mingalabar, Myanmar Naing Ngan” (Hello, country of Myanmar) at a November speech in Yangon, but that mention escaped the notice of Western media.

The State Department hasn’t fully embraced the change, and now uses a mix of both terms, mirroring a US policy that has waived broad economic sanctions against the country but leaves most of its biggest businesses blacklisted.

The media, too, remains split. CNN recently began using the name Myanmar but the BBC prefers Burma.

As for the Burmese public, most of it has adopted Myanmar. For many, the name Burma, used by the British, carries a colonial connotation that is not so much distasteful as less natural. When the national team plays football, for example, the fans chant “My-an-mar!”

Notably, the terms may share an etymology and happily co-existed in the pre-colonial period. Historically, both referred to the Burmese ethnic group that today constitutes the majority of the country’s population. When the government changed the name, they hoped to reserve the name “Burmese” to refer to the ethnicity and Myanmar to refer to the multi-ethnic country, whose unity they were waging vicious civil wars to maintain.

Of course, the issue of the name itself is secondary to the messy history from which it arises. As journalist and preeminent Burma-watcher Bertil Lintner explains:

The main issue this country is facing is of course the ethnic issue. It's the same as since independence in 1948. ‘How do you create a functioning entity in a country as diverse as this?’ And it's not enough to change the name of the country. You need much more than that in order for people to feel like they're part of this nation, which isn't really a nation because it’s a British colonial creation. Indigenous people had very little to do with the ancient kings of pre-colonial days. The present boundaries of Burma were drawn up by the British and whoever is in power in this country has inherited that mess… And that is what this country has to address and very fast or things will get worse.

One compromise would be to make everyone always use the country’s official name, “the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.” Then, no one would be happy.