musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

At first I thought it was a mistake; another example of the editors at the Bangkok Post asleep on the job again. The article in the World News section of the paper on Monday was titled “EU to reward Myanmar for reform efforts.” In the past the Bangkok Post has always referred to Myanmar as Burma, using the old Colonial name of the country. I read the article and each time the country was mentioned they called it Myanmar instead of Burma. In addition to that name switch, they were also using Yangon instead of the golden oldie Rangoon. Was this just a single article that snuck by the editors, I wondered, or a permanent change? But in that day’s Business and Travel sections I also found the new usage: Myanmar, not Burma; Yangon, not Rangoon. I checked the editorial page, but no explanation for the change whatsoever.

There has long been a debate about the “correct” name of the country. The country became independent in 1962, which would have been a handy time for a name switch, but it wasn’t until 1989 when the military junta officially changed the official English language name from Burma to Myanmar. Because that ruling junta was not a democratically elected government, many countries refused to acknowledge the new name and kept calling it Burma. The media continue to be divided on which name to use. Major newspapers such as the New York Times and networks like CNN and Al Jazeera opt for Myanmar, while many other press agencies and newspapers still use Burma. The Bangkok Post was included in that latter group … until this week. Ironically, just last month the newspaper received a letter from a reader urging them to stop using the Colonial term “Burma” and switch to the official name of Myanmar. Not surprisingly, the paper received numerous angry letters from readers, urging them to keep calling the country Burma. I wonder what they are going to say now. Or will anyone notice the change?

Obviously, the name switch is confusing, if not maddening for many people. But it’s not like Myanmar was some sort of new name invented by the military. Actually, Myanmar is a very old word and was used by the natives of the country long before the British Colonialist occupiers came along and decided that “Burma” was an easier name to pronounce. It’s a shame that pro-democracy and “Free Burma” activists have demonized “Myanmar,” because it really is a legitimate name. Another problem with the name thing is the difference between the “official” name in English and what the country is called in the native language. Most people don’t call Germany “Deutschland” for example, or refer to Spain as “Espana”? So what’s really wrong with calling it Burma instead of Myanmar?

 

In addition to being politically incorrect in the minds of so many people, the word “Myanmar” is also a more confusing one to pronounce and to use. People see “Myanmar” and immediately their mind freezes. How do you pronounce this odd word? The correction pronunciation is MEE-in-mar. And no, there is no such thing as Myanmarese. The people are Myanmar, the language is Myanmar, the food is Myanmar, and so on. That extra syllable also makes it more of chore than uttering the easier “Burma.” It’s all more than a trifle bewildering, so it’s no wonder people cling to more familiar names like Burma and Burmese.

 

In recent years I’ve used Myanmar for the simple reason that during my travels around the country, the vast majority of locals I’ve talked to refer to their country as Myanmar. Rarely have I heard anyone there call it “Burma”, except for a few older citizens or those with a political axe to grind. And that, I believe, is the biggest reason people still use the name Burma: politics casts an ugly shadow over the name issue.

 

I understand the reluctance to call the country Myanmar, but I always thought it odd that a name like Burma, conjured up the tongue-tied Colonialist Brits during the time they ruled the country, would be preferred instead of a native word. Maybe in the minds of many, it’s a matter of choosing between the lesser of two evils. But isn’t it time to just accept the change and get over it? Names change all the time, especially here in Asia. Siam is now Thailand; Ceylon is now Sri Lanka; Formosa became Taiwan; Kampuchea is back to being Cambodia; Bombay is now called Mumbai. Even in Communist countries, people seem to have accepted the fact that Peking was changed to Beijing and Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City, and those were not “Democratic” decisions either.

The official name of the country is now the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, and it is indeed a union, comprised of 14 states and divisions. Within those various states are dozens of different ethnic groups. One estimate I read stated that there are 135 different ethnic groups in the country. So, it’s definitely not correct to call all people living there “Burmese.” But is Myanmar any better? And which name is more representative of such a diverse mix of people? Some people maintain that Burma is a more inclusive name than Myanmar, but that’s yet another argument that I find extremely peculiar. How could Burma, which is derivative of Bamar, the country’s largest ethnic group, be a more inclusive name than Myanmar? Neither name is better if you use that line of logic. Perhaps a third name is the best solution, something like: Suvarnabhumi (“The Golden Land”). Unfortunately, that’s also a real tongue twister, plus the dysfunctional international airport in Bangkok has already laid claim to that name.

 

You can go round and round on the name thing, but ultimately it’s an unnecessary distraction from more important issues the country is still facing. Whether you use Burma or Myanmar, it’s the people that count.

 

For an interesting look at the name debate, here is an article I saw online this past week:

http://www.burmanet.org/news/2012/01/12/irrawaddy-one-mans-myanmar-david-paquette/

 

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