Like many countries that became independent from their colonial rulers, the nation formerly know as Burma changed its name in the latter half of the twentieth century. The country’s name was changed to Myanmar in 1989 after a military coup toppled the ruling totalitarian Burma Socialist Programme Party. However, the symbolic meaning of the name change (and those who enacted it) continues to cause controversy worldwide.
Where do the names Burma and Myanmar come from?
Burma was the English name for the country dating back to the earlier years of the colonial period – around the mid-eighteenth century. The English adopted the name from the Portuguese name for the country, Birmania. The Portuguese word was likely a derivative of the colloquial word Bama, which was the name of the largest ethnic group in the region.
Bama itself is thought to be a derivative of the name Myanma/Mranma, a term intermittently used for the country as early as 1235 CE. Though Myanma was not the only name used for the country over the centuries, a few anti-colonial independence groups resurrected the moniker from historical obscurity in the 1920s. To them, Myanma reflected their anti-colonial sentiments because it represented a time when the country ruled itself rather than being under foreign colonial rule. However, the mainstream independence movement did not adopt such a stance and instead used Bama, the more commonly-known term.
After its independence in 1948, the country underwent a series of military coups throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Most regimes used Burma in their version of the country’s official name until 1989, when the coup lead by General Saw Maung decided to change the English name to Myanmar. The regime justified the change by stating that Myanmar was more inclusive of minority ethnicities and cultures compared to Burma, a name which was derived from the name of the ethnic majority. Despite the reasonable justification, many opponents of the regime felt that it was wrong to change the official name of the country without seeking a vote from the people.
Burma or Myanmar: The Controversy
While certain organizations (such as the United Nations) adopted the new name right away, other countries and organizations refused to use the new name in any official capacity in protest of the new regime. To this day, both the United States and United Kingdom use Burma in official government documents. During President Obama’s trip to the country in 2012, he departed from this convention by calling the country Myanmar instead, stating that he is “optimistic about the possibilities for Myanmar.” Many journalists and pundits interpreted this to mean that Obama had faith that the dictatorship would slowly evolve into a liberal democracy.
Burmese Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist (and current Foreign Minister and State Counsellor) Aung San Suu Kyi has openly announced that she does not care whether foreign diplomats and governments use either Burma or Myanmar, since the country’s constitution does not mandate either name. Nevertheless, more and more governments and large news organizations are shifting towards using Myanmar exclusively.
Alongside countries such as India and Indonesia, Myanmar’s government has made strides to replace names that they consider to be colonial hand-me-downs. Like most post-colonial name changes, Myanmar’s is not without controversy. But as more time passes from the switch over, more people and institutions are embracing the new name as a gesture of optimism and hope for the country’s future prosperity.