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Burma or Myanmar: One Country With Two Names?

FILE - A Myanmar soldier prepares to hoist a national flag during a ceremony to mark the 71st anniversary of the nation's independence day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Jan. 4, 2019.
FILE - A Myanmar soldier prepares to hoist a national flag during a ceremony to mark the 71st anniversary of the nation's independence day in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Jan. 4, 2019.

One coup. One country. Two names?

Myanmar is the official name of the country upended by a military coup this week. In official documents issued by the Biden administration, the country with beaches on the Andaman Sea is Burma.

And whenever the country is in the news, the question of what’s in a name returns.

“Our official policy is that we say ‘Burma’ but use ‘Myanmar’ as a courtesy in certain communications,” Jen Psaki, the White House spokesperson, said when asked to address the issue during a press conference this week. “So, for example, the embassy website refers to Burma — Myanmar because they are by definition dealing with officials and the public. The State Department website uses ‘Burma (Myanmar)’ in some places and ‘Burma’ in others.”

How it began

The conundrum emerged in 1989 when the ruling military government changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar after quashing a pro-democracy uprising by killing thousands of people. The military changed the name of Rangoon, the nation’s major city, to Yangon at the same time.

The military government believes that the term Burma only covers Burman, the largest ethnic group in Myanmar, and does not include the other 134 ethnic minority groups. The military position is that if the name of the main ethnic group is used as the name of the country, it would be racially discriminatory, according to the United States Institute of Peace blog. And, Burma, which became the country’s official name under British rule and stuck after independence, was a reminder of the colonial past.

The United Nations and some countries such as France and Japan recognized the change. The United States and Britain did not.

Decades later, when Hillary Clinton, then the U.S. secretary of state, visited in 2011, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told Agence France-Presse that U.S. policy believed that “any change of the name of a country should be a decision” for its people, according to the BBC.

Richard Coates, a linguistics professor emeritus with the University of the West of England, who has a special interest in the area where linguistics, history and geography meet, told VOA Mandarin that deciding what name to use for the Southeast Asian nation bordered by India, China, Laos and Thailand was a sensitive topic because the choice indicated political allegiance.

"The form Myanmar — the older and more ‘classical’ name, of which Burma is a vernacular derivative — was, I believe, introduced by the military, so refusing to use it might well have a political dimension," he said.

Mark Farmaner, director of the Burma Campaign UK, told the BBC that using Burma or Myanmar often reveals where someone’s sympathies lie.

“Myanmar is a kind of indicator of countries that are soft on the regime,” he said, while using Burma may indicate that “they just challenge the legitimacy of the regime.”

The two words mean the same thing, and one is derived from the other. Burmah, as it was spelled in the 19th century, is a local corruption of the word Myanmar, according to the BBC.

They have both been used within Burma for a long time, anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman, who has written extensively about Burmese politics, told the BBC.

The situation now is that the Burmese verbally refer to their country as Burma, but generally use the term Myanmar in official written documents.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s state counselor and democratic movement leader who is currently in custody, has publicly stated that she likes to call her country Burma.

'Will of the people'

In her speech at the Singapore Summit in September 2013, she said, “I have explained very often that the main reason why I prefer to use Burma is because the name change was made without reference to the will of the people. To me, that’s basic. We have to respect the people. We have to respect the will of the people if we truly want to make the transition to a democratic society.”

“Democracy means choice, widening choice, making our choice more varied and making choice more accessible to more of us,” she said.

After becoming the counselor of the state in 2016, she again emphasized that there is no explicit stipulation in the national constitution on which name must be used, so foreign countries can choose either of these two names at will.

She said that while she uses Burma, others need not, and at times, she also uses Myanmar.