Even 23 years after its renaming, Burmans continue to be divided over how to call their country

A three-day conference of the World Economic Forum for East Asia concluded last week in Naypyitaw. It was the first time Myanmar had hosted an international gathering of such magnitude.

It was attended by around 900 participants from over 50 countries, including political and business leaders. Myanmar President Thein Sein opened the forum.

Though the forum’s objective was to discuss the issues facing developing economies in the region, a great interest in the socio-economic reforms of the host country was quite evident.

On the sidelines of the forum, a globally televised BBC debate was held on the subject, “Myanmar: What Future?” Panellists included Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, U Soe Thein, Minister of the President’s Office, and Zin Mar Aung, ex-political prisoner and activist.

Besides other issues, the debate was divided on the very name of the country. Though they all refer to the same country, some used Burma and others used Myanmar. For example, the BBC moderator, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Zin Mar Aung preferred “Burma,” while Minister Soe Thein and the majority of questioners from the audience used “Myanmar.”

Does the name matter in Myanmar politics? Is there any significance of using one over the other? And why does this issue still linger 23 years after the country was renamed in 1989?

Circumstances

First of all, the issue is historical as well as political. The controversy surrounding the name started with the political circumstances under which it was renamed. It was the State Law and Order Restoration Council military government that renamed the country from Union of Burma to Union of Myanmar. Similarly, the name of the capital city was changed from Rangoon to Yangon.

During British rule, the name of the country was Burma. At the 1947 Panglong conference, and in the preceding months, the majority Burman group led by General Aung San made several attempts to convince the frontier people, who are today designated as the country’s ethnic minorities, to join the Union.

Since British colonial administration, there has been deep mistrust toward the majority Burman group by other ethnic nationalities. It was under such circumstances that the term Union of Burma was coined in an attempt to give a sense of unity and belonging to the diverse ethnic groups under a new independent Burma.

Had the frontier people not agreed to join the Union of Burma, the country’s independence could have been either delayed or only territories occupied by the Burman ethnic group may have been recognised as Burma by the British.

On past and people

There are two basic arguments about the name change. First, the military leaders argue that as the name Burma was given or used by the colonial rulers, it should be replaced with an indigenous name. This also implies that using a different name symbolises freedom from the legacy of colonial administration.

The second argument is that the term Burma refers to only one group of people and the usage of Myanmar is inclusive of all ethnic nationalities of the country.

In Burmese or Myanmar language, Burma is known as either Myanma or Bama. Myanma is the written, literary name of the country, while Bama is the spoken name of the country. In terms of meaning, there is no difference. Both names still refer to the majority group of people in the country, who are also referred to as Burmans.

Though the name was changed in 1989, the people of Myanmar and the international community continue to use two different names. For example, most democracy activists and some Western countries, particularly the United States and Great Britain, continue to use the old name.

On the other hand, the Myanmar government and its supporters and sympathisers, and a vast majority of the international community, including the U.N., use the new name.

Those who prefer Burma, argue that it was an undemocratic government that changed the country’s name without the consent or mandate of the people.

They also argue that there is no fundamental difference between the two names, since both still refer to one group of people. To them, the name change should only happen if a democratically elected government decides to do so with majority approval in Parliament. They also argue that the term Burma is easier to pronounce and remember.

However, with the gradual democratic reforms in the country, the new name has become more popular than ever before and the international community has gradually recognised it.

Democracy and name

If the current pattern of democratic transition continues and the international community establishes normal diplomatic relations with the country, it is likely that the new name will eventually be used for all official diplomatic dealings, including by the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

Nevertheless, the old name may not easily be forgotten or abandoned by some in Myanmar society, especially among the older generation and within the expatriate community. Until a democratically elected government officially mandates and recognises the name change permanently, the country’s old name will still linger in Myanmar politics in the foreseeable future.

Since the issue is historical as well as political, the usage of one name over the other still carries political significance although both names basically refer to one particular group of people.

(Nehginpao Kipgen is general secretary of the U.S.-based Kuki International Forum. His research focuses on the politics of South and Southeast Asia, with a concentration on Burma/Myanmar.)

The copy has been corrected for numerical error

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