Is it Burma or Myanmar?

Following on the theme of my previous post on place names and decolonization, the BBC gives the best explanation I’ve seen for the confusion over the two names by which this country is known internationally.

The ruling military junta changed its name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of a popular uprising. Rangoon also became Yangon.

The Adaptation of Expression Law also introduced English language names for other towns, some of which were not ethnically Burmese.

The change was recognised by the United Nations, and by countries such as France and Japan, but not by the United States and the UK.

A statement by the Foreign Office says: “Burma’s democracy movement prefers the form ‘Burma’ because they do not accept the legitimacy of the unelected military regime to change the official name of the country. Internationally, both names are recognised.”

It’s general practice at the BBC to refer to the country as Burma, and the BBC News website says this is because most of its audience is familiar with that name rather than Myanmar.


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


“There’s a formal term which is Myanmar and the informal, everyday term which is Burma. Myanmar is the literary form, which is ceremonial and official and reeks of government. [The name change] is a form of censorship.”

If Burmese people are writing for publication, they use ‘Myanmar’, but speaking they use ‘Burma’, he says.

This reflects the regime’s attempt to impose the notion that literary language is master, Mr Houtman says, but there is definitely a political background to it.

Richard Coates, a linguist at the University of Western England, says adopting the traditional, formal name is an attempt by the junta to break from the colonial past.

I’ve always been slightly puzzled that the democracy movement was in favor of maintaining the country’s colonial name, but considering that the name was changed at the behest of the Junta, one sees how it makes symbolic sense. I look forward to seeing whether the democrats currently protesting can win their battle and topple the Junta (naturally I hope that they do,) and I am interested in seeing whether they restore the official name of Burma, or continue the linguistic decolonization policy that had been started under the Junta, but giving it a popular aegis.

10 thoughts on “Is it Burma or Myanmar?”

  1. I’ve heard about the argument from Burmese refugees in Tokyo that they wouldn’t mind changing to Myammer under the democracy.But since the name change was conducted by junta one sidedly…

    I’m very angry over Tokyo’s response to the killing of protesters.

  2. What has the response from Tokyo been? I heard that last night a Japanese photographer was killed in the protest there, so it might change things a bit.

    It was good that Bush spoke out about the Burma protests promptly, although really they were already under such strict sanctions from the US and EU that I don’t think additional ones would have much effect. OK, so the Junta leaders can’t send their kids to study abroad here anymore- I guess they’re stuck with Singapore and Hong Kong. Boohoo.

  3. The response from Tokyo up to now has been muted, I’d say. I don’t think they can stay silent now. The photographer (from AFP) was killed at around 3pm and his identity was revealed a few hrs ago, so we shall see the reaction tomorrow. I’ll likely be joining protests outside the Burmese embassy this weekend and hope the J govt will stop all aid to the regime and show some freaking backbone. What happened to the Arc of prosperity?

    Myanmar urged to end the violence


    Japan on Thursday called on Myanmar (Burma) to end its bloody crackdown against anti-government protesters, while 200 people rallied in Tokyo demanding an end to the military junta.

    photoActivists in front of the Myanmar Embassy in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward on Thursday protest the military junta’s crackdown on the anti-government movement in Yangon. (REI KISHITSU/ THE ASAHI SHIMBUN)

    “The Foreign Ministry is trying hard to come up with the best way to resolve this,” Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda said, expressing regret over the reported deaths and injuries of citizens and Buddhist monks in Yangon (Rangoon).

    On Thursday night, Hitoshi Kimura, senior vice minister for foreign affairs, summoned Hla Myint, Myanmar’s ambassador to Japan, to the Foreign Ministry. Kimura conveyed Tokyo’s concerns about the recent events and asked that Hla Myint’s government exercise self-restraint.

    About 200 people, including Burmese residents in Japan, staged a protest rally in front of the Myanmar Embassy in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward on Thursday.

    Participants waved banners calling for the Japanese government to impose economic sanctions against Myanmar. They also carried photos of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar.

    “I was afraid to protest the military regime but (what is happening in Myanmar) dispels my fear. I will do what I can so that my country will become a democratic one like Japan,” a 32-year-old protester said.

    According to the Justice Ministry’s Immigration Bureau, about 6,000 people from Myanmar are registered in Japan.

    Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura told reporters that Japan strongly calls on the Myanmar government not to use force.

    The United States and European countries are considering sanctions against Myanmar, but Machimura said whether Japan slaps sanctions against the country is an issue to be debated by Tokyo.

    He had earlier said: “I have wondered from before whether it is appropriate diplomacy (for Japan) to ‘bash’ Myanmar along with the Western nations.”

    The government is calling on Myanmar to open dialogue for reconciliation and democratization.

  5. It’s making headlines all over.
    The video journalist was Nagai Kenji.(from APF,a Japanese media production company.confusing but not Agence France Presse).Shot directly in the heart.

    Machimura was saying the day before yesterday that bashing Myanmar along with the west would only push them more toward Beijing.Not anymore.
    MoFA is now sending Yabunaka Mitoji,the deputy minister to Yangon.(he is actually a bald and wears a wig,but don’t tell this to anyone because it’s supposed to be a diplomatic secret)

  6. Thanks for the info (Mrs. Adamu is particularly thankful). It’s amazing how the coverage was transformed overnight thanks to this guy’s death. Kenichi Hatori, the host morning show Zoom In, was doing his daily newspaper reading routine and was basically like ‘this junta has got to go’. (Unfortunately I didnt see Mino Monta’s reaction) And I picked up the Yomiuri this morning looking for a change, and they pleasantly surprised me:
    1. BIG front page coverage of the dead reporter using the big bold headline style usually reserved for major catastrophe.
    2. The editorial called for escalated J-govt pressure on Burma
    3. Big 3rd page in-depth article detailing whats been going on since 88 and quoting some Burmese activists I know well.
    4. All this coverage pushed back their cheerleading of the new Fukuda cabinet to the 4th page or so.

  7. It’s getting bigger.The shot was not a misfire,but at close range.Someone had captured the very moment on Video.
    MoFA is now demanding Yangon detailed info on exact situation of the shooting of Mr.Nagai.

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