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.