What’s in a name? Burma vs Myanmar

Burma or Myanmar? As the military regime has cracked down on pro-democracy protests in the Asian country this week, a war of words has flared again over what to call the troubled nation.

Political exiles, the United States and the BBC prefer the old name, Burma, which stems from British colonial days, while the United Nations, Japan and many other nations have adopted Myanmar as the official name.

The country’s ruling junta made the switch to the Union of Myanmar in 1989, the year after its soldiers massacred about 3 000 activists supporting Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

The regime derived the English name from the traditional Myanma Naingngandaw, symbolically breaking with the era of the British Raj when the colony was called Burmah after the dominant Burmese ethnic group.

They made a host of other geographical name changes, turning what was then the capital, Rangoon, into Yangon — similar to changes made later to Indian city names, such as the switch from Bombay to Mumbai.

But critics say the move lacked legitimacy because it was made by an unelected junta and should be ignored by the world.

Some have even drawn parallels to the change from Cambodia to Kampuchea which was made by the murderous 1975 to 1979 Khmer Rouge regime but reversed after their overthrow by Vietnamese troops.

”A lot of exile groups still use Burma because that was the name of the country before they fled after the 1988 protests,” said David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch (HRW), whose group has stuck with the name Burma.

”The US and many organisations who call it Burma made an official stance saying they’ll stick with the pre-1989 name. The UN, on the other hand, is bound by what the sovereign government says.”

White House spokesperson Tony Fratto this week said Washington’s refusal to use the junta’s term was ”intentional” because ”we choose not to use the language of a totalitarian dictatorial regime that oppresses its people”.

”And we have freedom of speech here, maybe they don’t,” he quipped.

US President George Bush — and First Lady Laura — have stuck with Burma in line with the US State Department, which pointedly notes that the 1989 name change never won approval from the country’s legislators.

”The democratically elected but never convened Parliament of 1990 does not recognise the name change, and the democratic opposition continues to use the name Burma,” the State Department website says.

”Due to consistent support for the democratically elected leaders, the US government likewise uses Burma.”

Mathieson, an expert on Burma/Myanmar affairs for the New York-based group HRW, said the point is perhaps more hotly debated outside the country than by its citizens, many of whom have got used to the change.

”It would be great if the country was free and there could be an open debate about it,” he said. ‒ Sapa-AFP

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