Myanmar or Burma

Myanmar or Burma
Left: Modernizing the capital, Right: Preserving colonial relics

The question often arises on whether Myanmar or Burma should be used. The military government, in 1989, after staging a coup d’état, renamed the country “Myanmar”. For over 200 years, however, the English language has used “Burma”. I use Burma on my weblog, as you may have noticed because of several reasons. The military government claims that Burma is backwards and humiliates the countrymen of Myanmar because Burma is a name coined by the colonizers. I use Burma not because the military government dictates otherwise, but because Burma is so much more well-known in English-speaking countries. (This is the reason I am more inclined to use “Rangoon”, “Pegu”, and “Moulmein”.) It is true, though, that the National League for Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi prefer using “Burma”. In daily conversation, if I introduce where my origins are or what language I speak, I never use “Myanmar”. Hence, it is only natural that I use Burma in writing. The name change occurred 18 years ago, a short time considering some name changes take centuries to absorb.

Even in the Burmese language, people use either Bama-pyi or Myanma-pyi. Both have the same meaning, but according to my observations, those of the elder generation or women are most likely to prefer the latter, and those of the younger generation or men are most likely to use the former.

“Myanmar” is a strange way to spell the actual pronunciation. It is highly misleading to English speakers, especially those in America. Most Americans would pronounce it “My-an-mar”, creating three syllables although the name only has two (pronounced “Myan-mah”). Only those from British-influenced countries would understand the purpose of the ending “r”, which is to create the semi-long tone (for vowel sounds, there are three tones) in Burmese.

Even though I have my own personal beliefs, I feel that nobody (the military government or the pro-democracy movement) has the right to dictate whether Burma or Myanmar is to be used in English. This is a personal choice. Those who use “Myanmar” are not necessarily less supportive of political reform in the country, and those who use “Burma” should not be associated with the pro-democratic movement in any case. We should be given freedom of choice for which word to use. If perhaps one day, a parliamentary government votes to change the country’s name, I may not choose to use it, if it is obscure and unknown. Although Burma’s political future remains unknown, we should all hope for “freedom from fear” for ourselves and for others around the world.


4 thoughts on “Myanmar or Burma

  1. Omar says:

    My family and I still use the old name ‘Burma’, but my relatives who still live there refers to the latter, Myanmar. I think this really confuses people I meet since they usually have never heard of either names for the country. We can only hope they don’t change the name again!

  2. António MARTINS-Tuválkin says:

    Isn’t it true that both “Myanma” and “Burma” have the same origin, i.e., that it is essentially the same word, like, say, “Ukraine” and “Ucrania” or “Peking” and “Beijing”, and unlike, say, “Iran” and “Persia” or “Taiwan” and “Formosa”?…

  3. Aung Kyaw says:

    António: I’m not certain, but I believe “Burma” is an English corruption of “Bama”, but “Bama” and “Myanma” are exactly the same–they’re different pronunciations of the same word (although spelled differently, have the same meaning).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s