The total damage of Wednesday’s devastating earthquake in Myanmar may not be known for some time, but the international attention on Burma now may invite at least one question for readers: Why are there two names?
There really isn’t one clear answer to the question. We’ve compiled the basics for you to understand why there are two names and why they’re important.
“Burma” Is A Protest Name
That is, it has political implications within the country. Myanmar is the name favored by the country’s repressive government, which is largely controlled by the military. When the military declared martial law in 1989, they insisted the international community refer to them by the name instead of Burma.
Not every international organization has agreed to do so. Notably, the United States and United Kingdom have refused to use the name as a sign of support for the pro-democracy movement (that has been repressed and kept from power by force) in the country. The U.S. has used the name Burma in all speeches and publications since the decisive 1990 victory of Aung San Suu Kyi in the country’s general election. Suu Kyi, after that election, was forced into house arrest for two decades.
There Are Also Ethnic Roots
Some (even pro-democracy activists) say that Myanmar is a better name because it is more inclusive of all the country’s diverse ethnic groups. The country’s ethnic majority are known as Burmans but there are hundreds of other minority groups there. Myanmar isn’t as excluding as Burma could be in those cases.
Burma Has An Historic Connection To Colonialism
Burma wasn’t a name chosen by the people of the country. British rulers chose the name in the 19th century. Some there have a problem with the name because it reminds them of that history. Others have a similarly rooted problem with Myanmar because it just brings up overtones of the current regime.
Politics Aside, Linguistic Differences Aren’t Black And White
In the Burmese language, “Myanma” is the written version of the language while “Bama” is the colloquial, spoken name for the language. It is thought that Bama came from Myanma as the “m” sound slowly eroded into a “b” sound.