Was Juliet, Shakespeare’s ill-fated character, right when declaring, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet"? She probably was. However, in the case of one South East Asian country that has been renamed Myanmar by its rogue regime that grabbed power in 1988 after a brutal crackdown, the name change is still making a commotion both inside and outside the country.
In 1989, the government led by their xenophobic general rechristened the poverty-stricken country Myanmar in their desperate attempt to win the hearts of 135 ethnic groups that make up the country. In a similar fashion, some places got renamed too. The name of the former capital city Rangoon became Yangon. Up against the wall, the beleaguered generals played the patriotism card as a desperate measure, possibly hoping for it to strike the chord of the pre-colonial era, but to no avail. New names have not caught on well even after more than 24 years. There are reasons.
One argument for the name change when used in English is that the name Burma used by the colonial rulers should be replaced with a name indigenous and symbolic of freedom from the legacy of the colonial past. The other argument is that since British colonial administration, there has been deep mistrust toward the majority Burman group by other ethnic nationalities, and thus using Burma does not represent all ethnic people living in the country. The UN and some other countries support the change, and so do some European and ASEAN countries. The EU uses Burma and Myanmar interchangeably.
Rather confusing is that the Burmese edition of the Guardian monthly even stated back in 1971 that ‘Myanma’ (the spoken name of the country) signifies only the Myanmars whereas ‘Bama’ embraces all indigenous nationalities. But the last government decreed in 1989 that the opposite was true. They publicised the name change and their reason in their mouthpiece, the ‘Working People’s Daily’ newspaper in 1989.
The opponents argue that such a name change by the very much unpopular junta without seeking a public approval is unacceptable. The British-conceived name, Burma, had been used by the country’s dictatorial government, for years after its independence in 1947 until 1989. Why the fuss now? They prefer to use the name at least until they have a democratically elected government. Governments that support this stance still call the country Burma. The US and the UK officially stick with the old name.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy icon, often drew ire from the current government for her use of Burma. She ever said she will always use Burma in reference to the country until the Burmese people decide what they want it to be called. Both names are used in the country with Burma being more popular and Myanmar more literary, possibly due to the fact that people are too used to the old name and want to express their disapproval for the noxious regime. She once jokingly said foreigners should continue to use Burma because Myanmar was difficult for them to pronounce it correctly.
When Hillary Clinton visited Burma in 2011, she used “this country”, seemingly to avoid controversy. The American President Obama played it safe when referring to the country in his speech during his brief visit there by using both names.
The general impression is that the use of ‘Burma’ can indicate non-recognition for the military junta, use of ‘Myanmar’ can indicate distaste for the colonial past, and interchangeable use of both can indicate no particular preference. Most international media organizations continue to use Burma because their readers or viewers better recognize that and cities such as Rangoon.
Using ‘Myanmar’ in English could be quite odd when the adjective form of the word is needed. Some English language newspapers and journals use funny-sounding words like “Myanmarese” and “Myanmese” quite weird to a local’s ears. The word is used both as a noun and an adjective in English by local writers. ‘Myanmar’ does not come easy from the tongue that has used ‘Burma’ for a long time. Foreigners mispronounce it. It can take a bit of explaining to help a foreigner, especially a geographically-challenged one, understand.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s objections are not as strong as before. She is often heard using “my country”, “this country of ours” or “our country”, which leads some of her critics to believe she is singing a different tune now. The U.S. government has begun to allow limited use of the name Myanmar as its democratic reforms are well underway as a diplomatic courtesy. ABC, CNN, The New York Times and The Australian have recently adopted Myanmar.
Like it or not, the new name will stick if the current sweeping democratic reforms take root and the next government wins the mandate of the people after the 2015 election.