Why We Use Myanmar, Not Burma

Myanmar Water LabelMyanmar (pronounced mee-an-mar) is a hip travel destination this year, topping many publications’ “Must-see in 2013” recommendations. But what is the name of the country you are supposed to be visiting: Myanmar or Burma? There is a lot of confusion over what to call the country. Guidebooks still print Burma in parentheses on their covers. Some news organizations use Burma, while others say Myanmar. The Lady says Burma but the visa in your passport displays Myanmar.

After spending three weeks in the country with two names, talking to locals about what they think and reading information about the debate, we choose to use Myanmar. Our reason lies with the origin of the word and the fact that it is more inclusive of all the nation’s tribes and people.

Burmese is the country’s official language and just one of hundreds of local dialects. It comes from the Bamar, the largest ethnic group in Myanmar. The British chose the name Burma when they ruled the country (ruling years from 1824 to 1948). Having a name that references only one group of the country’s eight major ethnic races (there are more than 100 ethnic groups) is divisive. Yet, the name stuck and remained until 1989 when the current military junta changed the name without seeking citizens’ opinions. Interestingly enough, this is not the first time in history that the name Myanmar, which means “quick strong,” has been used in reference to the country:

“The name first appears in a manuscript from 1102, spelled Mirma. Later manuscripts spell the name Mranma, the current name used in Burmese language. The “mran” is actually pronounced “mian” – so it’s pronounced Myanma. The “r” at the end of Myanmar is an English addition.

Burma is spelled Bama in Burmese languages. The “mr” sound is often condensed to a “b” spelling in colloquial Burmese. So the names Burma and Myanmar actually share the same origin, just variations of translation.”¹

Myanmar Beer LabelStill, we were conflicted. Aung San Suu Kyi (leader of the National League for Democracy) does not use the country’s new name because the junta changed it without the people’s input. We’re not against democracy, and don’t want to be seen as such by saying Myanmar. Conflicted, we went to the people on the street, guesthouses and beer stations and asked for their opinion. We heard warnings not to engage anyone in political conversations, and although this is a loaded question (some tribes have been suffering through a current genocide due to their desire to be autonomous), we asked it in a way that anyone could answer without making it political. “I am from the United States, but I say I am an American. Where are you from and what do you call yourself?” An overwhelming number of responses went something like this: “I am from Myanmar and I am [insert ethic tribe here, like Shan or Mon].” A distant second place answer was, “I am from Myanmar and I am Myanmar.” Apparently, there is no word in English to describe a person from Myanmar. No one we talked to said, “I am from Burma and I am Burmese (or Chin or Kachin).” The only time the word Burmese was used was when describing pythons or the language they write and primarily speak with.

Even if you disagree with us, look at the alternative. The name Burma was forced upon the country by its colonial rulers. Also not ideal. The British even changed the names of cities because they could not pronounce them correctly. Yangon became Rangoon, Bagan became Pagan, Mawlamyine became Moulmein, etc. Now, the country is reclaiming the old names, much like India (Calcutta is now Kolkata, Cochin is now Kochi, etc.). While Myanmar’s military government may have made this decision for the people, at least it’s 1) more inclusive of every ethnic group and 2) a name that was once used to refer to the country. That, in addition to the opinions of the people we spoke with, is why we say Myanmar.


17 responses to “Why We Use Myanmar, Not Burma

  1. Thanks for sharing your story!I’m looking forward to more posts about this ‘hotspot’ country. The name is definitely confusing. I had always called the country Burma until I met a monk who told me he was from Myanmar.

    • Super confusing! We weren’t even pronouncing it right until we met someone from there. We’re going to post a lot about the country since there isn’t too much recent info available.

      • hello tara,
        i am currently travelling in burma with my family and i also realised that people here have big respect and fear of the authorities. monks are not that free as they might seem to you and a monk being politically correct doesnt suprise me in the slightest! they dont know you and why should they trust you and give tell you their real opinion when you might in fact be some foreign journalist or s.o who might forward that info to the authorities. no one here wants any problem with anything. barely s.o. will argue with you hard,be it negotiating or being right. myself i am kurdish,raised in turkey and germany. til we were teenagers we werent allowed to tell anyone that we were kurdish as one could be injailed just for being,speaking,turkish. i see that in the face of the people here to whom i talk. to avoid problems at all times you just call your country whatever the official name is. and burmese people will mostly try to avoid any kind of trouble.
        happy travels,

      • having said that the people here are utterly beautiful.kind,sweet,generous and lovely-i would recommend to travel to this beautiful country before starbucks and ikea come in…..

        • Thanks for the comment. We really do recommend people visit the country sooner versus later. In another year, some of the major cities will be changed completely as they become more developed.

  2. Very cool, thanks! We’re keen to go there and are interested in any advice you have. Safety, where to do, how’s online connection, etc…

    • It’s such a great country to travel in. Can’t recommend it more highly. We are currently working on posts that will hopefully answer all your questions and more. But feel free to email us any specific questions!

  3. I spent my time travelling there wondering the same thing, listening to the older generation call it one thing, and not many people proudly saying the other. I decided that I like the stance by Aung San Suu Kyi, that she will call it Burma until the people get a proper chance to decide what they want their country to be chosen.

    • We found age not really a factor when it came to what people would call the country. Even in the case of a younger (20-something year-old) man we spoke to, who was a pretty outspoken critic of the current government, he called it Myanmar. It is a tough issue, but we understand and respect both sides of the debate.

  4. Adding my 2 cents: “Myanmar” is definitely not more inclusive. It is taken from the Myanmar (or Burmese, Bama, Burman) language and thus clearly prefers the Bama by using their language and confirming the dominance of the Bama ethnic. In this respect, both names are equally insufficient.
    Regarding the ethical aspects, it is just the same: “Burma” is linked to colonialism, “Myanmar” to a military junta (that has chosen that name just after the crackdown on the “8888” protests, killing several thousands). If you talk about an “original” name of the country, you already accept a situation that was established only by the colonial powers. Historically, the ethnic groups often had their own “countries” (or kingdoms etc.), and the integration into Burma or Myanmar has always been very problematic and is still a frequent cause for violent conflicts.
    Therefore, both names are equally discriminatory and linked to undemocratic histories.
    People in Myanmar (or Burma) usually use “Myanmar” because this is stylistically better than “Burma”, which they prefer because they particularly respect you as a foreigner. Most people there don’t know very well the controversy around the English translation, and “Myanmar” probably sounds more modern to them too.
    I think that more important than the name is how people there – particularly minorities, including the Rohingyas – are actually treated by their government and other ethnic groups. I usually pick one or the other term according to the context.

    • As we addressed in this post, there are unfortunately only two choices when it comes to the country’s name, both of which have unsavory implications. Since those who have taken issue with Myanmar have not offered another, more inclusive option, we have chosen to use Myanmar when referring to the country. This choice was also born out of other (mainly) foreign authors’ decision to mix and match colonial and Junta names in the same article (saying Rangoon, Myanmar or Bago, Burma). We respect others decision to choose one or the other, but choosing which name sounds stylistically better is a decision based in ignorance and confusing to readers. Thanks.

  5. I totally understand your reasoning and it is a logical argument, especially since Burma, like Rangoon, is another colonial name. But it is still confusing as everyone I work with from there still calls it Burma. (Maybe after the fashion of Aung San Suu Kyi?) To each their own regarding the name, but it does seem akin to referring to Thailand as Siam, doesn’t it? Anyway, your points are well taken. I just forwarded along a few of your links to my partner and our friend we will be traveling with. Thanks so much again for such thorough posts!

  6. Just wanted to say thank you for a very useful blog. I am planning a big trip around the world, culminating in Myanmar and have found your blog so very useful. Happy travels!

  7. Pingback: Mjanma, Myanmar, Birma, Burma … | Kuleczki on the move

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