Burma by any Other Name

by Translation Guy on November 23, 2012

Does Burma by any other name smell as sweet?

Barack Obama is the first US president to ever visit Burma, I mean Myanmar. The first to  Myanmar, I mwan. Myanmar is the official name for Burma, according to the Government of Burma. The US Government’s official name for Burma is  “Burma.” And that is a big problem.

Up until 23 years ago, everyone had been okay with Burma being called “Burma.” But the Burma was renamed “Myanmar” at the behest of the brutal military dictatorship then in power The rulers claimed it was a return to native usage, although critics claim astrology and corruption was behind it all. The name change was opposed by democracy advocates who stuck with the original “Burma.” The US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand continue to use “Burma” as well. Mostly.

But this name-game is a political hot potato for the Obama Administration. They are determined to keep it airborne at least for the duration of the Air Force 1 flight to and from Rangoon. (Sorry, make that “Yangon.”)

Because now that the same secretive military junta behind the nationalistic name change has opened its arms to democracy, at least a little bit, and the US government wants to encourage them with some extra special presidential treatment.

But Burmese officials remain prickly. “You might think this is a small matter, but the use of ‘Myanmar’ is a matter of national integrity,” Burma’s Foreign Minister Muang Lwin told visiting US envoy Joseph Yuen in May 2011, “Using the correct name of the country shows inequality and mutual respect.”

Even opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says that the correct name is a matter of individual choice.

Australia and  the EU, use “Myanmar,” the US and Britain use “Burma,” Amnesty International says “Myanmar,” Human Rights Watch says “Burma.” New York’s Times says, “Myanmar,” the BBC says “Burma.”

Visiting American officials have done their diplomatic best to avoid the issue. Last December, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became the highest-ranking US visitor to Burma in 56 years, (up until today) she mostly referred to the nation as “this country” during her visit to that country. She did the same last September, when she announced the easing of sanctions for Burma, I mean Myanmar.

Most Burmese are not concerned with this epic struggle for the soul of Burma in English. This because nothing changed in Burmese. It’s still “bama pyi” or “country of Burma.” .

Such English name changes are a fact of English-language life in our post-colonial age. The desire for independent states to reject colonial labels is common. But the question of “Burma” vs. “Myanmar” still hangs in the balance.

Even after this presidential visit. On this trip, President Obama referred to Burma as “Myanmar,”  after a bilateral meeting with Thein Sein, the president of “that country.”

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes defended the president in comments to the press, saying that the US government position is still to refer to the country as Burma. He said it was a “diplomatic courtesy” to refer to “Myanmar” in his meeting with Thein Sein.

“The US government position is still Burma, but as we have said, different people call this country by different names.”

Diplomacy is often the art of getting lost in translation. But here aren’t too many national naming differences around. Farsi and Persian is one that comes to mind. Any others?

More by Matthew Pennington of AP on Burma vs. Myanmar here.


  1. Debbie Clay says:

    I’m still confused…

    • Ken says:

      So are we all.

  2. Karen says:

    This is much like the renaming of Bombay to Mumbai or Kolkata/Calcutta in the wake of decolonization in India.

  3. Louise says:

    I imagine if President Obama went with Myanmar in public, that eventually the US government will end up switching its official position to reflect that.

  4. Doesn’t the national anthem there still use the native term for Burma in it? I think I read that somewhere or saw it on tv.

  5. Lorelei says:

    Why would they change the name in English if it did not change how people refer to the country in Burmese?

  6. Benes Barov says:

    I wa under the impression that Burma was the politically correct term, but now after reading this, I gather it’s purely a matter of choice? That seems a little ridiculous.

  7. so the Burmese prefer Myanmar? Or the government does t least, since the Burmese language seems to label it Burma.

    • Ken says:

      Country name preference among Burmese depends mostly on who is signing the pay check. Which I guess is true about most things, if you think about it.

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