Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Burmese Tug of Words

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Burmese Tug of Words

Article excerpt

A debate has been going on for decades about whether to call the country Myanmar or Burma. The truth is neither name is good enough.

Once again a government body here has chided Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for calling the country Burma during her trips to Thailand and Europe. Say Myanmar, she was told, as is called for by the 2008 Constitution.

This tug of words has been going on for decades. To some it matters because it symbolizes the differences between the generals who have long ruled the country and those who resist them, but it's also kind of pointless. The truth is neither name is good enough.

Myanmar is a direct pronunciation in English of the country's official Burmese name Myanma -- meaning fast and strong people -- which dates back to the 12th century. During British colonial rule, from 1885 to 1948, the country was known as Burma (from the Burmese Bamar).

During the four decades after independence, a funny situation developed: Though in Burmese the country's name reverted to Myanmar (to mark a break from the colonial period), in English the country was called the Union of Burma and then, after 1974, the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma.

Burma only became Myanmar in English, too, by order of the military rulers in 1989, a year after a crackdown on a democratic uprising. Eager to cast themselves as true nationalists, the generals passed the Adaptation of Expression Law, amending all English names in conformity with Burmese pronunciation. Rangoon became Yangon, and the central coastal town Moulmein, where Rudyard Kipling's poem "Mandalay" begins, became Mawlamyine.

Such shifts aren't unusual: Many states change names, especially at decolonialization or after regime changes -- from Zaire to Congo, Bombay to Mumbai, Southern Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. In this case, though, the shift did come a bit late and so seems under-motivated.

Also, of course, it was politically driven -- a way for the generals to distinguish themselves from not only the British occupiers but also the pro-democracy opposition: Aung San Suu Kyi may be the daughter of an independence leader who helped oust the British from the country but she married a British national. …

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