In 1989, the military government of the Union of Burma changed the name of the country to the Union of Myanmar. Myanmar is the spelling of the official name of the country in Burmese script, the full term of which is Myanmar Naingandaw (lit., “the Royal Country of Myanmar”). The military claimed that this was ethnically a more neutral term and would lead to greater harmony among the state’s diverse peoples and “provide a feeling of release from the British colonial past and… give a previously divided and fractious country a sense of national unity under a new banner of ‘The Union of Myanmar.’”The term was applied with rigidity (sometimes spelled as Myanma), and applied to the total history of the country.1 The major ethnic group in the country was termed the “Bamars.” Many of the geographic names used in English were changed to conform to indigenous spelling. For example, Rangoon became Yangon. Some streets and other designations that had been named during the colonial period were also changed.2
Because these changes were imposed by a government that the opposition felt was illegitimate—and there is considerable dispute over the historical uses of either “Burma” or “Myanmar”—the opposition refused to acquiesce to them. Although the United Nations and most countries accepted the changes as the prerogative of a government in power, the United States did not. As this is written, the use of either term is a surrogate indicator of political persuasion, and perhaps Burma/Myanmar is the only state in which this dichotomy of national name is such an indicator.
In this volume, I have tried to use the terms without political implications— a daunting task. Thus both terms are used in the title to this work. In the text, “Myanmar” will generally be used for the period since the military coup of 1988, but “Burma” will be applied to the rest of that country’s history.