Why does this Southeast Asian nation, which has zoomed back into international focus following a military coup on 1 February 2021, have two names?

The answer is a complicated one in which history, politics and the quirks of transliterating a word from one language to another all play a role. It’s not uncommon for countries to change their names. Thailand was once known as Siam, Sri Lanka, Ceylon and Zimbabwe, Rhodesia. But what to make of Myanmar which is also called Burma? 

During British colonial rule in the 19th and early 20th century, atlases and globes labelled the country Burma. This derived from the Burmese word ‘Bama’ – how locals colloquially referred to their country. But, like many languages, there is also a formal mode of speaking and writing Burmese. In that register, the country is known as ‘Myanma’, which is transliterated to Myanmar – the ‘r’ added to phonetically lengthen the preceding ‘a’ vowel.

People cross U-Bein bridge in  Myanmar, Mandalay.
U-Bein bridge in Mandalay,  Myanmar © Khanh Nguyen/500px

In 1948, when the country gained independence from Britain, it officially became known as the Union of Burma. However, the sad truth is that Burma is anything but a united nation. The country has suffered the world’s longest-running civil war, stretching over 70 years. This instability is one justification the military has used for the extended periods it has forcibly taken charge of running the country over democratically elected governments.

Why was the name changed from Burma? 

In 1989, a year after brutally suppressing a pro-democracy uprising, the military junta rebranded the country as the Union of Myanmar. The reasoning given for the name change was that Myanmar was more inclusive of the nation's diverse ethnic population. At the same time colonial-era place names were also purged - so Rangoon was renamed Yangon, Pagan became Bagan and so on.

Abandoned Buddhist temples in Bagan, Mandalay region of Myanmar © Alexander Jikharev/500px

The country’s name change became a political flashpoint. While the United Nations and bodies such as Amnesty International accepted Myanmar, the main opposition group the National League of Democracy (NLD) did not. "I prefer Burma because the name was changed without any reference to the people," Aung San Suu Kyi , the NLD’s leader, told Lonely Planet when interviewed for the 11th edition of the Myanmar (Burma) guide published in 2011.

The USA, in solidarity with the opposition groups, continued - and still continues - to officially refer to the country as Burma.

What term does Lonely Planet use? 

Post the 2015 election, the strength of feeling democracy supporters had on using Burma instead of Myanmar, began to diminish. Aung San Suu Kyi, addressing some of the nation's diplomats in her role as foreign minister in April 2016, said they could call the country either Burma or Myanmar. Although accustomed to calling it Burma herself, she vowed to sometimes use Myanmar – all in the spirit of diplomacy!

Lonely Planet uses Myanmar as the default name for the country, with Burma used for periods before 1989 and when it's the name of an organization, eg Burma Campaign UK. 'Burmese' is used for the Bamar people (not for all of the country's population, which we term 'the people of Myanmar'), the food and the language.

Simon Richmond is a writer and curator of Lonely Planet’s Myanmar (Burma) guidebook and has traveled extensively in the country since 2002.

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