Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

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Burmese – Myanma | Bama

May 25th, 2011 · No Comments · Burmese, Nation

Myanma | Bama

Relates to Burma (bama) and Myanmar

The etymology of Burma and Myanmar is disputed.  The Hobson-Jobson Dictionary traces both words to Mran-mā, with Bam-mā enjoying broader colloquial usage while Mran- became restricted to formal and written language.  Theories variously ascribe the word Mran-mā to a corruption of Bramma (Brahmin) adopted from Buddhist missionaries from India, and to the original name of the Burmese people, as reflected in the Chinese term mien.[1] Confusion among English speakers has led to a variety of pronunciations of Myanmar at great variance from the Burmese – most commonly by breaking the name into three syllables My-ann-mar with the final ‘r’ being sounded, in contrast to the proper pronunciation Myan-ma).[2] This change has also resulted in the awkward rendering ‘Myanmarese’ to designate the country’s nationals.

On 18 June 1989 the military government changed the official English language name of the country from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar.  It similarly prescribed that its citizens and the national language would henceforth be called Myanmar rather than Burmese.  Several months prior the government had commemorated Armed Forces Day by renaming all villages, towns and streets with ‘foreign names’.[3] Henceforth, Fraser Street became Anawrahta (one of Burma’s great kings), Church Road was renamed Eindawya (the name of a famous pagoda), and Mohammed Patail Road was renamed cedana the Buddhist term for ‘charity’).[4] Similarly, the government changed the official English names for Rangoon which became Yangon, and Moulmein for Moulamein in accordance with their spoken form in Burmese.

According to the government, this name change was instituted “to provide a feeling of release from the British colonial past and to give a previously divided and fractious country a sense of national unity under the new banner of The Union of Myanmar”.[5] Myanmar, according to the government’s line of reasoning, is an ethnically neutral term for the country which can be found in written sources as far back as AD 1190, whereas Burma (Bama) originated much later, and is ethnocentric as it is also the name of the majority national race.[6] Others dispute the latter claim arguing that historically the term Bama was ethnically inclusive while Myanma denoted a specific ethnic group.

The academic Gustaf Houtman has argued that this renaming exercise is the most visible manifestation of the military’s ‘Myanmafication’ of the country – ‘a political programme to use impersonal means – culture, language, race and Buddhism – to attain to [sic.] national unity by hegemonizing all diverse peoples in Burma into a singular Myanmar civilization and thereby uproot all opposition for once and all’.[7] Others subversively joke that the military instituted these changes because the generals that rule the country are uneducated and thus cannot speak English.

The renaming of the country’s name in English has generated significant debate not only about the etymology and meaning of the terms Burma and Myanmar, but also about which should be used, and the implications of one’s choice.  The name change has been accepted by the United Nations, while the United States and the United Kingdom continue to use Burma.  Similarly, the Burmese opposition assert the name change is invalid, as the military government is not a legal government and it did not consult the people before making the change.[8]

One commentator on Burmese affairs noted that one’s choice between Burma and Myanmar is a ‘surrogate indicator of political persuasion’.[9] Such politicization has prompted some academics to assert that their choice of names does not imply a political statement (which is of course a political statement).  Others have chosen to hyphenate the country’s name as Burma-Myanmar, or Myanmar-Burma in order to convey their political neutrality; some (perhaps correctly) attribute a hidden message in the order given to the two names.

The naming test is an imperfect one, as the norms behind it are poorly understood by different sectors of Burmese society, and vary depending on whether one is speaking English or Burmese.  In spoken Burmese the country is almost invariably referred to as Myanmar naing ngan (i.e., state), including the Burmese Broadcast Service and exiled opposition, ‘New Era Journal’ which steadfastly refer to the country as Burma when using English.[10] Indeed, the official name of the country in Burmese has long been Myanmar, as reflected in the 1948 constitution.

Burmans variously refer to their ethnicity as Myanmar or Bama, severely complicating the governments claim that Myanmar is a more inclusive term.  Conversely, a non-Burman might refer to a Burman as a Myanmar if he wanted to be polite, whereas Bama might be chosen to convey contempt.

In contemporary writing, practice generally dictates that the word Burman is used to refer to the majority ethnic group, while Burmese or Myanmar is used to refer to all citizens of the country.  However, early practice used the word Burman to refer to the broader collective and Burmese to refer to the ethnic group.  Within Burma some vitriolic opponents of the government regard Myanmar as the proper term for the citizens of the country, while they use Burmese to refer to the majority ethnic group. In short, when speaking in English, no matter what term is chosen to name the country or its people, it is bound to displease someone.



[1] Henry Yule, A. C. Burnell, Hobson-Jobson: a glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological, historical,geographical and discursive. London: Murray, 1903. 1021 pp. New edn by William Crooke. pg 131 Available on line at

[2] “How to Say Myanmar,”

[3] This work was carried out by the “Commission of Enquiry into the True Naming of Myanmar Names”.  Burma. 1991, cited in Gustaaf Houtman, Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa Tokyo University of Foreign Studies Institute, page 44.

[4] “Streets Bearing Foreign Names in Rangoon Changed to Burmese Names,” The Working People’s Daily, 17 March 1989.

[5] Lt Col Hla Min, Political Situation of Myanmar and its Role in the Region, Office of Strategic Studies, 2001, page 11-12.

[6] Harn Yawnghwe, “The Non-Burman Ethnic People of Burma,” Rhododendron, Vol. VII. No.II. March-April 2004.

[7] Houtman, Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics, Page 179.

[8] “Fearless: Interview with Aung San Suu Kyi” Marie Claire Magazine (May 1996, Singapore Edition).

[9] David Steinberg, Burma: The State of Myanmar Georgetown University Press, 2001, pg xi.

[10] However, some Burmese dissidents, such as the Whole Burma United Revolutionary Front (WBURF) insist that the country be referred to as Bama in the Burmese language.  See for example,


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