The end for “Burma”

Burma or Myanmar?

In the transcript of a recent conversation between journalists and two senior United States government officials we get some inkling that the official use of Burma as a name for the country is coming to an end. Here is how the anonymous senior US official puts it:

I think as you know, there are only two countries really who use the term Burma officially in the current context. That is the United States and Great Britain. Many publications, most of our interlocutors in Southeast Asia and elsewhere – we in almost all circumstances use the term Burma in official settings. And occasionally in private meetings, we will refer to the country either by its capital name Nay Pyi Taw, Burma, or Myanmar.

It is the case that in certain meetings that government officials are – in the country are occasionally unhappy with the use of the term, because in their view, our concern has always been Aung San Suu Kyi’s concern, which is not the name itself as much as the process of how the decision was made to change the official name from Burma to Myanmar.

For some of the country, however, it is the concern about the name itself. Remember that Myanmar/Burma is a multiethnic country, and Burmans are a majority group but there are a number of others. The name Myanmar has been used historically, and in fact, Burma is the bastardization; it is what some of the British original settlers thought they heard when the people they interacted first used the term Myanmar. And even members of the NLD and others, when they write their country out in a letter, they use the word “Myanmar.” However, it is the case that we – official practice – and you will have seen it today when Secretary Clinton spoke – is to continue to use the term “Burma.”

After writing about these issues briefly earlier in the year, I was recently interviewed on the topic. I describe myself as a long-time agnostic on the question. More generally, that radio report makes for a handy summary, especially as Myint Cho from the Burma Campaign Australia disagrees with my analysis. I think with the use of “Burma” there will always be holdouts, as there are for “Siam”.

But the momentum behind Myanmar would now seem to be almost unstoppable and with changes in language usage it can be difficult to stand against prevailing trends.

Notwithstanding concerns about the process through which the name was changed back in 1989 I think 2012 and 2013 will be the years when the big switch occurs. At some stage New Mandala is also likely to cross over.

If anybody out there has some wise advice on the most appropriate “trigger” for that change then I am all ears.