What's in a name?

18 March 2013

Since 1989, Burma has been officially referred to as Myanmar, after its military rulers changed the country’s name.

But, with the sweeping changes currently taking place across the nation, an expert from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific says that the Burma versus Myanmar name debate may soon fall silent.

Dr Nicholas Farrelly from the College’s School of International, Political and Strategic Studies said that the world is increasingly likely to refer to the Southeast Asian state as Myanmar.

“Everyone who deals with the country hemmed in between Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand gets used to the politics surrounding the country’s names,” said Farrelly.

“On New Mandala, the blog I co-edit, I tend to call the place Burma. However, in my academic writing I have, for many years now, usually introduced the government of Myanmar and the people and country of Burma.

“My justification is that the parts of the country I tend to describe in detail see significant and ongoing contestation about issues like sovereignty and territorial control.”

Farrelly conceded that he is not the only person to struggle with the name debate, with a lot of experts running with Burma/Myanmar as a compromise. He said others has long ago accepted Myanmar as the universal option.

“For example, I recall once giving a radio interview to a journalist in Singapore who, after a couple of minutes, cut me off and said, ‘I’m very sorry, sir, but we can’t call the country that. It must be Myanmar’. We had to start the interview over.  

“Overall though, I describe myself as a long-time agnostic on the question. I think with the use of ‘Burma’ there will always be holdouts, as there are for ‘Siam’.”
Farrelly added that with the sweeping political and social changes currently taking place in the country, as well as its opening up to the rest of the world the name debate may be a moot point by the end of the year.

“Notwithstanding concerns about the process through which the name was changed back in 1989 I think 2013 will be the year when the big switch occurs. At some stage New Mandala is also likely to cross over in a more comprehensive fashion.”

The ANU College of Asia and the Pacific hosted the 2013 Myanmar/Burma Update from 15 to 16 March. Visit our website for more news, analysis, comment and insight on Myanmar and its remarkable social and political transformation. New Mandala is available here.


Updated:  24 April, 2017/Responsible Officer:  Dean, ANU College of Asia & the Pacific/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team