What’s In A Name? Myanmar (Not Burma)


You might be familiar with 1953 Four Lads song which chides, “If you’ve got a date in Constantinople / She’ll be waiting in Istanbul,” humorously gesturing toward the fact that Istanbul’s former names – Constantinople or even Byzantium – are utterly dated. For other places in the world, though, the misuse of names is not always laughable, and can extend itself as far as to foster severe political tension. Myanmar, the small Southeast Asia country with which the U.S. formally reduced sanctions last summer, is one such example.

Myanma, the name of the country out of the mouth of its residents since the 12th century, was adopted into the English language as Myanmar. During British occupation in the country, though, the name was temporarily switched to Burma, a name that the United States held on to even after the country itself returned to Myanma, verbalizing the country’s separation from British colonial rule.

It was a 1989 military ruling that returned Myanmar to English vocabulary, as generals with an eye for becoming true nationalists passed the Adaptation of Expression Law, declaring that English names must match their Myanmar origin. Opponents of this military rule, including the U.S., continued to say Burma in an effort to deny the legitimatization of the country’s rule, a stance refashioned only in the past year as a result of United States’ improved relations with the country.

Lastly, the name Burma stands to represent the Bamar ethnic majority, while Myanmar includes all eight of the country’s major ethnic groups. Just as the song suggests that making a date in Constantinople is a humorous misnomer, so too is making a date in Burma, because the girl might just be waiting in Myanmar.

By Samantha Harper, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh Intern