What’s in a name? In Myanmar – or Burma – it’s political

Suukyi

This post has been corrected. See the note below.

In a divided country racked by ethnic violence and edging toward reform, one of the most stubborn battles may be a war of words: Is it Burma or is it Myanmar?

After democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi toured Europe and Thailand, calling her country “Burma” as she was greeted by adoring crowds and a deluge of press, the national election commission issued a complaint in the state newspaper saying she should respect the constitution, which refers to the nation as “Myanmar.”

Suu Kyi shot back Tuesday that she will keep calling the country what she wants. Her party has argued that it isn’t against the law to call it Burma, the name it favors.

"The right to speak one's mind freely doesn't insult anyone. This is also about democratic principles and policy,” Suu Kyi was quoted as telling reporters by Agence France-Presse. “So I assume that I can use whatever I want to use as I believe in democracy."

The names have political overtones. The country long known as Burma was renamed in 1989 by the ruling military junta, which explained that the name Myanmar would separate the nation from its colonial past and be more ethnically inclusive than “Burma,” which reflects the traditional name of the majority Bamar ethnic group. The junta also renamed cities and streets; Rangoon became Yangon, for example.

Political opponents of the junta rejected the new name, sticking with Burma. “The whole idea of changing the name was to legitimize their rule,” said Jennifer Quigley, advocacy director for the U.S. Campaign for Burma. “For us, using the name is political. Our activity is for promotion of democracy and human rights. So we will not legitimize this regime.”

Opponents also argued the new name was no more ethnically neutral, contending that the local term “Myanmah” actually refers to the same group known as the Bamar, and that the new names for towns replaced ethnic minority names with Bamar ones -- the exact opposite of what the junta claimed it had done.

“The bitter truth is that there is no term in Burmese or in any other language that covers both the bama/myanma and the ethnic minorities since no such entity existed before the arrival of the British,” author Bertil Lintner wrote this year. The two names were used interchangeably throughout history, Burma more colloquially, Myanmar formally, Lintner said.

The question of what to call the country has been sticky for foreign diplomats: The U.S. officially calls it Burma in solidarity with democracy advocates, though Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has tried to sidestep the name when possible, frequently invoking "this country" on a December visit. The United Nations calls it Myanmar. Human rights groups and the news media are split.

The Los Angeles Times uses Myanmar as the official name of the country in its articles, though the newspaper often notes it is also known as Burma.

The argument is one sign of continuing disagreements between Suu Kyi and government leaders as the long-isolated nation embraces some reforms and slowly wins international acceptance. A score of political prisoners were reportedly freed Tuesday, the latest round of reconciliatory steps taken by the government; Suu Kyi said hundreds more still must be liberated.

[For the record, 7:54 am July 5: The original version of this post referred incorrectly to Jennifer Quigley as Jessica.]

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, center, arrives for a news conference at the headquarters of her National League for Democracy party  in Yangon, also known as Rangoon, on Tuesday. Credit: Khin Maung Win / Associated Press

 
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