Burma has been the preferred term in the West for over 400 years, but in 1989 the military masters there, after crushing the rise of democracy, informed us the country should now be called Myanmar in English.
So now some call it Myanmar, some still call it Burma.
Here are the sides:
- Myanmar: the military rulers, UN, New York Times, CNN, AP, Britannica, Times of India, Sify, Al Jazeera. Xinhua, Pravda, Fox News
- Burma: Aung San Suu Kyi, BBC, The Economist, The Times, Guardian, the CIA, Newsweek, Time, New Yorker, Wikipedia, the Oxford dictionary.
In short, the democrats in Burma, the American government and the British call it Burma, while American newspapers and most others call it Myanmar.
Among websites, three quarters use Myanmar and half use Burma, which means that a quarter use both names.
No one I know says Myanmar, at least not with a straight face.
A bit of background about the two names:
In the Burmese language the country has been called Myanma for almost a thousand years. Over time this became Bama in common, everyday speech. Even before 1989 both names were still used: Myanma is the grand old name you would use in a government report, say, while Bama is what you would call it when talking to a friend.
The 1989 decision only affects English, not Burmese.
Some languages have been using their own form of Myanmar for hundreds of years, like Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese. Marco Polo called it “Mien” like the Chinese.
In the West the name for the place came from the Portuguese, who called it Burma, which probably somehow comes from Bama. The oldest map I could find was a Dutch one by Ortelius from 1574, which calls the country Verma.
When Burma became independent in 1948 it kept the name of Burma in English. It was not till 1989 that the name Myanmar came up.
Notice that an r has been added. Why is that? So that it comes out sounding right on the BBC. Most Americans will mess it up and say Myan-marr, but many in Britain will say Myan-maah, which is right. Think of how Captain Jean-Luc Picard, John Cleese or Hugh Grant would say it. That is what the Burmese generals had in mind.
So Myanmar is not some evil invention of evil generals. It is an old and respectable name for the country.
So which is right?
I say Burma. For three reasons:
- I use the Oxford dictionary to settle questions about words. They use Burma. For me this is enough.
- Aung San Suu Kyi uses it in English. She received her education in English and, being a champion of democracy against the generals, her heart is in the right place. I trust her judgement.
- I am afraid that when the generals are overthrown, as they will some day, the name will be changed back to Burma. Everyone who used Myanmar will then look like a boot-kisser.