Burma or Myanmar?

I just returned from a two-week trip to Myanmar, visiting a short-list of the country’s more famous cities such as Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan. I was very impressed with the sights and overwhelmed by the polite and friendly people. I will definitely go back. Even though there are now direct flights to Yangon from many Asian cities, and travel within the country is very safe, Myanmar still doesn’t get many tourists. The reason for this boils down to the controversy surrounding the current government. This regime – an unelected military junta - has been accused of various human rights violations, most notably the detention of Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest.

The name of the country is also another source of controversy: Is it Burma or Myanmar? The origin of the name, like the country’s history, is complex and confusing. Many people mistakenly think that Myanmar is a new name conjured up the military junta that rules the country. That is not the case at all. The name Myanmar dates back to the 12th century, and that is what the natives have always called their country.

For purposes of the English language, the name was changed to the more tongue-friendly “Burma” by the British when they came along in the 1800s and started annexing chunks of the country. Even after Myanmar attained its independence in 1948, the name Burma remained until 1989 when the new rulers finally got around to changing the name back to Myanmar. Many western governments, news media, and “Free Burma” organizations have stubbornly refused to accept the name change and still insist on calling the country Burma. I don’t agree with what the current government has done, but I find it tiresome when people insist on using the old name. Politics aside, the name of the country is now Myanmar. Use it. Even the United Nations recognizes this fact. And what do the people say? During my time in the country, I never heard a single person refer to their country as Burma. It was nothing but Myanmar this and Myanmar that.

If you are interested in knowing more about the history of the name dispute, type: “Myanmar Burma country name” into an Internet search engine and check out some of the results on the first page. That will give you a pretty good overview of how convoluted the name debate can get.

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