Myanmar or Burma? What’s in a name?

The US continues to call the country Burma, even while the Associated Press uses the name Myanmar. Why the hesitance? One theory is that the name change from Burma was a change of the nameplate so-to-speak; a linguistic sleight of hand since internally it means the same thing. The other is that it’s inconvenient to acknowledge the name that was changed by a group that isn’t playing by the rules.

Take this bland statement by the US Department of State:

The United States supports a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Burma that respects the human rights of all its people. Burma remains a country in transition to democracy….”

From the US Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet. JANUARY 21, 2020

The UN, on the other hand calls a spade a spade:

Hundreds of civilians, including at least 44 children, have been killed in the crackdown across Myanmar since the military coup on 1 February.

On the other hand the US secretary of State said this:

“The Burmese military regime has ignored the will of the people of Burma to restore the country’s path toward democracy and has continued to commit lethal attacks against protesters in addition to random attacks on bystanders.”

OK, so extra points for using ‘lethal attacks,’ and ‘will of the people’ when referring to the country by its previous name.

What’s in a name? We don’t refer to “New Holland” when we talk of Australia, or even Bombay these days because Mumbai is the more accurate. Imagine if the United Kingdom refused use the word Mumbai, because the Shiv Sena party, in 1995 changed the name as a thumb in the eye to colonialism.

The US policy on Myanmar is so convoluted that it is no wonder the rest of the world thinks our geography sucks. And this is not new. Hillary Clinton, as secretary of State practically refused to say ‘Burma’ calling the country by other dodgy nouns. Here’s the latest doublespeak from the new White House as quoted on VOA:

“Our official policy is that we say ‘Burma’ but use ‘Myanmar’ as a courtesy in certain communications,” Jen Psaki, the White House spokesperson, said when asked to address the issue during a press conference this week.”

Meaning they apparently like to be courteous, and politically correct while being out of step with reality. So she goes on:

“So, for example, the embassy website refers to Burma — Myanmar because they are by definition dealing with officials and the public. The State Department website uses ‘Burma (Myanmar)’ in some places and ‘Burma’ in others.”

Oh, I get it. Using curly brackets and an m-dash really clarifies matters.

Photo: Nazly Ahmed

While you’re doing that Ms. Psaki, why not rename Sri Lanka as “Ceylon-Sri Lanka” on your official site (this will make the CEYLON Tourist Board thrilled; the CEYLON Tea exporters might do a high-five outside your embassy in Colombo.) You could even call the country “Sri Lanka (Ceylon)-(Serendib)” in other places because it makes the hoi polloi feel like you know your history.

You’re welcome!