A reader pushes back on my “personal note of thanks [to Obama] for using the words Rangoon and Burma” in his SOTU address:
I also used to make a big deal about using the terms “Rangoon” and “Burma”. That was before I actually had been there. On each visit, I found that everybody in Myanmar says they live in Myanmar and that their capital is Yangon. Foreigners don’t get to decide that for them; they declare it stoutly, even if those changes were made by their despicable military regime. We can all mourn the lost years in Myanmar, but we don’t need to fixate on the linguistics of their own place names. Several people, certainly not military sympathizers in any way, will point out that Myanmar is the country’s original name, that the Brits changed it to Burma to reflect the overweening power of the majority Bamar ethnic group in civic life.
One of the uses of the label Myanmar is to indicate inclusion of all the numerous ethnic groups as equal citizens.
Certainly it can be argued that that inclusion is by and large mere wallpaper, but what is also true is that little by little, many of the ethnic uprisings are quietly ending by treaties and peaceful means. Significant exceptions to that remain, such as the Kachin factions still boiling near Bhamo. (Apparently the old-school military fellows are continuing the battle despite orders from Naypyidaw to knock it off already.)
For what it’s worth, this appears to be the most exciting time to be a citizen of Myanmar in generations. One Burmese academic that a friend of mine interviewed said very eloquently that in the past, people in Myanmar “shuffled around” but now they are striding into the future. Even their gait and demeanor expresses that. Some of our American friends were cycling through Myanmar this winter and happened to be in Yangon when Obama arrived and witnessed thousands of people lining the streets thrilled to their bones at the ending of this long, brutal isolation. It’s beyond remarkable what has happened there in the last two years.
I think it’s fine to call it Burma or Myanmar, and certainly folks there wouldn’t bother to correct you. I just think it’s time to stop being smug about using the term Burma to indicate a political viewpoint that in Myanmar itself is pretty irrelevant.
I wasn’t intending to be smug. I was resisting the re-naming of the country by a fascist junta. And the truth is that Burma and Myanmar are closely related and both exclude the long-brutally oppressed ethnic minorities:
Both these names are derived from the name of the majority Burmese Bamar ethnic group. Myanmar is considered to be the literary form of the name of the group, while Burma is derived from “Bamar”, the colloquial form of the group’s name.
The question of whether we should call foreign countries the same names they call themselves in their own language is a separate one. I’ll agree when my reader is fine visiting München and Москва with me. Till then I’ll call it Burma – which is an anglicized version of what Brits heard when they listened to the locals.