Why ‘Burma’ should remain the country’s name

by Cesar Chelala

Myanmar’s electoral commission has told opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to stop calling the country Burma and instead call it Myanmar, its official name.

In a statement published in The New Light of Myanmar, the electoral commission chided Suu Kyi: “As it is prescribed in the constitution that ‘the state shall be known as The Republic of the Union of Myanmar,’ no one has the right to call the country Burma.” Suu Kyi is in her right to do so, and should continue doing so, in light of worldwide condemnation of Myanmar’s military regime.

Disagreement on what to call the country follows Suu Kyi’s high-profile trip to Europe, where she continually called the country Burma. Observers believe that authorities are trying to assert themselves after Suu Kyi, who leads the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, was widely praised during her trip.

While the electoral commission informed the NLD “to address the name of the state as prescribed in the constitution … and respect the constitution,” Nyan Win, an NLD spokesman, responded that calling the country Burma “does not amount to disrespecting the constitution.”

There is a long history behind this disagreement. In 1989, the then ruling military junta decreed that the country should change its name from the “Union of Burma” to the “Union of Myanmar.” The move, apparently, was intended to appease minority non-Burman ethnic groups. Later, the name was modified to the “Republic of the Union of Myanmar.”

However, those opposing the military, including Suu Kyi, ignored the modification and continued to call the country Burma, to the evident irritation of the military.

Derek Tonkin, chairman of Network Myanmar, disagrees with the use of the name Burma: “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi no doubt carries a passport stamped ‘Republic of the Union of Myanmar’ and describing her as a ‘Myanmar’ citizen. If she wants to use ‘Burma’ when she speaks English, and ‘Myanmar’ when she speaks Burmese, that’s fine by me. In the same way, she doesn’t tell others what they ought to call her country in English.

“She did tell me once that ‘Myanmar’ is not easy to pronounce in English, and I do indeed agree with her. I would like it to be ‘Burma’ again one day soon, but the rule of law, to which Daw Suu attaches importance, diplomatic protocol and international practice should not in the meantime be ignored.”

Anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman, an expert on Myanmar’s politics, wrote, “There is a formal term that is Myanmar and the informal, everyday term Burma. Myanmar is the literary form, which is ceremonial and official and reeks of government.” Local opposition groups prefer to use the “old” colloquial name, at least until Myanmar has a legitimate government.

Undaunted by her country’s government criticism, Suu Kyi has continued to use the name Burma during her visit to Britain and Norway. Several Western countries, including Britain and the United States, continue to call the country Burma in unofficial statements of support for the democracy movement in the country.

However, as the daughter of Aung San, considered the father of modern-day Burma and a tireless fighter for democracy and human rights, nobody has greater moral authority than Suu Kyi to call the country by its former name.

Responding to Myanmar government criticism of her using the word Burma, Suu Kyi said she can call her government the way she likes, adding “I used the name freely in keeping with democratic principles.”

She also said in Yangon that Gen. Saw Maung had failed to consult the people when he decided to change the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar in 1991.

There is a strong emotional and moral connotation to the name Burma. It should continue to be called so until effective democracy returns to the country and a mechanism is chosen to make a decision on what to call the country.

If this enrages the military, it will still be a small price they have to pay for the brutality they have unleashed on the country for decades.

Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is a winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award.