Burma or Myanmar: Why is the country known by two different names?

Burma or Myanmar: why does this Southeast Asian country have two names? And which name should you use when referring to it?

The country has recently hit the headlines again after alarming reports of executing democracy activists and the 2021 coup.

Historically, it has suffered civil wars, poor governance and military control, and mass poverty.

This political phenomena culminated to the point of the military dictatorship ruling in 1989 which saw ‘Myanmar’ become the official name.

Myanmar (Burma) is the largest country in Mainland Southeast Asia, and has a population of roughly 54 million. The 2021 military coup in Myanmar saw the country launched into the international stage once again.

However, a definitive answer for what name you should call the country eludes many.

What led to this rare case of dual identity? And what name should we use for the Southeast Asian country?

Why does one country have two names?

The country was named Burma for centuries due to its dominant ethnic group; Burman.

Protesters gathered outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, central London, demonstrating against the February 1 coup in Myanmar which ousted Aung San Suu Kyi's elected government. Picture date: Wednesday March 31, 2021.

However, in 1989, after a brutal suppression of a pro-democracy uprising via the country’s military dictatorship (which saw thousands executed), leaders changed its name to Myanmar.

At this time, the country was considered an outcast in the international community and desperately wanted to improve its image.

Officials discarded ‘Burma’ as the official name as it was said to reflect the country’s colonial past under Britain while also excluding the country’s other 134 ethnic groups.

What name should we use, Burma or Myanmar?

Curiously, the name change itself meant very little in the Burmese language. “Burma” is simply the more colloquial version of “Myanmar.”

The Burmese often verbally refer to their country as “Burma” while still using “Myanmar” in official documents.

Therefore, the name change was most obvious in the English-speaking world.

Mark Farmaner is the director of Burma Campaign UK and has been involved in Burmese human rights since 1998, he said: “Myanmar is a kind of indicator of countries that are soft on the regime.”

However, using ‘Burma’ instead could be seen as “they just challenge the legitimacy of the regime.”

Since ‘Burma’ is associated as the country’s name under British colonial rule, while ‘Myanmar’ is associated with the brutal military dictatorship, the name choice is politically sensitive either way.

Therefore, when deciding what to call the nation bordered by China, India, Thailand, and Laos, it's understood you can often use the two names interchangeably as many do.

Who recognised the name change to Myanmar?

When the military government changed the country’s name from ‘Burma’ to ‘Myanmar’ in 1989, much of the international community recognised the name change.

However, the United States and the United Kingdom, among a group of countries, continued to use the name ‘Burma’.

The general argument for this is that the name change was made without the consent of the country’s people and therefore it was illegitimate.

Official documents issued by Biden’s administration refer to the country as Burma.

During a press conference, Jen Psaki, the White House’s former spokesperson under President Biden, said: “Our official policy is that we say ‘Burma’ but use ‘Myanmar’ as a courtesy in certain communications.”