Burma or Myanmar? Why Joe Biden referred to the country as Burma following military coup

Joe Biden referred to the country as Burma in a statement condemning the military coup
A military Junta took charge of Myanmar on February 1 (Getty Images)A military Junta took charge of Myanmar on February 1 (Getty Images)
A military Junta took charge of Myanmar on February 1 (Getty Images)

Myanmar has dominated news headlines this week after a democratically elected leader was placed under detention by a military junta.

Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested by the south east nation’s military on February 1 while the country has been placed under a one-year state of emergency.

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The military government justified the power grab by alleging voter fraud at the country’s November elections, won by Suu Ky’s National League party which has been in power since 2015.

Her party’s reign from 2015 had been the country’s first experience of a civilian government for half-a-century.

Newly-inaugurated US President Joe Biden was among those who criticised the military coup, but questions were made about his decision to refer to the country as Burma.

The country’s name is a politically charged topic – here’s why.

Why did Joe Biden call the country Burma?

Joe Biden released a statement condemning the military coup.

He stated: "The military’s seizure of power in Burma, the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian officials, and the declaration of a national state of emergency are a direct assault on the country’s transition to democracy and the rule of law,

The 46th US president added: "in a democracy, force should never seek to overrule the will of the people or attempt to erase the outcome of a credible election.

“For almost a decade, the people of Burma have been steadily working to establish elections, civilian governance, and the peaceful transfer of power. That progress should be respected.”

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Critics of the new White House resident were quick to criticise the president for his apparently dated usage, though his use of Burma was intentional.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the president wasn’t intending to be discourteous.

She clarified that the White House’s policy was to use Burma and only to “use Myanmar as a courtesy in certain communications.”

The US State Department provides greater clarity on its website, explaining: "the military government changed the country’s name to ‘Myanmar’ in 1989. The United States government continues to use the name ‘Burma’.”

The US are not alone in their reluctance to use the name, with UK leaders also historically avoiding its usage.

Should the country be referred to as Burma or Myanmar?

A military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989 following the violent suppression of a popular uprising.

Both names have been used in the country for a long time and are in fact closely linked to each other. Myanmar is seen as a more formal use of the term, while Burma is used in every day colloquial conversation.

While the United Nations and countries such as France and Japan recognised the name change, others have been reluctant to adopt the difference in title.

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Human rights organisation Burma Campaign UK explains why some institutions balk at the use of Myanmar.

It writes: “Burma Campaign UK uses Burma as this is what Burma’s democracy movement prefers. They stated that the dictatorship had no legitimacy and so no right to change the name of the country to Myanmar.

“As far as individuals, organisations and media are concerned, Burma Campaign UK takes no position, as we believe it is more important to talk about what should be done about ongoing human rights violations in the country, rather than what it should be called.”