Editor’s Note – The Financial Times in London recently changed its policy of using Burma to using Myanmar when referring to the country. Burma expert Bertil Lintner, the author of numerous books on Burma, wrote to the newspaper, saying the words are synonymous, but other changes involving the names of ethnic towns have more sinister implications. His letter to the newspaper was published on Wednesday, January 11, 2012.

The following is an expanded version of the letter and goes into more details about the importance of names in identifying a country or city:

Dear Sirs,

You claim that you have adopted the name “Myanmar” for Burma “on the grounds of neutrality” and because it “smacks less of domination by a majority ethnic group.” (January 5, 2012). This is linguistically and historically incorrect. It is correct that today’s Burmese rulers claim that Burma, or bama, is a colonial name while Myanmar is more indigenous and encompasses all the many nationalities of the country. But it was not the British who “named Myanmar Burma.” The once British colony has always been called Burma in English and bama or myanma in Burmese. The best explanation of the difference between the two names is found in the old Hobson-Jobson Dictionary of “Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases,” which despite its rather unorthodox name remains a very useful source of information:

“The name (Burma) is taken from Mran-ma, the national name of the Burmese people, which they themselves generally pronounce Bam-ma, unless speaking formally and empathically.” (Col. Henry Yule and A.C. Burnell, New Edition Edited by William Crooke, Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical Discursive. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1979, originally published in 1903, p. 131.) Both names have been used interchangeably throughout history, with Burma being the more colloquial name and Myanmar a more formal designation.

If Burma meant only the central plains and Myanmar the Burmans and all the other nationalities, how could there be, according the Myanmar Language Commission, a “Myanmar language”? Its official Myanmar-English Dictionary also mentions a “Myanmar alphabet.” Clearly, Burma and Myanmar, and Burmese and Myanmar, mean exactly the same thing, and it cannot be argued that the term “Myanmar” includes any more people within the present union than the name “Burma” does.

But the confusion is an old one and when the Burmese independence movement was established in the 1930s, there was a debate among the young nationalists as to what name should be used for the country: bama or myanma. The nationalists decided to call their movement the Dohbama Asiayone instead of the Dohmyanma Asiayone. The reason, they said, was that:

“Since the dohbama was set up, the nationalists always paid attention to the unity of all the nationalities of the country…and the thakins (Burmese nationalists) noted that myanma meant only the part of the country where the myanma people lived. This was the name given by the Burmese kings to their country. Bama naing-ngan is not the country where only the myanma people live. Many different nationalities live in this country, such as the Kachins, Karens, Kayahs, Chins, P-Os, Palaungs, Mons, Myanmars, Rakhines and Shans. Therefore, the nationalists did not use the term myanma naing-ngan but bama naing-ngan. That would be the correct term…all nationalities who live in bama naing-ngan are called bama.” (A Brief History of the Dohbama Asiayone (in Burmese). Rangoon: Sarpay Beikman, 1976, p. 215)

Thus, the movement became the Dohbama Asiayone and not the Dohmyanma Asiayone .The Burmese edition of The Guardian monthly, another official publication, also concluded in February 1971: “The word myanma signifies only the myanmars whereas bama embraces all indigenous nationalities.”

In May 1989, however, the present government decided that the opposite was true and changed the name in English to Myanmar — although it had been myanma naing-ngan, “the State of Burma,” in formal Burmese since independence in 1948. The bitter truth is that there is no term in Burmese or in any other language that covers both the bama/myanma and the ethnic minorities since no such entity existed before the arrival of the British. Burma with its present boundaries is a colonial creation, and successive governments of independent Burma have inherited a chaotic entity which is still struggling to find a common identity. But “changing” the name of the country to what it has always been called in formal Burmese is unlikely to make any difference. Burma has been in a state of revolt since independence in 1948, with no lasting solution to its ethnic and political problems in sight.

Rangoon or Yangon is another reflection of the same kind of misunderstanding. Rangoon begins with the consonant “ra gaut”, or “r”, not “ya palait” or “y”. In English texts, Rangoon is therefore an etymologically more correct spelling. The problem is that the old r-sound has died out in most modern Burmese dialects and softened to a “y” — but not in Arakanese and Tavoyan, which both have a very distinct r-sound. Further, there is another dimension to the recent “name changes” in Burma. It was not only the names of the country and the capital which were “changed”; in the minority areas new names were also introduced as well, and here it was a real change. A few examples from Shan State: Hsipaw became Thibaw, Hsenwi became Theinli or Thinli, Kengtung became Kyaingtong, Mong Hsu became Maing Shu, Lai-Hka became Laycha, Pangtara became Pindaya and so on.

The problem here is that the original names all have a meaning in the Shan language; the “new” names are just Burmanised versions of the same names, with no meaning in any language. This undermines the argument that the changes were done in order to make them “more indigenous” and not only reflecting the majority Burmans. This has prompted Gustaaf Houtman, a Dutch Burma scholar, to coin the term “Myanmafication” to refer to the top-down programme of replacing “unity in diversity” — which had been Aung San’s vision of an independent Burma — with a more ethnically streamlined nation state. (Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics: Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. Tokyo: Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 1999, pp. 15ff.) Others would claim it is just a concerted drive to Burmanise the whole country and wipe out the separate identities of the ethnic minorities.

Bertil Lintner
Chiang Mai, Thailand

Bertil Lintner is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic Review
and author of the forthcoming “Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle
for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier.”