Burma or Myanmar?

My cursory and inaccurate preliminary research suggested that Myanmar is simply the Burmese-language name for the English-language country of Burma. I don’t call other countries by their native language names like ‘Deutschland’ or ‘Italia’ therefore, so my logic went, I may as well call it Burma, which is easier to say anyway. But of course it’s much more complicated than that.

The military government changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989 and this remains it’s official name, despite being unrecognised by many countries including the UK. Aung San Suu Kyi and other opponents of the government also do not accept this name, as they do not consider the military government to have the democratic authority to make this change. The majority of citizens however have accepted the name change and choose to use ‘Myanmar’.

But. One massive drawback, for me at least, is that there is no adjectival form for Myanmar (i.e. there’s no ‘Myanmarian’ as an equivalent to ‘Burmese’). I don’t think of myself as a grammatical pedant but I still can’t bring myself to use phrases like ‘Myanmar language ‘ or ‘Myanmar food’ because it just sounds wrong.

On the other hand, there’s the problem of what ‘Burmese’ is actually referring to; it comes from the ‘Bamar’ ethno-tribal group which makes up around 70% of the population, distinct from the Shan people for instance who live mostly in the north-east of the country. There are dozens of non-Burmese tribal groups living in the country, some of whom have there own states, like the Shan state which contains my destinations of Kalaw and Inlé Lake, so if you talk about Burmese culture or food you are doing so in contrast to and exclusion of any other group in the country. Similarly, these groups also have their own languages which are totally different to the country’s official language, Burmese. Myanmar is derived from the same majority ethnic group, but is considered more inclusive of other ethnic groups.

Traditional fabrics from the Kayan tribe, and a Kayan woman with neck rings


So obviously it’s a bit more complicated than just two words than mean the same thing. With this in mind, I try (and often fail) to use ‘Myanmar’ when talking about the country itself, the general history and geography and borders, using ‘of Myanmar’ as the adjectival compliment if possible, but sometimes saying ‘Burmese’ if I have to use an adjective. But, I use Burma or Burmese in terms of the language, food and anything else that is specific to the Burmese people, as opposed to any other tribal group.

But usually my brain is lazy and the first word it reaches for in any situation is usually ‘Burma’.


One thought on “Burma or Myanmar?”

  1. An interesting read. I guess it’s no different to the confusion non-Brits have over England/GB/UK or English/British. Calling the Shan people “Burmese” must be like calling a Scot “English”, it doesn’t usually go down well!


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