The country was named Burma for centuries due to its dominant ethnic group; Burman. However, in 1989, after a suppression of a pro-democracy uprising via the country’s military dictatorship, its 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.
Curiously, the name change itself meant very little in the Burmese language. “Burma” is simply the more colloquial version of “Myanmar.”
Background on the name change
The name change from Burma to Myanmar was made by the military government that took control of the country in 1988. The government argued that the name Myanmar was a more inclusive name that reflected the country's diverse ethnic groups, whereas the name Burma was seen as a legacy of colonialism.
The name Burma had been used by the British colonial government, which ruled the country until its independence in 1948. However, the name Myanmar was also used by the colonial government, particularly in reference to the majority ethnic group, the Bamar.
The controversy over the name change
The name change from Burma to Myanmar has been controversial and divisive. Critics of the military government argue that the name change was made without consultation with the people of Burma/Myanmar and was part of the government's broader efforts to consolidate power and suppress dissent.
Some opposition groups and human rights organizations continue to use the name Burma, arguing that it is the name preferred by pro-democracy activists and is a reminder of the country's history of resistance against authoritarian rule.
Others argue that the name Myanmar is more inclusive and reflects the country's diversity of ethnic groups. The name change has been recognized by most countries and international organizations, including the United Nations, although some continue to use the name Burma.
The name change from Burma to Myanmar has been a contentious issue, reflecting broader debates over the country's history and identity. While the government argued that the name change was meant to be more inclusive, critics see it as a symbol of authoritarianism and a rejection of the country's history of resistance. Ultimately, the ongoing debates over the name reflect the complex and contested nature of the country's political and cultural identity.
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Steinberg, D. I. (2010). Burma/Myanmar: What's in a Name?. Journal of Democracy, 21(3), 143-157.
Thant, M. (2003). Myanmar or Burma? The Struggle for National Identity. Southeast Asian Affairs, 221-236.
United Nations (2021). United Nations Member States. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/en/member-states/ on 22 March 2023.