Burma or Myanmar: What’s in a name?

Tachileik, Myanmar- border crossing

Going “inside”…the border crossing bridge between Tachileik, Myanmar and Mai Sai, Thailand.

Living within one hour’s walk from the Thai border, my students (Karenni refugees from Burma) refer to their homeland simply as “inside.”  The word conjures images of a mysterious location, a mystical place with a name that is no less fluid than its borders.  Burma and Myanmar are merely key words they use so that I may pin it on a map.  But “inside” is where they were born; where they escaped from; and, where they’ve left their ethnic roots .

But I apologize- according to most sources, I should have said “Karenni refugees from Myanmar.”  Or, more formally, The Socialist Republic of the Union of. 

But both monikers make the news, with professional unsureness.  So what should we call this place, with proper respect for the people who live there?

Burma is an English word taken from the Bamar people, who make up a majority of the population.  It thus, in its original use, referred to those areas – inside current borders – that fell under British colonial rule from the 1820s-1940s and were predominately Bamar-inhabited.

While Burma remained the country’s name during the post-WWII transition period, the conflict of various political and ethnic efforts ended (with a military coup) before official discussion of any other name could be considered.  If you ask the residents of the six main ethnic states (Rakhine, Kachin, Shan, Karen, Karenni, and Mon) – such as my students – they would first and foremost say they come from that particular State.  Myanmar, to them is simply a few inconvenient lines on an atlas that surround their own, culturally unique, country.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was recently asked by the government of  Burma Myanmar to follow the constitution – which her National League for Democracy must uphold as representatives in congress – and call it TSROTUO Myanmar.  But the Daw has used Burma in several recent speeches in Thailand and Europe, raising the question again…

What should we call the country?  Her Majesty’s original title, the government’s 80’s creation, or something else, entirely?

4 responses to “Burma or Myanmar: What’s in a name?

  1. Another country with 2 name is Netherland/Holland. The official in Netherland. The official in this case is Myanmar.

  2. Are there many refugee camps in Mayanmar? We just got a new student and we don’t know what he speaks because 1. we don’t know specifically where he is from 2. he is unable to tell us. We’re doing as much as we can to know a little background info in order to help him more!

    • Hi Natalia,

      As far as I’m aware, no, there are no recognized refugee camps in Myanmar; the majority are in Thailand and contain predominately Karen and Karenni ethnic refugees. Has your student arrived via a refugee resettlement agency, or on his own? You could always try to show him images of the different ethnic flags and see if he responds to one? Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help, I’m here!

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