You say Myanmar, I say Burma

The official name is ‘Union of Myanmar’, but media outlets appear split on what to call the Southeast Asian nation once known as Burma. The BBC and the Bangkok Post steadfastly stick to Burma, while the Globe and Mail uses Myanmar, stating the name better reflects pre-colonial terminology.

There’s power in the act of naming, however: the generals chose ‘Myanmar’ carefully, with an eye to promoting their vision of Burma as a single-ethnic state under control of the centre.

Burma – from Bama, a term that has no particular ethnicity associated to it – has long been accepted as a neutral description for the multi-ethnic country, according to Swedish Burma expert Bertil Lintner.

‘Myanmar’, on the other hand, is linguistically Burmese, and historically was used to describe the Central Lowlands region, where ethnic Burmese make up the majority of the population.

For an army founded on the slogan ‘One Blood, One Voice, One Command.’ changing place names over to the Burmese language is a calculated political act.

In the 15 years I’ve spent researching and writing about Burma, I’ve learned that members of the exile community make a careful choice to use ‘Burma’ when referring to the Union, and they avoid using ‘Burmese’ as a blanket term to describe people.

This raises the question of what to call people who may be Burmese by citizenship, but not by nationality.

Some outside observers use ‘Burman’ to describe the ethnic group and ‘Burmese’ to describe citizenship in the Union, others do the opposite. In light of a lack of consistency and popular usage for ‘Burman’/’Burmese’, I tend to err on the side of caution and simply do my best to avoid blanket terms.

This means employing terms like ‘refugees from Burma’ as opposed to ‘Burmese refugees’, and describing nationality more clearly – for example ‘Shan refugees from Burma’ and ‘members of Burma’s Karen nationality.’

Most of these groups are spread across borders, so again you have to be clear about where they are coming from. But don’t assume everyone from Shan State, Burma is Shan – the states themselves are multi-ethnic. It’s best to ask.

I also regularly employ the word ‘nationality’ as opposed to ‘minority’ because in some regions a so-called ‘minority’ may in fact be a majority.

Sound a little awkward? It’s not, really. Careful choice of wording is consistent with how CP advises journalists to report on aboriginals: always be as specific as possible in identifying a person’s Nation, ask people how they like to be identified, understand the power of names, and be aware of that blanket terms are seldom a comfortable fit.

Finally, I avoid terms like ‘bewildering,’ ‘chaotic,’ ‘explosive’ or ‘the next Yugoslavia’ to describe Burma’s ethnic mix because these terms give the impression there is no logic or order to ethnic and state concerns. Over the past two decades, Burma’s major ethnic groups have consistently provided representation and leadership within the NLD-led government in exile, and have participated in ongoing discussions about the future construction of Burma.

Meanwhile, the presence of armed insurgencies along the border has historically played into the junta’s hands, particularly in relation to the drug trade, and indeed the Burma Army regularly stands accused of fomenting violent conflict. From this view, ‘chaotic’ may be a better word to describe the present than the future.

Patricia W. Elliott is a former reporter for the Bangkok Post and the author of The White Umbrella: A Woman’s Struggle for Freedom in Burma (Friends Books, 2005).