Myanmar or Burma, what’s in a name?
Sanne van Oosten
A rose by any other name will still smell as sweet…?Well, Shakespeare, you might just be wrong about that one. The two names Myanmar and Burma are often used interchangeably but have incredibly different implications. Burma was the name that came into fashion during the British colonial period in the second half of the 19th century. Myanmar was the replacement of that name instated by the military junta in 1989. Opposition leader and Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi prefers the name Burma because, as she has stated in various media: “the name was changed without any reference to the will of the people.” Even though I tend to side with Aung San Suu Kyi on just about any issue concerning the country’s politics, I think using the name Burma requires some rethinking. This name might just not smell as sweet to all of the people living in Burma/Myanmar.
The name Burma refers to the Bamar people, one of the many ethnic groups in Burma/Myanmar. Besides the Bamar people there are also the Shan, Mon, Kayin, Kayah, Chin, Kachin, Rakhaing, Wa, Moken, Naga and about 125 other distinct ethnic groups. The Bamar people make up about 69% of the population, but the other ethnic groups are not about to let themselves be crushed by any dominant group in the country. They have put up a fight in the past, and the tensions are still strong enough that I would put my money on them doing so in a future democracy as well.
First off, let’s take a look at what happened in the past. In 1947 the popular general Aung San (yes, father of) was leading the country to independence of British rule. In doing so, he recognized that secessionist voices of ethnic minorities needed to be acknowledged. He held extensive talks with ethnic minorities and wrote up the 1947 Panglong Agreement. Ethnic minorities who would still be discontented of being a part of Burma in ten years time would have the right to more autonomy, according to this agreement. Possibly as a result of this agreement, Aung San was assassinated a few months later. Leaving the two-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi without a father.
While the subsequent governments did not recognize the rights and traditions of ethnic minorities at all, 1962 saw an eruption of ethnic tensions. Secessionist movements led to a military coup. This changed Burma/Myanmar to how most people know it today. A country where most printed media is in hands of the government alongside strict press regulations. A country where many commodities are only available on the black market. A country that imprisons political opponents. And last but not least, a country with a deteriorating economy leading to severe poverty and even famine.
Furthermore, the government has continued to squash ethnic diversity in the regions in which other ethnic groups than the Bamar are prevalent. They have forced ethnic groups to move to other areas and leave their traditions behind. Possibly, the only lasting outcome is that these ethnic groups are holding on to their infringed upon traditions more than ever.
When Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her long house arrest in 2010 she began talking about initiating an agreement reminiscent of the Panglong Agreement her father set up in 1947, allowing ethnic minorities more rights and the possibility to political autonomy. Even though Aung San Suu Kyi herself is Burmese she is open to discontented voices from ethnic minorities, as any democratic leader should be.
Right after that landslide victory her political party gained on April 1st 2012, she initiated talks with minority ethnic groups. So far, she is recognizing their future democratic rights in such a way that sounds promising to a peaceful transition away from the oppressive military junta. However, the animosity between the ethnic groups is still very strong and will continue to be so no matter what Aung San Suu Kyi does.
That makes me wonder about the appropriateness of the name Burma. How comfortable will the ethnic minorities of Burma/Myanmar feel living in a country that is named after the dominant ethnic group? With this ethnic group possibly one that they hold much contempt for? These people have suffered through so much suppression, maybe the name of the country they are to be a part in should not refer to the dominant ethnic group that has been in total power through the military for so many years?
When travelling through Burma/Myanmar in April 2012 we noticed that most people did refer to the country as Myanmar, also the official name as recognized by the UN. Possibly, any name but Burma might be more inclusive towards the many ethnic groups in the country. Of course, the most important thing is that the rights of these ethnic minorities are recognized, as should be done in a real democracy. However, it might be the case that the reconsideration of the name Burma will help in this process. Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, don’t get to attached to the name Burma, it might not be the most appropriate name for a country with such ethnic tensions.