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Myanmar, bama, oh heck, simply Burma

It was not the British who named Myanmar Burma. The once British colony has always been called Burma in English and bama or myanma in Burmese. The best explanation of the difference between bama and myanma is to be found in the old Hobson Jobson Dictionary, which despite its rather unorthodox name remains a very useful source of information:
“The name (Burma) is taken from Mranma, the national name of the Burmese people, which they themselves generally pronounce Bamma, unless speaking formally and empathically.” Both names have been used interchangeably throughout history, with Burma being the more colloquial name and Myanmar a more formal designation, somewhat similar to Muang Thai and Prathet Thai in Thai.
If Burma meant only the central plains and Myanmar the Burmese and all the other nationalities, how could there be, according to the Myanmar Language Commission, a “Myanmar language”? I have at home their latest Myanmar English Dictionary (1993), which also mentions a “Myanmar alphabet”. Clearly, Burma and Myanmar (and Burmese and Myanmar) mean exactly the same thing, and it cannot be argued that the term “Myanmar” includes any more people within the present union than the name “Burma” does.
But the confusion is an old one and when the Burmese independence movement was established in the 1930s, there was a debate among the young nationalists as to what name should be used for the country: bama or myanma. The nationalists decided to call their movement the Dohbama Asiayone (“Our Burma Association”) instead of the Dohmyanma Asiayone.
The reason, they said, was that “since the dohbama was set up, the nationalists always paid attention to the unity of all the nationalities of the country … and the thakins (Burmese nationalists) noted that myanma meant only the part of the country where the myanma people lived. This was the name given by the Burmese kings to their country. Bamanaingngan is not the country where only the myanma people live. Many different nationalities live in this country, such as the Kachins, Karens, Kayahs, Chins, Pa-Os, Palaungs, Mons, Myamars, Rakhines and Shans. Therefore, the nationalists did not use the term myanmanaingngan but bama naingngan. That would be the correct term. All nationalities who live in Bamanaingngan are called bama.” Thus, the movement became the Dohbama Asiayone and not the Dohmyanma Asiayone (“A Brief History of the Dohbama Asiayone”, an official government publication published in Burmese in Rangoon in 1976).
The Burmese edition of the Guardian monthly, another official publication, concluded in February 1971: “The word myanma signifies only the myanmars whereas bama embraces all indigenous nationalities.”
In 1989, however, the present government decided that the opposite was true, and it is that view which many foreigners keep on repeating. The sad truth is that there is no term in Burmese or in any other language which covers both the bama/myanma and the ethnic minorities since no such entity existed before the arrival of the British. Burma with its present boundaries is a creation of the British, and successive governments of independent Burma have inherited a chaotic entity which is still struggling to find a common identity. But insisting that myanma means the whole country and in some way is a more indigenous term than bama is nonsense.
Rangoon or Yangon is another reflection of the same kind of misunderstanding. Rangoon begins with the consonant “ra gaut”, or “r”, not “ya palait” or “y”. In English texts, Rangoon is therefore a more correct spelling. The problem is that the old “r” sound has died out in most Burmese dialects (although not in Arakanese and Tavoyan, which both have a very distinct rround, Rrrangoon, almost) and softened to a “y” sound in the same way as “r” often becomes “l” in Thai. The usage of “Yangon” is as childish as if the Thais insisted that Ratchaburi had be spelt “Latbuli” in English, or Buriram Bulilam.
Further, there is another dimension to the recent “name changes” in Burma. It was not only the names of the country and the capital which were “changed”. In the minority areas names also changed, and here it was a real change. A few examples from Shan State: Hsipaw became Thibaw, Hsenwi became Theinli or Thinli, Kengtung became Kyaingtong, Mong Hsube became Maing Shu, Laihka became Laycha, Pangtara became Pindaya and so on.
The problem here is that the original names all have a meaning in the Shan language; the “new” names are just Burmanised versions of the same names, with no meaning in any language. This undermines the argument that the changes were done in order to make them “more indigenous” and not only reflecting the majority Burmans.


Bertil Lintner
published with the kind permission of the author


May 26: At the 40th State LORC Press Conference, the Information Committee spokesman said:
-- "Measures are being taken for the correct use of Burmese expressions. For example, our country is officially called 'Pyidaung-su Myanma Naing-Ngan' and is expressed in English as 'Union of Burma'. 'Burma' sounds like mentioning 'Bama'. In fact, it does not mean the Bama (Burmese nationals), one of the national racial groups of the Union only. It means 'Myanma', all the national racial groups who are resident in the Union such as Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin, Mon, Rakhine Bama, and Shan nationals. Therefore, to use 'Burma' is incorrect and 'Myanma' should be used instead. Accordingly, 'Union of Myanma' will be used in the future. Furthermore, measures are being taken for using words such as 'Yangon', 'Pyi', 'Sittwe', 'Mawlamyaing' and 'Pathein' in place of 'Rangoon', 'Prome', 'Akyab', 'Moulmein' and 'Bassein' respectively. These have been told to you, journalists in advance to have first hand knowledge."

BURMA PRESS SUMMARY (from the WORKING PEOPLE’S DAILY) Vol. III, No. 5, May 1989, available in electronic form at www.ibiblio.org
(“SLORC” was the predecessor of the “SPDC”.)