Myanmar or Burma? A Tourist Perspective

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Someone recently asked whether to call the country Myanmar or Burma. So here is my response in full.

I want to preface this post with a note that I am not a political writer. The purpose of this post is to help confused tourists work out what to call the golden land when they visit, not to take any sides in a political debate.

In the opening scene of Top Gear’s recent ‘Burma’ special, Jeremy Clarkson proclaimed that he was in ‘what the BBC refer to as The Republic of the Union of Myanmar, but everyone else calls Burma.’ Try saying that to the people of Myanmar.

The name Republic of the Union of Myanmar (referred to as Myanmar) was of course given to the country by a dictatorship. This is part of the reason some refuse to use the name. However, if you’re not going to say Myanmar on ethical grounds, surely the same logic must be applied to the name Burma – given to the country by Britain in its colonial days.

This gets even more confusing as the media vary which name they use depending on that particular publication’s bias. Aung San Suu Kyi famously still calls the country Burma. But everyone loves Aung San Suu Kyi right? If she calls it Burma they must all want to be called Burma right? Not so. Myanmar is immensely complicated and in our 2 months there we only just scratched the surface – but enough to know that the love for ‘The Lady’ is not universal.

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NLD supporters awaiting Aung San Suu Kyi's motorcade

A huge percentage of the population currently work for the government. A change in leadership in any country creates uncertainty and instability for government workers. Many of this particular group have not experienced change in their entire careers, don’t know what an Aung San Suu Kyi government would mean for their futures and are understandably apprehensive.

Then there are the ethnic minorities. The NLD seeks to bring democracy to Myanmar as a whole, but not everyone wants to be Myanmar. There are ethnic factions of the country who would prefer to be left to their own devices. While there are ceasefires in place, ethnic armies are still armed – we’ve seen them!! And who knows how the Karen, Mon or Shan armies will react should the change not be all they are hoping for.

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Children dancing on Mon National Day

And then of course comes the one thing Aung San Suu Kyi is being criticised in the west for, her questionable representation of Muslim minorities. Noone can be sure that she will do anything to defend this group against growing discrimination, so why should they love her?

The point of all this rambling is that if you use the word ‘Burma’ in conversation with locals, it may be perceived that you are:

1. Supportive of British colonialism
2. Just a confused tourist
3. Aligned with the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi – which brings a whole load of connotations

For the sake of staying out of political debates, particularly when off the beaten track, we used the official term Myanmar. This worked well for us and we were never corrected like others we saw who said ‘Burma’.

Best to stick to Myanmar.

7 thoughts on “Myanmar or Burma? A Tourist Perspective

  1. Loved to be called as ‘Myanmar’ It sounds more polite and elegant than when they call us ‘Burmese’ with full stress on’-mese’.

  2. Pretty much spot on Laura. We’ve been in Myanmar for two weeks now and haven’t heard the term ‘Burma’ used once, although I do wish they’d come up with a good adjective. When referring to the population, Burmese is so much easier than saying ‘The People of Myanmar’ each time!

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