On Language

Linguistics and Fiction In A Country Called Burma

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (C) walks on the tarmac upon her arrival in Myanmar on Wednesday. Clinton arrived on the first top-level US visit for half a century. i

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (C) walks on the tarmac upon her arrival in Myanmar on Wednesday. Clinton arrived on the first top-level US visit for half a century. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (C) walks on the tarmac upon her arrival in Myanmar on Wednesday. Clinton arrived on the first top-level US visit for half a century.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (C) walks on the tarmac upon her arrival in Myanmar on Wednesday. Clinton arrived on the first top-level US visit for half a century.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The country many of us knew as Burma, a forgotten backwater for most Americans, is suddenly in play. Long a Chinese acolyte, the military-dominated government last month canceled a huge Chinese-financed dam project, deepened competing military collaboration with India and held a truncated election. This week, it hosted Hillary Rodham Clinton in what was the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state in more than 50 years.

Important news, but here's the rub: What do you call the country?

The U.S. government and many opposition leaders there say it's Burma. A military dictatorship changed the name 23 years ago to Myanmar, which many other nations accept. And the news media has been stuck with marbles in its mouth, divided over equally tongue-tying options: Myanmar "formerly" or "also" known as Burma.

Diplomatic tempers at places like the United Nations boil over the difference, while locally, blood has spilled. It would all be farcical, if it weren't already tragic, and it gets worse.

The fight is over the English name of the country. According to Cornell University. In Burmese, the main local language, all agree that the formal written name is Myanma (without the r).

And when colloquially spoken, it's Bama.

Yes, that is right. Different words are used when written and spoken, which is common there. The two names actually come from the same linguistic root, according to Professor Emeritus James Matisoff at the University of California at Berkeley.

The slightly different spellings of Burma/Bama and Myanmar/Myanma approximate the same pronunciation between the two languages.

So, did you get all that?

If you are confused, so apparently are NPR editors and reporters. Of the 17 stories on the main shows that mentioned the Southeast Asian country in the past 12 months, four said Myanmar "formerly" or "once" known as Burma. Two said Myanmar "also" known as Burma, one said "long known as Burma," and the others just gave it up. They said only Burma.

NPR's stylebook specifies the "formerly" formula. But when I asked Ted Clark, the deputy supervisory senior foreign editor, what was correct, he wrote back: "The foreign desk always advises that the wording should be 'Myanmar, ALSO known as Burma.' Myanmar first, because we generally accept the name that a country/government chooses for itself, and then 'also known as Burma' because it is still known as Burma to many people there and around the world."

This is not to embarrass Clark. The NPR stylebook often seems only to be suggestions honored in the breach, a chronic internal weakness. None of the naming formulas, moreover, are totally wrong. But I think that some are more right than others.

"Burma" (favored by the U.S. and human rights groups) is antiquated and a bit of a fiction. Myanmar is the official, legal name and by now widely known. This makes the contortions of both the Myanmar "also" and "formerly"-known-as-Burma formulas unnecessary.

That said, I can live with either of the two latter pretzel positions for a little longer, given the political transition afoot in that distant country. The Burmese might democratically soon designate a name themselves.

The primacy of saying Myanmar for now grows out of the thorny matter of political legitimacy.

The civilian party that in 1990 won the nation's last totally open election opposed a military regime's switch of the English name to Myanmar the previous year. Burma had been the standard since at least the 19th century and was seen by the party as a more inclusive term in a country divided and plagued by ethnic violence. Leading the opposition then and now is Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

The military refused to turn over the government after the 1990 election. As a sign of support for democracy, the U.S. has downgraded its relations ever since by refusing to send an ambassador. Lower-level American diplomats are there. Still, the U.S., the UN and almost every world government recognized the Myanmar military government. It also was in clear control of the country. This means that it was at least legally legitimate, however abhorred, and had the right to change the country's name.

The military maintains that it is Myanmar that is the more inclusive name and that Burma is a colonial legacy left over from the British, who ruled there from the mid-19th century until after World War II. Many other former colonies have done the same in discarding the names given them by European powers. Think Rhodesia-Zimbabwe.

This year, elections in March brought in a new, ostensibly civilian government under a retired general and former prime minister, Thein Sein. Aung San Suu Kyi and much—but not all—of her party boycotted the election, saying it was rigged. Clinton's trip, however, was made in part because of what President Barack Obama said were "flickers of progress" towards democracy. Some political prisoners have been released, and Suu Kyi has said she thinks President Sein has been sincere in opening talks with her.

While some human rights groups and opposition leaders have maintained their support for saying "Burma" in English, it's unclear how many of them today still hold that position.

NPR, moreover, is not obliged to tip its hat to the U.S. diplomatic position and keep using the name Burma. NPR should say Myanmar, just as it says Beijing—without adding "formerly or also known as Peking." If in the future, another government—democratic, one hopes—wants to change its English name back to Burma, NPR can do it too. Then.

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