'Burma' or 'Myanmar'—What's in a Name?

News agencies have differed over what to call the nation where government troops recently crushed the largest pro-democracy protests there in two decades. Maureen Aung-Thwin, director of the Open Society Institute's Burma Project/Southeast Asia, gives a primer on the country's name.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

So these pictures have been amazing - these red-robe monks demonstrating in the streets of Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. Remember I just said that.

It has been the largest pro-democracy demonstrations in an Asian country in decades. Well, some of the monks are now being held by authorities, according to reports trickling out of the militarily run country. In news today, the United Nations special envoy in that country will finally meet with the country's junta chief with the goal of trying to get him to negotiate to negotiate. So, as Americans clue into this story, one thing remains a little confusing. Some news reporters, members of the U.N., countries like Japan and France, call the country one thing.

(Soundbite of CNN news)

Mr. TONY HARRIS (News Anchor, "CNN Newsroom"): Protest led by Buddhist monks reportedly are not turning violent in Myanmar. The military…

STEWART: The U.S., BBC and CNN call it another.

President George W. Bush: We must thrust the regime in Burma to stop arresting and harassing…

STEWART: All right, that's CNN anchor Tony Harris, President Bush. You say Burma, I say Myanmar.

BURBANK: Let's call the whole thing off.

STEWART: Potato, potato - Istanbul, not Constantinople. What is right? Our next guest will help us now. Maureen Aung-Thwin is the director of the Open Society of Institutes' Burma Program, a research and advocacy group supporting the efforts to bring democracy to Myanmar.

Maureen, so what is the reasoning behind using the name Burma? And what is the reasoning using the name Myanmar?

Ms. MAUREEN AUNG-THWIN (Director, Burma Program, Open Society of Institutes): Hi. I've got to correct you first. We're bringing democracy to Burma, not Myanmar.

STEWART: Oh, I'm sorry. I have written incorrectly.

Ms. AUNG-THWIN: But if it also brings democracy Myanmar, we're just as happy. The difference - there is no difference actually. It's not incorrect to say either in the Burmese language. But it's more like forcing the whole world to suddenly call Germany Deutschland, and as a - for a political reason. And since the current junta decided that they're going to rename it is really not a renaming for Burmese. Myanmar the - a lot of the world after the uprising in '88 decided, no, we're still going to call it Burma. The reason the U.N. and some countries call it Myanmar, the U.N. has to recognize the de facto government in any country. So that's why they have to go by what the de facto government calls itself.

STEWART: And what is the word Myanmar mean in the Burmese language?

Ms. AUNG-THWIN: Their historians have different opinions on what it actually means. It comes, you know, it comes from some old Chinese, Orman(ph) or even Indian terms that sounded like mramrah(ph) or brahma(ph), which is sort of, you know, it's is so connected to the Indian god, and then it got somehow evolved into Myanmar. So even historians aren't on one page about how it originated.

STEWART: Maureen Aung-Thwin, director of the Open Society of Burma's program research and advocacy in supporting democracy to Burma, thanks for explaining it to us. We're going to go a little bit further in depth on our blog at npr.org/bryantpark.

LUKE BURBANK, host:

This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News New York, and everyone agrees on that.

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