‘Burma’ versus ‘Myanmar’: A Touch of Desperation

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Written by Derek Tonkin

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, the minister of state at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Hugo Swire, had a twinge of conscience when he said that the UN Secretary-General's “Group of Friends on Burma” – as he had called the September 26 gathering in New York in a press release the following day – was "to be fair" actually called the "Group of Friends on Myanmar". Some might feel that misnaming the group of countries supporting Ban Ki-moon on Myanmar was just a tad unfortunate, but Mr. Swire assured the House "we still call it Burma". Conservative MP Fiona Bruce, who had been in the country with House Speaker John Bercow only two months previously, dared to tell the House that the country was now "Myanmar, as we were told we should now consider calling it".

As we shall see later, the UK in practice uses the name "Myanmar" rather more, probably very much more, than it ever does "Burma". Etymologically, both names are derived from a common source: a labial 'm/b' followed by the nasal 'm'.
Personally, I think I shall always call the country "Burma" whenever I can. I was brought up on the "Burma Campaign" and Rudyard Kipling's "Burma girl". There is hardly a town in Britain which doesn't have a Burma Road, Street or Crescent. Myan-mar, a dissyllabic word constantly mispronounced as a trisyllable "My-an-mar", does not trip easily off the non-Burmese tongue.

The UK Representative on the Security Council bravely hazarded an isolated "My-an-mar" (if you listen to the webcast) in the third paragraph of his "Explanation of Vote" on the defeated US-UK draft resolution introduced on January 12, 2007, though Sir Emyr Jones Parry had fortified himself with a "Burma" in his first paragraph and several utterances of that hybrid Eurospeak monstrosity "Burma/Myanmar" in his second paragraph; all of which might have mystified your intergalactic visitor about what precisely the country was called.

So far as the UK is concerned, the rules are set by the Permanent Committee on Geographic Names, established in 1919. Its principal function is "to advise the British Government on policies and procedures for the proper writing of geographical names for places and features outside the United Kingdom," providing "a unique toponymic perspective on current global political affairs." This makes it clear that "the official state title, (i.e. the form used in formal, legal or diplomatic contexts)," is the “Republic of the Union of Myanmar,” but that "Burma" is the recommended country name, in the same way that the “French Republic" may normally be referred to as "France."

The difficulty here is that while representatives of the “French Republic” are seated as "France" at international gatherings, and particularly at the United Nations where rules and procedures are crystal clear, Burmese representatives are seated as "Myanmar" and not as "Burma". International protocol provides that countries may designate how they are to be called in the English language when seated at such gatherings. Indeed, any communication addressed to "Burma" in such contexts would automatically be returned to sender. No treaty, bilateral or multilateral, could be negotiated with any country except with "Myanmar". No diplomatic Letters of Credence appointing a new Ambassador to the Republic would be accepted unless "Myanmar" is used. No Resolution at the UN could ever use "Burma". Those stalwart supporters of "Burma" – the US, UK and France – compromise every day by using "Myanmar" in so many formal, legal and diplomatic contexts. Otherwise, no business would be done: no visas issued to diplomatic representatives, no diplomatic goods cleared through customs, no international agreements signed. It should by now be apparent how so very frequently both the US and the UK have no choice but to use the name "Myanmar". I very much doubt that any US or British diplomat in Myanmar would use the name "Burma" at any open meeting in the country.

The decision of a small group of Western countries to defy diplomatic practice is seen by most other countries, notably those in the Third World, as boorish and lacking in respect for established protocol, and with more than a tinge of neo-colonialism. The practice of this group inhibits the normalization of relations and is thus inimical to the growth of democracy in Myanmar. Fully aware of all this and concerned as well for its own best interests, the Australian government decided in June last year to put an end to this unsatisfactory situation by deciding from then on to use "Myanmar" on all occasions when use of the name "Burma" would be inappropriate. This seems to me an eminently sensible and practical solution to a problem that is entirely of our own making.

When the military regime changed the English name of the country from "Burma" to "Myanmar" in 1989, it was argued that an undemocratic government had changed the country’s name without the consent or mandate of the people. It is difficult though to see how the mandate of the people, only a very tiny fraction of whom have any knowledge of the English language and its international implications, could possibly wish to express an opinion on the matter, or indeed are likely to have any opinion at all, if asked in a referendum. If the matter were put to the present Parliament, I have no doubt that they would accept "Myanmar" overwhelmingly. But the November 2010 elections are not seen by many as "free and fair", and even the 2015 elections, though they may be "free" will be not be "fair", in the opinion of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The leader of the largest minority party in Parliament has called for the 2008 Constitution to be revised before the elections to remove the "undemocratic" clauses she objects to. As this is unlikely to happen, the impasse over "Burma" or "Myanmar" could continue indefinitely.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. If Suu Kyi were to say tomorrow that she would accept a free vote in the current Parliament on the issue, within a very short time the international community would follow the Australian example, which represents best diplomatic practice and, if I might add, plain common sense. It is also a matter of "the rule of law" since use of the designation "Burma" is now inappropriate, indeed unacceptable, in so many contexts. However, so long as Suu Kyi declines to budge on this issue, the US, UK and France, in thrall to “the Lady”, remain in a quandary. The US has already daringly allowed a "Myanmar" to escape from President Obama's lips. France still uses "la Birmanie", but then there is no established protocol about how the country should be called in the French language where any variation would involve a sex-change to "le Myanmar". UK Prime Minister David Cameron made no concessions during his press conference in Myanmar last year.

But times are changing. There are growing concerns in the West about "Burman" chauvinism towards other ethnic nationalities and religious minorities, which use of the name "Burma" might be seen to bolster. There were understandable political reasons for the assertion of Burman supremacy in the Do Bama Asiayon (We Burman Association) of the 1930s. But in the present world, the US and UK continually find themselves on the defensive at international gatherings, nervously uncertain whether their use of "Burma" might provoke an unwelcome intervention from the chair drawing attention to what is undeniably a breach of long accepted international practice, and resorting to uncomfortable circumlocutions in order to avoid using the correct name of the country.

It is only on this issue of “Burma” versus “Myanmar” as the English name of the country that any rules apply. "RGN" remains the International Air Transport Association designation for Yangon, as does "SGN" for Ho Chi Minh City. Towns and rivers can be called what you will. "Burmese" is as acceptable as the adjectival "Myanma".

The BBC would very much like to change to "Myanmar", as CNN already has, but is inhibited from doing so by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office whose guidance it feels they have no choice but to accept. The BBC is indeed the only independent national broadcaster to avoid at all costs any mention of "Myanmar", which even Radio France International, fully funded by its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, occasionally manages.

There is a golden rule of diplomacy: never operate from a position of weakness on an issue which, in the longer term, you cannot hope to win. "Burma" belongs to the past, however devoted to the name and however nostalgic for its return I might personally be.

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