Change in Place Names of Myanmar

World / Asia


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In 1989, the military government of Myanmar changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar, saying that Burma is a relic from a colonial past. The opposition disagreed, and continued to use Burma. But who is right?

According to language experts, both. Myanmar is the formal, royal term for the country, while Bama - of which Burma comes from - is the colloquial term. Indeed Myanmar has been the official Burmese name of the country since the time of Marco Polo's 13th century mention. However, puritans among the opposition pointed out that the term Bama tend to include the majority Bamar people, as well as the other minority groups in the state, whereas the term Myanmar tends to imply the Bamar majority only. For this reason, the opposition party, as well as the minorities such as the Mons, Shan, Kayin, Kachin, Chin and Kayah, refused to acknowledge the name change.

Bagan, formerly Pagan
Bagan, formerly Pagan (25 November 2003)
© Timothy Tye using this photo

AsiaExplorers has no intention of taking sides. We will use the official name in our travel guide, not because we are in agreement with the official line, but because we believe this is the most practical approach, and will make it easier for visitors when travelling around Myanmar.

Nevertheless, whenever we encounter a place name that is changed, we will place the colonial name in brackets immediately after the present official name, like this: Ayeryawady (Irrawaddy). This is done on the first appearance of the place name on a given page; thereafter, the official name is used.

Bago, formerly Pegu
Bago, formerly Pegu (21 November 2003)
© Timothy Tye using this photo

You will encounter words like Myanmar, Burma, Burmese, Bamar and Burman. What is which? Myanmar and Burma will refer to the country. Often, you will encounter Myanmar spelled without the final r, like this, Myanma, as in Myanma Air or Myanma Railway. The r is added to lengthen the preceding "a" vowel. Bamar refers to the main ethnic group in Myanmar whereas Burmese refers to all Myanmar ethnic groups. Burman is the adjective to describe things of Bamar origin.

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