Above: Dhamma Ya Zi Ka Pagoda in Bagan

What's in a Name?

Burma became Myanmar in 1989, and the name change has been controversial ever since. Many governments — including that of the United States — and media organizations refused to acknowledge the right of the military junta to make such a decision.

View from the 11th-century Shwesandaw Pagoda in Bagan - Photo by Hideaway Report editor

Aung San Suu Kyi continued to refer to her country as Burma. The year before had seen thousands of pro-democracy protesters killed when a popular uprising was crushed. Since the political thaw initiated by President Thein Sein in 2011, attitudes have softened. President Barack Obama has uttered the word “Myanmar,” and the name is now used by The New York Times. The military regime said the numerous name changes, including for Burma (Myanmar), the Irrawaddy River (Ayeyarwady), Rangoon (Yangon) and Pagan (Bagan), were intended to erase surviving traces of colonialism. But the country had had a formal literary name (Myanma) and a popular colloquial one (Bama) long before the British settled for a version of the latter. Apparently, many of the new English-language names bear a closer resemblance to the Burmese pronunciation. However, it would appear that the military junta was motivated at least in part by a desire to stamp its authority on the country. A similar impulse probably lay behind the decision in 2005 to move the capital from the biggest city, Yangon, to a greenfield site, Naypyidaw, closer to the center of the country. “Naypyidaw” means “abode of kings,” and the generals seemed to have wanted to assert their hereditary right to rule, in the manner of the pre-colonial Burmese kings.

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