Burma’s electoral commission told opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to stop calling the country Burma and instead to call it Myanmar, its official name. In a statement published in The New Light of Myanmar, the electoral commission chided Aung San Suu Kyi stating, “As it is prescribed in the constitution that ‘the state shall be known as The Republic of the Union of Myanmar’, no one has the right the call the country Burma.” Aung San Suu Kyi is in her right, and should continue to do so, to express what has been worldwide condemnation of Burma’s military regime.
Disagreement on how to call the country follows Aung San Suu Kyi high-profile trip to Europe, where she continuously called the country Burma. Observers believe that authorities are trying to assert themselves after Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, was widely praised during her trip.
While the electoral commission informed the NLD “to address the name of the state as prescribed in the constitution…and respect the constitution,” Nyan Win, NLD spokesman responded by stating that calling the country Burma “does not amount to disrespecting the constitution.”
There is a long history behind this disagreement. In 1989, the then ruling military junta decreed that the country should change its name from the “Union of Burma” to the “Union of Myanmar.” The move, apparently, was intended to appease minority non-Burman ethnic groups. Later the name was modified to the “Republic of the Union of Myanmar”. However, those opposing the military, including Aung San Suu Kyi, ignored the modification and continued to call the country Burma, to the evident irritation of the military.
Anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman, an expert on Burma’s politics, wrote, “There is a formal term which is Myanmar and the informal, everyday term which is Burma. Myanmar is the literary form, which is ceremonial and official and reeks of government.” Local opposition groups prefer to use the ‘old’ colloquial name, at least until Burma has a legitimate government.
Undaunted by her country’s government criticism, Aung San Suu Kyi has continued using the name Burma during her visit to Britain and Norway. Several Western countries, including Britain and the United States, continue to call the country Burma in unofficial statements of support for the democracy movement in the country.
Some people, such as Derek Tonkin, Britain’s former ambassador to Thailand and chairman of the Network Myanmar group, suggest that both Britain and the US should now call the country Myanmar, to acknowledge the country’s progress to democracy.
However, as the daughter of Aung San, considered the father of modern-day Burma and a tireless fighter for democracy and human rights in her country, nobody has greater moral authority than Aung San Suu Kyi to call the country by its former name.
There is a strong emotional and moral connotation in the name Burma. It should continue to be called that way until effective democracy returns to the country and a national referendum is conducted on how to call it. If this enrages the military, it will still be a small price to pay for the brutality that for decades they have unleashed on the country.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is a winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.