Myanmar or Burma, What’s in a Name?


The excitement and optimism in the Yangon then was palpable. In 2011 the impossible happened. The half century of rule by an oppressive military junta was over and longtime political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi had been released and duly elected to parliament. (In 2015 her party, the NLD, won a huge majority, although she was prevented from serving as president. In 2021 the NLD won an even larger majority, which frightened the small minds of the military into a coup).

It was shortly after her election in 2011 that I met with Burmese friends in a crowded coffee shop on Bogyoke Aung San Road, not far from Scott Market. We were there to talk tourism, not politics, but it quickly became apparent the two could not be entirely separated, at least not yet. It was politics that suppressed tourism for so many years, and it was the lingering hangover of those politics that continued to suppress it, albeit less and less as time went on. Although Myanmar tourism had been helped markedly by glowing reviews from the likes of Lonely Planet, Conde Nast Traveler and Wanderlust, the numbers behind its designation as the world’s “hottest” travel destination in 2012 were misleading. The yearly visitor increases of 50% that continued until the military assault against the Rohingya people of Rakhine State in 2017, had to be taken in context.

When the US and others lifted most economic sanctions, at least half of the visitor increase during that time was due to the increase in business and expat travel, not tourism. When you consider 2016’s final tally of around 2 million, which was the apex, and then compare it with neighboring Thailand’s 2016 numbers of 24 million, well, there was no comparison.

Let’s face it, as spectacular and welcoming as Myanmar is, it had a perception problem. Despite the heady reforms and positive momentum back then, there were still serious internal conflicts in dire need of equitable resolutions, most notably with the Karen in Kachin and the Rohingya in Rakhine. That said, the country also had a mis-perception problem. Millions around the world thought it to be a mean and dangerous place to travel, when in reality it was one of the safest, most relaxing, enriching, and charming travel-spheres anywhere on earth. While this reality has changed to a certain extent since the 2021 coup, with many more areas declared not safe due to possible rebel activity, the Big 4 tourist areas of Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Lake Inle, remain as tourist safe zones.

There were/are a number of reasons for the mis-perception, which has taken a huge step backward, but I wondered aloud that evening in 2011 if the all too common confusion over Myanmar/Burma’s dual identity might be at least partially responsible, and if clarifying the nomenclature might do a fair bit to bring people up to speed. They agreed it might, and set about bringing me up to speed.

Magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda at night in Yangon, Myanmar

The first point of clarity; was that the land has been called Myanmar for at least 1,000 years, not just since 1989. Myanmar has always been the formal, written, and “nation” form of Bamar. The Bamar people are the predominate ethnic group in the nation of Myanmar.
Simple, right? Not so fast, the British are coming!

The British invasion of Myanmar in the 1820’s began 60-years of war, aggression and strategic ethnic division that finally resulted in the 1886 establishment of colonial “Burma”, an obvious derivation of Bamar. The Brits also changed Yangon to Rangoon, and so on.

Burma’s independence came in 1948, but the colonial name was kept until early 1989, when the junta changed Burma back to Myanmar. Since the change came on the heels of the brutal suppression of the 1987 protests for democratic reform, it was widely seen as politically motivated, and generally spurned. In addition, many in the Western media thought the junta had vainly made the name up, having no idea of its 1,000 year pedigree.
Over time most of the world’s nations accepted the return to the original name of Myanmar, and gave it official recognition. Even in 2011, despite major reforms and Barrack Obama’s repeated use of “Myanmar”, the United States still refused to recognize the name change. Great Britain likely never will, lest it draw more attention to its historical role in helping to create the ethnic division and oppression that eventually led to military rule in the first place.

Myanmar it is then!

Not quite… Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the widow of an Englishman and the mother of two Burmese-British sons, uses Burma. Many, mostly older citizens who are still proud of their British “heritage”, will always use Burma. For some it’s as simple as what they grew up with. For others the name Myanmar was forever ruined by the junta. Some of their children would agree. But this understandable grudge view is fading very quickly and Myanmar is rising in popularity, both spoken and written, especially among the young.

So, what’s a visitor to do? First off, don’t worry about it. You are not going to offend anyone. They are so understanding of the issue that it’s not an issue at all, at least as it relates to visitors. But if you insist, then simply let the person you are talking with tip their hand. If they use Burma, use Burma. If you should speak first and use Myanmar, and they respond using Burma, then follow their lead. It’s a politely subtle way of showing their preference.

Well, now that we’ve cleared that up…

As my friends and I slipped further into the politics of Myanmar tourism that night, I could sense a quiet caution behind the “excitement and optimism”. It’s a caution that will remain for some time to come, even with the recent election victory by the NLD. A half century of military rule is not transcended easily, and it will take years before democracy will truly take hold.

Fast forward to late 2023 when I update this post again. The caution came crashing into tragedy, that is still unfolding. Tourism has returned, though only in the tens o thousands. We just finished our first photography tour since the Covid/Coup double whammy. We were the first to return and to this date, the only photography workshops to return. We could not get remote as we used to do, as these areas are off limits. The fighting continues in the outer regions while the center of the country is quiet. There is a lot of increased security in the tourist zones, but it did not hinder the fantastic time had by all.They echoed what we have heard many times – “This was the best photography of my life, what an amazing place, I loved it!”

The danger to tourists at this time is as non-existent as it always has been. The ethics of the matter are mostly a matter for those on the outside who do not feel the suffering of the Myanmar people. They were the poorest in all of Southeast Asia before Covid/Coup, and are far worse off now. They truly need the jobs tourism provides. To boycott the military by staying away is to boycott the people struggling to feed their children. Of course we all want the military to fail and for freedom to reign. Tourism returning does not hinder freedom returning like some people think. It does NOT legitimize the regime in any way. That is forever beyond the possible now. What it does, is put more eyes on them, more scrutiny, more pressure. As they say, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Democracy not only dies in darkness, according to the Washington Post, it makes a resurrection that much more difficult.

Bennett Stevens Written by:

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