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Kallie Szczepanski

Is It "Burma" or "Myanmar"?

By November 25, 2012

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Obama's 2012 visit to Burma / Myanmar was the first by a sitting US president.

US President Obama's recent visit to Southeast Asia reignited the on-going controversy about the proper name for the nation of Burma / Myanmar in English. During British colonial rule, the area was called "Burma," and pro-democracy leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi have long favored that term. In 1989, the ruling military junta officially changed the English version of the country's name to "Myanmar," but both the British and US governments refused to recognize the change.

Many English-speakers may not realize, however, that both names are actually just versions of the same word. The word Myanma is in a more formal, literary style, while Bama, which the British rendered as "Burma," is the informal, popular version. In both cases, the names refer to the majority ethnic group of the country, the Bamar.

Minorities in Burma/Myanmar might appreciate an entirely new name for the nation, without this ethnic bias. In the meantime, however, President Obama displayed lawyerly tact on the issue. He used both terms at different points in his speech.

Photo by Kuang Htet / Getty Images.

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