The ruling military junta changed its name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, a year after thousands were killed in the suppression of a popular uprising. Rangoon also became Yangon.
The change was recognised by the United Nations, and by countries such as France and Japan, but not by the United States and the UK.
A statement by the Foreign Office says: “Burma’s democracy movement prefers the form ‘Burma’ because they do not accept the legitimacy of the unelected military regime to change the official name of the country. Internationally, both names are recognised.”
That’s why. I prefer the name that Burma’s democracy movement prefers, rather than the name that the military junta chose.
The two words mean the same thing and one is derived from the other. Burmah, as it was spelt in the 19th Century, is a local corruption of the word Myanmar.
They have both been used within Burma for a long time, says anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman, who has written extensively about Burmese politics.
“There’s 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. [The name change] is a form of censorship.”
If Burmese people are writing for publication, they use ‘Myanmar’, but speaking they use ‘Burma’, he says.
This reflects the regime’s attempt to impose the notion that literary language is master, Mr Houtman says, but there is definitely a political background to it.