Myanmar and The Fine Art of Political Correctnessing
What do you call that country in South East Asia where the streets are filled with monks in red, protesting 45 years of military rule?
Do you call it “Burma” and reveal yourself as a post-colonial, pseudo-imperialist aggressor who deep down thinks that it would have been better if the Brits had been allowed to stay in power, but since they weren’t, the least we can do is use their name: “Burma” it is.
Or do you say “Myanmar”, to demonstrate your respect for the peoples of the world, acknowledging that naming something is to exert power over it, and that it should be every people’s right to be their own “Adams” and name themselves: “Myanmar” it is.
The development in the newspapers over the past few weeks has been interesting: in the beginning, it was “Burma” — of course: that’s the name we all know. Eventually, there were more and more “Myanmar”s. At first, I thought it was a major city or something, but then I realised that it was actually the “correct” name of the country. By saying “Burma”, I would actually reveal myself as an imperialist pig. OK, so I translate it mentally to “Myanmar”, and everytyhing is fine.
Or is it? Whose Adam’s right to name is it that I’m acknowledging? Not that I’m an expert in South-East Asian politics, but here’s what I’ve gathered:
- “Burma” is the westernized version of “Bama Pyi” (Pyi = country), the everyday word for the country, now and in the past.
- “Myanmar” is the short form of “Myanmar Naingngandaw”, the etymology of which is uncertain, but which has been used as an official name in elevated style since the twelfth century.
- In everyday language, the difference between the two is smaller than the written names might indicate: “bama” v.s “myama”.
- The military see themselves as heirs of the empires of the three great Burmese warrior kingdoms: in the eleventh, the sixteenth, and the eighteenth centuries.
- It was the military government who in 1989 changed the official name to the more lofty Myanmar.
- The opposition has never acknowledged the new name, since they don’t recognize the military as rightful rulers, and hence not their right to rename the country.
So we can ask again: what are we actually doing by succumbing to PC-ness and translate to Myanmar? Who are we actually showing respect?