A Country Between Names

This winter, for the first time I traveled to a country without knowing quite what to call it. Since 1989, the country has had two distinct names. According to the military government, it is Myanmar; yet to those fighting to restore democracy, it has remained Burma. Thus, in the two decades since the military junta rebranded the country as Myanmar, the national nomenclature has become polarized to represent two distinct visions for the country’s future. As a foreigner hailing from the world’s bastion of democracy, I felt compelled to adhere to our national stance on the issue and refer to the country as Burma. I found this choice to be supported by most of the people I encountered on my trip. However, after two weeks in the country, I became more aware of the degree of legitimacy that has been restored to the Myanmar government in the past few years. Although the gulf between the military and proponents of democracy has not been completely bridged, the effort the government has taken to move toward democracy should be considered as the world judges where the country, and its name, stand.

Before I examine the grounds on which the government has begun to reestablish its legitimacy on an international stage, it is important to untangle the country’s complicated history, reflected in its many name changes. Before the British took power in Burma in 1824, the country was referred to as both Myanmar and Burma—the former in formal contexts and the latter more colloquially. As in many other colonial sagas, it was the British who decided to officially dub the country Burma. After the country gained independence in 1948, the name Burma lasted through a brief era of civilian democracy and on through the 1962 military coup. However, after great turmoil and the failure to hand power over to the National League for Democracy Party under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, who had rightfully won the election, the military leadership changed the name to the Union of Myanmar in 1989. They hoped that the new name, which they incorrectly claimed encompassed all of the ethnic minorities in the country, not just the majority Burmese, would once again draw the support of the people.

After the military government accumulated one of the world’s worst human rights records, including the state-sponsored slaughter of protesting monks in the 2007 Saffron Revolution, countries around the world rightfully shut their doors to the ruling regime and imposed harsh economic sanctions. Yet the last three years have seen the reversal of what seemed to be the unending abuse of the Burmese people by their government. Perhaps the government felt the tides changing with the Arab Spring or could no longer foresee an economic future under stringent international sanctions. Due to these compounding circumstances, the country held a general election in 2010, and former General Thein Sein was elected as the first civilian president in 49 years. Since his election, President Thein Sein has been called Burma’s Gorbachev, ushering in a post-junta era of reform that has included decreasing media censorship, releasing political prisoners, and allowing Aung San Su Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy, to run for Parliament in last year’s by-elections.

On my visit to Burma this past December, the air of optimism that has accompanied these long sought-after changes was almost palpable. While a Burmese citizen would have likely been imprisoned two years ago for endorsing the National League for Democracy, NLD signs and offices now line roads throughout the country.  People spoke realistically about the changes, saying that the ingrained corruption in the military and the government certainly would not disappear overnight and that tensions still flare up between the ethnic minorities on the country’s borders. However, for the first time in 50 years, change was becoming a reality.

This past November, democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi spoke about the 1989 name change in an interview: “I still object to it. So I will always refer to his country as Burma, until the Burmese people decide what they want it to be called.” Even with the recent changes, it is understandable that it is currently still impossible for the nation’s democratic leaders to accept a name that represents the abuses of a totalitarian government. Yet Suu Kyi herself has adopted a mode of compromise recently, working with former generals such as Thein Sein to pave the way toward democracy. Thus, for the time being, the country still stands somewhere in between Burma and Myanmar, but both sides are gradually collaborating to support the country’s journey to reestablish a booming economy and democracy. The fledgling post-junta government will meet its first real test in 2015 when the first truly contested national elections are scheduled. If elections are allowed to proceed smoothly and Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy are able to legitimately campaign, it may be time for the world to fully embrace a reformed and legitimate Myanmar.

Elizabeth W. Pike ’15, a Crimson editorial executive, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House.

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