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The nation (19-12-99)

<font size=5><b>Myanmar, bama, oh heck, simply Burma<br>
</font></b><font face="arial" size=3>The letter from ''A Samut Prakan
Resident'' makes some interesting points (The Nation Dec 11), but it was
not the British who ''named Myanmar Burma''. <br>
The once British colony has always been called Burma in English and bama
or myanmain Burmese. The best explanation of the difference between bama
and myanma is to be found in the old Hobson Jobson Dictionary, which
despite its rather unorthodox name remains a very useful source of
information: <br>
''The name (Burma) is taken from Mranma, the national name of the Burmese
people, which they themselves generally pronounce Bamma, unless speaking
formally and empathically.'' Both names have been used interchangeably
throughout history, with Burma being the more colloquial name and Myanmar
a more formal designation, somewhat similar to Muang Thai and Prathet
Thai in Thai. <br>
If Burma meant only the central plains and Myanmar the Burmese and all
the other nationalities, how could there be, according the Myanmar
Language Commission, a ''Myanmar language''? I have at home their latest
Myanmar English Dictionary (1993), which also mentions a ''Myanmar
alphabet''. Clearly, Burma and Myanmar (and Burmese and Myanmar) mean
exactly the same thing, and it cannot be argued that the term ''Myanmar''
includes any more people within the present union than the name ''Burma''
does. <br>
But the confusion is an old one and when the Burmese independence
movement was established in the 1930s, there was a debate among the young
nationalists as to what name should be used for the country: bama or
myanma. The nationalists decided to call their movement the Dohbama
Asiayone (''Our Burma Association'') instead of the Dohmyanma Asiayone.
The reason, they said, was that ''since the dohbama was set up, the
nationalists always paid attention t the unity of all the nationalities
of the country ... and the thakins (Burmese nationalists) noted that
myanma meant only the part of the country where the myanma people lived.
This was the name given by the Burmese kings to their country.
Bamanaingngan is not the country where only the myanma people live. Many
different nationalities live in this country, such as the Kachins,
Karens, Kayahs, Chins, Pa-Os, Palaungs, Mons, Myamars, Rakhines and
Shans. Therefore, the nationalists did not use the term myanmanaingngan
but bama naingngan. That would be the correct term. All nationalities who
live in Bamanaingngan are called bama.'' Thus, the movement became the
Dohbama Asiayone and not the Dohmyanma Asiayone (''A Brief History of the
Dohbama Asiayone'', an official government publication published in
Burmese in Rangoon in 1976). <br>
The Burmese edition of the Guardian monthly, another official
publication, concluded in February 1971: ''The word myanma signifies only
the myanmars <br>
whereas bama embraces all indigenous nationalities.'' <br>
In 1989, however, the present government decided that the opposite was
true, and it is that view which many foreigners keep on repeating. The
sad truth is that there is no term in Burmese or in any other language
which covers both the bama/myanma and the ethnic minorities since no such
entity existed before the arrival of the British. Burma with its present
boundaries is a creation of the British, and successive governments of
independent Burma have inherited a chaotic entity which is still
struggling to find a common identity. But insisting that myanma means the
whole country and in some way is a more indigenous term than bama is
nonsense. <br>
Rangoon or Yangon is another reflection of the same kind of
misunderstanding. Rangoon begins with the consonant ''ra gaut'', or
''r'', not ''ya palait'' or ''y''. In English texts, Rangoon is therefore
a more correct spelling. The problem is that the old ''r'' sound has died
out in most Burmese dialects (although not in Arakanese and Tavoyan,
which both have a very distinct rround, Rrrangoon, almost) and softened
to a ''y'' sound in the same way as ''r'' often becomes ''l'' in Thai.
The usage of ''Yangon'' is as childish as if the Thais insisted that
Ratchaburi had be spelt ''Latbuli'' in English, or Buriram Bulilam. 
Further, there is another dimension to the recent ''name changes'' in
Burma. It was not only the names of the country and the capital which
were ''changed''. In the minority areas names also changed, and here it
was a real change. A few examples from Shan State: Hsipaw became Thibaw,
Hsenwi became Theinli or Thinli, Kengtung became Kyaingtong, Mong Hsube
came Maing Shu, Laihka became Laycha, Pangtara became Pindaya and so on.
The problem here is that the original names all have a meaning in the
Shan language; the ''new'' names are just Burmanised versions of the same
names, with no meaning in any language. This undermines the argument that
the changes were done in order to make them ''more indigenous'' and not
only reflecting the majority Burmans. <br>
Bertil Lintner <br>