Burma and Myanmar are often referred to together, words used interchangeably to describe what sounds like the same country. And that’s just it–it is the same country. So why the two names?
The government of Myanmar is known for the ongoing conflicts within its borders, dating all the way back to World War II. It has been described as having the longest civil war in modern history. The fighting among the Rohingya to the west has recently driven many refugees over the border and into Bangladesh. Though currently under ceasefire, fighting with the Karen to the east has been going on for decades. As you add the Chin and the Kachin groups, you begin to realize that their conflicts with ethnic minority tribes in Burma is a long list to fill.
In 1988, the “8888 Uprising” began as a student movement and wound up erupting the entire country in protests. This was around the same time Aung San Suu Kyi began to come forward as a leading figure in Burma’s future. She was highly regarded and would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, though has recently come under criticism for her handling of the Rohingya crisis.
Over a thousand people were estimated to have been killed in the 8888 Uprising, including monks and children. Needless to say, these events were highly controversial in the eyes of the world at the time. India, Burma’s westerly neighbor, took a particularly hard stance and opened multiple refugee camps in an effort to provide aid for those who fled.
As a result, Burma officially changed their name to Myanmar, likely hoping to disassociate themselves with the slaughter connected to “Burma.” They also renamed the city of Rangoon, dubbing it Yangon. Many people, including Suu Kyi, boycotted the use of the country’s new name for years.
Since then, the name “Myanmar” has slowly integrated its usage across the globe, but when you venture out of the cities and into the jungles, where regular farmers and hunters live, they will always call it Burma. To many of them, “Myanmar” is a name reminding them of a regime that has brought little more than pain and suffering to them and their families. “To me it will always be Burma,” one villager told me in 2015, “and Yangon will always be Rangoon.”
Myanmar has managed to stay in the limelight, as its government and military continue to be accused of oppression and even genocide toward several minorities within Burma.