Burma vs. Myanmar

Burma vs. Myanmar

Postby Jim Thomsen » 5:01 pm 05/10/2008

The New York Times says "Myanmar." So does Reuters and The Associated Press.

The Washington Post says "Burma." So do a lot of British and Australian news organizations.

Anybody know why there's a schism here?

(I posed the question to Bill Walsh at the Post, who sez: ""I wasn't in on that decision, but I think it has something to do with recognizing history and the preference of freedom-loving citizens rather than the edicts of a corrupt, illegitimate junta.")
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Postby brcread » 5:54 pm 05/10/2008

From the the CIA World Factbook:
Conventional long form: Union of Burma
Conventional short form: Burma
Local long form: Pyidaungzu Myanma Naingngandaw (translated by the US Government as Union of Myanma and by the Burmese as Union of Myanmar)
Local short form: Myanma Naingngandaw
Former: Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma
note: Since 1989 the military authorities in Burma have promoted the name Myanmar as a conventional name for their state; this decision was not approved by any sitting legislature in Burma, and the US Government did not adopt the name, which is a derivative of the Burmese short-form name Myanma Naingngandaw.

From the AP, 2006 edition:
Myanmar: Use this name for the country and the language. Use Myanmar people or Myanmar for the inhabitants. (Formerly Burma).

The AP entry would probably carry the day here.
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Postby Jim Thomsen » 5:57 pm 05/10/2008

And yet, AP rarely settles debates ... except among people who don't really want to question anything.

I'm not satisfied with any explanation or cite so far.
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Postby Jim Thomsen » 10:41 pm 05/10/2008

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Postby Jim Thomsen » 10:17 am 05/11/2008

Saith Merrill Perlman:

"NYT recognized the official name change. The Post -- and the U.S. government -- haven't. (The U.S. doesn't recognize the legitimacy of the Burmese military government, so doesn't recognize its authority to rename the country, or Rangoon/Yangon, for that matter ...)"
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Postby john.mcintyre » 4:07 pm 05/11/2008

I suppose it comes down to the point of whether your publication is in the business of passing on the legitimacy of foreign governments:

http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mc ... asked.html
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Postby editer » 4:25 pm 05/11/2008

brcread wrote:note: Since 1989 the military authorities in Burma have promoted the name Myanmar as a conventional name for their state; this decision was not approved by any sitting legislature in Burma ...


That's taxonation without representation! :x
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Postby Jim Thomsen » 7:42 pm 05/11/2008

The State Department does not hold sway over our house style.


Excellent.
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Postby editer » 12:22 am 05/12/2008

I'm with those who use the name the existing government prefers. I do think we serve our readers if we say "Myanmar (formerly Burma)" or "Myanmar (also known as Burma)"; the latter acknowledges that readers will encounter the other name in other places. Also "Yangon (Rangoon)" -- I didn't realize Yangon was the former Rangoon until I read this thread.
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Postby Gerri Berendzen » 10:14 am 05/12/2008

About a year ago, I read a piece about how certain U.S. officials use Burma in speeches to make a point about the current government. One section of the article was about how, if in a quote from a U.S. government official, you make a style change from Burma to Myanmar, you're changing the person's meaning.

That's probably a pretty subtle distinction, because I suspect there are many readers who don't know using Burma instead of Myanmar makes a political statement. However, if it was in a quote, I wouldn't change it anyway.

We've been using "Mynamar (formerly Burma)." We had a story about a native of our town who has been teaching in Yangon for the past eight years. His parents live in our town, and shared some e-mails from their son with us. I noticed he always used Burma as the name of the country, but used Yangon intsead of Rangoon as the name of the city.
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Postby bthrock » 7:29 am 05/13/2008

Responding to a couple of <previous posts>:

<The State Department does not hold sway over our house style.> Does your house style hold sway over the State Department? Given the choice of who influences style, I pick the U.S. government over the Burmese military.

There's a difficulty with establishing what distant "locals" prefer to call their country, especially when it's being taken over by the military. If the preferences were 50/50, who would determine your style? And what if the split were 25 (but powerful) to 75 (but unarmed)? What about the locals in the actual legislature -- don't they count? When there are so many arguments one way or the other, there's a simple, unambiguous, close-to-home solution, which is to follow the State Department. I don't see why so many people have a problem following their own government's clear decision, choosing instead to plant a flag in someone else's quicksand.

<The State Department does not like the junta that runs Myanmar and thus sticks with Burma. But it has gone along with other thug regimes (Zaire/Democratic Republic of the Congo, etc.) without evident qualm.> By deliberately bypassing the State Department, is the Sun saying that it DOES like the junta? More than it likes the State Department? And if the DRC are thugs, should we ignore the State Department and go back to using "Zaire"? I don't think copy desks are equipped to evaluate international thuggery and decide that, in THIS case but not THAT case, we will overrule the State Department.

<I'm with those who use the name the existing government prefers. I do think we serve our readers if we say "Myanmar (formerly Burma)" or "Myanmar (also known as Burma)"> The State Department's point is that the "existing government" never approved a change from Burma to Myanmar, and so can hardly be said to prefer it.

It seems to me that using "Myanmar, also [or even 'formerly'] known as Burma" has a subtext of "The U.S. government says Burma, but WE know better and are waiting for them to catch up."
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Postby Dan Puckett » 10:49 am 05/13/2008

Bthrock makes some excellent points.

In addition, at some point, the good people of Burma will send the blood-thirsty thugs ruling them to their eternal fate. Given what we've heard from the opposition, a democratic government is likely to embrace "Burma."

So this "Myanmar" business seems unlikely to be any more permanent than "Zaire" or the 1970s fad for calling Khmer Rouge-ravaged Cambodia by its name in Khmer, "Kampuchea."

In the meantime, to use either "Burma" or "Myanmar" is implicitly to take sides, especially since it's not only our government that refuses to use the name the murderers now lurking in Nay Pyi Taw picked.

As soon as Burma has a legitimate government, it can change its name to whatever it chooses. But until then, I'd rather use "Burma" (even if my newspaper has gone along with the AP and uses "Myanmar").

(If a legitimate government decides to drop "Burma" and use the more formal name, I hope it reconsiders the R at the end of "Myanmar" -- it sure confuses us rhotic speakers of English, but then, so does the R in "Burma.")
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Postby Jim Thomsen » 11:45 am 05/13/2008

The thing is, the "bloodthirsty thugs" are also "locals" and "citizens" of that nation. It's not like they parachuted in from Zaire to take over rule and have no nationalistic legitimacy of their own. We may not like them, but they're no less local.
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Postby Dan Puckett » 12:31 pm 05/13/2008

Jim Thomsen wrote:The thing is, the "bloodthirsty thugs" are also "locals" and "citizens" of that nation. It's not like they parachuted in from Zaire to take over rule and have no nationalistic legitimacy of their own. We may not like them, but they're no less local.

The democratic opposition is local, too, so that's a wash. The choice is which locals to back: the locals who won the last election or the locals who have spent the past 20 years imprisoning, torturing and killing them.

The first link contains a description of various forms of torture used by the military junta. Note the "iron road," the use of dogs in rape attempts and "tick-tock torture." Then please explain what "nationalistic legitimacy" these monsters have, wherever they were born.
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Postby bthrock » 12:31 pm 05/13/2008

Yes, the "Myanmar" people are local; nobody said they aren't. But the "Burma" people are also local, so this insistence on who's local doesn't solve anything, does it?

The problem is the difficulty of deciding whose "nationalistic legitimacy" determines the name, when there are competing claims.

By the way, I have nationalistic legitimacy in the United States but I now call it the Peapod Republic, so your newspaper should too.

"I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords." -- Kent Brockman
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Postby john.mcintyre » 1:13 pm 05/13/2008

I wonder what we should have been calling the murderous, thuggish Soviet Union all those years.
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Postby Dan Puckett » 4:59 pm 05/13/2008

john.mcintyre wrote:I wonder what we should have been calling the murderous, thuggish Soviet Union all those years.

Well, it's not really the same situation, is it?

The whole point of using "Burma" instead of "Myanmar" is to say, to a country with a democratic, domestic opposition that prefers "Burma," that we do not recognize the right of the murderers who have illegally seized and illegally kept power to use that power.

After the Russian Civil War, Soviet Russia had no such opposition, in great part because Stalin was even more murderous than the Burmese military (though it seems to be taking some lessons from his purposely engineered Great Famine). If Soviet Russia had had a viable opposition within the country, telling the world that it continued to call its country "Russia" instead of "Soviet Union," I suspect our stories might have read differently.

As it was, though, what would have been the point? Unlike Burma, Russia had no real, viable opposition for us to give moral support to.
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Postby fev » 8:34 pm 05/13/2008

Copydesks everywhere are waiting for that definitive list of regimes that have "illegally seized" and/or "illegally kept" power, and the operational definitions by which further offenders can be determined.

Torture may, at some point, have an effect on how your regime is viewed internationally. It doesn't have any known relationship to claims of nationalist legitimacy. Some regimes that excel at torture and murder have a great deal of nationalist cred (Saddam Hussein's was one). Some regimes that don't indulge have much less. We have an "international system" (to the extent we do) in part because, for the past some centuries, states have agreed to abide by a glass-houses principle when it comes to that sort of debate about national legitimacy.

Just for the heck of it, here's Ari Fleischer, ex-White House spokesman, explaining his recent conversion to the term "homicide bomber" in a 2002 briefing:

"But the reason I started to use that term is because it's a more accurate description. These are not suicide bombings. These are not people who just kill themselves. These are people who deliberately go to murder others, with no regard to the values of their own life. These are murderers. The President has said that in the Rose Garden. And I think that is just a more accurate description of what these people are doing."
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Postby Wayne Countryman » 12:35 am 05/14/2008

I thought the point was to write and edit with clarity for our readership.

Some readers will be familiar with Myanmar; some will be with Burma.
If we use one name and then immediately refer to the other, then everyone will know what we mean.

A few extra words, but sometimes readers need them.
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Postby john.mcintyre » 5:50 am 05/14/2008

A post at Language Log adds details and further complications:

http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=152#more-152
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Postby Dan Puckett » 10:09 am 05/14/2008

I think my posts left a misimpression. There are good reasons to use Myanmar, and good reasons to use Burma. Personally, I prefer Burma, which is an unusual situation, but I can see why many of us would use Myanmar.

And I think that copy editors who don't already know which governments are the result of military coups and are ravaging their own people — or at least don't know how to look it up — would probably do best to stay away from international wire copy. Coups aren't that hard to recognize.

But just out of curiosity, what about the point raised by one of the commenters on the Language Log post: Do you use Cote d'Ivoire or Ivory Coast? Timor-Leste or East Timor? In both nations, the government insists on the first variant in English.
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Postby john.mcintyre » 10:25 am 05/14/2008

The Sun uses Ivory Coast and East Timor; I can't think of an English-language publication in which I have seen the French variants in use. (And, Lord help us, let's not return to the Turin/Torino exchanges of a couple of years back.)

I'm with Dan on Burma/Myanmar. There are good reasons, and bad ones, for each choice, and here, as is often the case, we have to make largely aribtrary decisions.

It's hard enough for the copy desk to make decisions about what will be intelligible to the audience without our having to rule on the legitimacy of governments and the legacies of colonialism. (We have, though, published regularly about the brutality of the Burmese regime.)
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Postby Mike O'Connell » 1:19 am 05/15/2008

john.mcintyre wrote:I wonder what we should have been calling the murderous, thuggish Soviet Union all those years.


I remember phoning the embassy here shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union for their preferred new name of the country and the Russian Far East. I couldn't get a straight answer.
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Postby Mike O'Connell » 1:25 am 05/15/2008

Dan Puckett wrote:Given what we've heard from the opposition, a democratic government is likely to embrace "Burma."


If history is any guide, Dan, it will probably be something more like "the Democractic People's Republic of Myanbur," achieved only after much horse-trading. Ah, the fledgling steps of democracy.
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AP's reasoning

Postby dfisher » 7:03 am 05/15/2008

AP's reasoning seems to be that the United Nations has accepted Myanmar. See Ask the Editor, search for Burma.
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Postby Jim Thomsen » 10:11 am 05/15/2008

Burma officially changed its name in English to the Union of Myanmar in 1989, bringing the English name into conformity with the pronunciation in the national tongue. Myanmar has been accepted by the United Nations and is increasingly used internationally and in standard references.


I know it seems like I bash on AP regardless of what it does, but this seems like a pretty flaccid rationale.
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Postby john.mcintyre » 6:01 pm 05/15/2008

I don't know that the reasoning is all that feeble. Wide recognition by the international community was surely one of the prods that finally got the United States to concede that the People's Republic of China exists.
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Postby Mike O'Connell » 11:09 pm 05/15/2008

Burma officially changed its name in English to the Union of Myanmar in 1989, bringing the English name into conformity with the pronunciation in the national tongue...


...if you happen to be British, Australian or otherwise non-rhotic.
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Postby Paul Ybarrondo » 6:01 pm 05/17/2008

All this talk
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Postby Paul Ybarrondo » 6:02 pm 05/17/2008

Of naming nations
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