President Obama Is in Burma—or Is It Myanmar?

The United States still hasn't made up its mind about what to call the Southeast Asian state.

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) meets Myanmar's President Thein Sein (R) at the Presidential Palace in Naypyidaw November 13, 2014.  (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

There's a great episode of Seinfeld in which J. Peterman, the clothing catalogue impresario and Elaine's boss, telephones her from Burma and asks her to run his company.

"Mr. Peterman, you can't leave," Elaine says.

"I've already left, Elaine. I'm in Burma," Peterman replies.


"You most likely know it is as Myanmar. But it will always be Burma to me."

In a case of life imitating art, 18 years later Americans are no closer to answering the "Burma?" question. According to the State Department, "it remains U.S. policy to call the country Burma in most contexts." But President Obama apparently disagrees. Arriving in the country Thursday for the start of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting, the president opted not to use "Burma."

"I am optimistic about the possibilities for Myanmar," he said.

Don't look to the English-language media for an answer. The Washington Post and the Atlantic use "Burma." But The New York Times and The Economist go with Myanmar. NPR tries to split the difference, with the clumsy "Myanmar, which is also called Burma."

The decision of which name to use is more political than linguistic. Those who prefer "Burma," as the country was known until 1989, argue that "Myanmar" lacks legitimacy because the name change occurred without the consent of the Burmese people. The Burmese government, on the other hand, has argued that the word "Burma" referred only to the country's largest ethnic group, and that "Myanmar" was the more inclusive term.

In fact, neither explanation is entirely accurate. Forms of the words "Burma" and "Myanmar" have existed for centuries, and mean about the same thing. "Burma" (also written as "bama") is used primarily in spoken language while Myanmar (or "Myanma") is the more formal term used when writing. But under British colonial rule, Burma became the country's official name, and the name stuck after independence.

One year after their brutal crackdown on democracy activists in 1988, Burma's ruling junta passed an "Adaptation of Expressions Law" that aimed to replace the country's Anglicized place names with words more congruent with the Burmese language. Therefore, Myanmar replaced Burma and "Rangoon," the country's largest city and then-capital, became rendered as "Yangon."

Much of the international community and the United Nations agreed to the name change, as they had done with Zimbabwe, Cambodia, and Burkina Faso in the years before. But the U.S. and U.K. insisted on using the name Burma. And over the next two decades, as Burma's military government resisted economic development and brutally suppressed dissent, neither Washington nor London found any reason to change its policy. In 2005, then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even named Burma as an "outpost of tyranny," grouping the country with North Korea, Iran, and three others.

But in recent years, Burma has opened up considerably. The country released more than 200 political prisoners and freed Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. Burma has opened its economy to more foreign investment, and even held multiparty elections in 2010. Two years later, Obama became the first sitting American president to visit the country, praising Burma's rulers for taking steps toward better governance.

So is it time for the world's "Burma" holdouts to embrace Myanmar? Perhaps not. The country's opening up has coincided with appalling treatment of Burma's Rohingya minority, a group native to Burma's border region with Bangladesh. The Burmese government has placed tens of thousands of Rohingya natives into internment camps, and clashes between the two groups have cost 280 lives.

But the current confusion over what to call Burma raises a larger quandary. Should the American government exercise the right to call other countries by its preferred name? Or should Washington follow the example of the UN and defer to the ruling regime, no matter how odious?

There may be another test case soon. The dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled Kazakhstan since it gained independence in 1991, publicly expressed an interest earlier this year in changing the country's name to Kazakh Yeli. Will the United States government—which has cooperated closely with Kazakhstan in securing loose nuclear material—object?