Why did Burma change its name to Myanmar?
In 1989, the military junta officially changed the English version of the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar, along with changes to the English versions of many place names in the country, such as its former capital city from Rangoon to Yangon. This decision has, however, not received legislative approval in Burma. The official name of the country in the Burmese language, Myanma, was never changed. Within the Burmese language, Myanma is the written, literary name of the country, while Bama or Bamar (from which “Burma” derives) is the oral, colloquial name. In spoken Burmese, the distinction is less clear than the English transliteration suggests.
In Burmese, “Burma” and “Myanmar” are interchangeably used. The formal written appellation is Myan-ma ( while the colloquial form is Ba-ma . Consonantal elisions (from m > b and vice versa) are quite common in other Burmese words.
In English, the country’s foreign language name was changed from “Union of Burma” to “Union of Myanmar” by the 1989 Adaptation of Expressions Law by the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the military junta that declared martial law and seized power from Ne Win’s ‘socialist’ government. There are 2 major reasons for the name change:
To establish a national identity among the country’s many ethnic groups. The government launched a propaganda campaign relegate “Burma” to exclusive status (inclusive of only the majority Burmans) and “Myanmar” as inclusive (inclusive of the majority Burmans and ethnic minorities). In reality, the Burmese forms for both “Burma” and “Myanmar” had historically been used in relation to the Burmans.
To further excise British colonial influences from the country’s place names, since Burma was first spelled as such by the British (i.e., British spellings for major Burmese towns were also changed. Rangoon became Yangon, Moulmein became Mawlamyine, etc.). This is comparable to actions taken by other former colonies, such as India’s name change of Bombay to Mumbai.
For further reading, check out Chapter 2 of Gustaaf Houtman’s Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics (1999). It provides excellent context and an in-depth analysis of the name change.
Burma achieved independence from the United Kingdom on 4 January 1948, as the “Union of Burma.” It became the “Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma” on 4 January 1974, before reverting to the “Union of Burma” on 23 September 1988. On 18 June 1989, the State Law and Order Restoration Council adopted the name “Union of Myanmar.” This was recognised by the United Nations, but not by the US or UK Governments.
The name “Myanmar” is derived from the local short-form name Myanma Naingngandaw. Its etymology remains unclear.
In 1989, the military junta officially changed the English version of the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar – Burmese opposition groups continue to use the name “Burma,” since they do not recognise the legitimacy of the ruling military government nor its authority to rename the country.