Myanmar or Burma? by Gustaaf Houtman
As one of the regime's journalists pointed out, in 1988 ‘Myanmar resembled a house that tumbled down. The Tatmadaw had to pick up the pieces and build a new one’. Indeed, Saw Maung himself asserted that during the 1988 unrest ‘the State Machinery had stopped functioning’ and in the aftermath ‘it is just like building a country from scratch’. A new house had to be built, and one of the cornerstones of the regime since 1989 has been the attempt to delineate and reconstruct the entire country through the programme I dub here ‘Myanmafication’.
It is quite the opposite from the concept of uprooting the house by eliminating ignorance through mental culture, as implied in the discourse of some members of the political opposition. (In this latter discourse, the builder of the house is ‘ignorance’ that perpetuates samsara, and as I will show later, this must be uprooted by mental culture). In his speech on 23 September 1988, within five days of seizing power, Saw Maung asserted with confidence that ‘I and all my colleagues and all Tatmadawmen most respectfully and honestly give our word to all rahans [monks], laity and the people that we do not wish to cling to State power long’. He spoke of ‘handing over power to the government which emerges after the free and fair general elections’ and strongly intimated that this was to be in the near future, immediately after the elections. Indeed, he said that he was‘laying the path for the next government’, and ‘I will lay flowers on this path for the next government’.
The army had irrevocably changed its ways since his coup, he asserted, for it was no longer to be involved in Party politics like before. In March 1989, Saw Maung asserted that after the elections the legally elected government would come into power, ‘comprising the representatives of the people who were elected to the Pyithu Hluttaw’, and that the army would at that point ‘return to our barracks’ and would not have a role in politics. He intimated also that he himself would retire immediately after the elections. However, in the course of the first half of 1989 the regime began to show signs of being unable to tolerate the increased criticism levelled at it, in particular by Aung San Suu Kyi.
By end May 1989, the regime announced moves that indicated it would not wait for political measures until a government was elected. The regime wanted to go on record that the army had done something positive for the nation. On 25 May the Border Areas and National Races Development Central Committee was established. This was followed up on 30 May 1989 with the appointment of the 21-member Commission of Enquiry into the True Naming of Myanmar Names, on which were seated only four academics, two of whom were specialists in Burmese and two in English, who were outnumbered by eight members of military rank and a majority with positions in the civil service. Burmese place and state names were examined according to their original Burmese names, i.e. as these were before they were changed under colonial influence. Since historically they were written in various ways, the Committee transcribed these into English according to contemporary pronunciation. This is what the Burmese have long themselves used in literary and formal vernacular, and so it did not affect the Burmese pronunciation. It only affected it in languages other than Burmese, including the languages of ethnic minorities (see table 3).
The Commission was long in deliberating its findings, holding their 16th meeting in August 1991. However, they nevertheless rushed the ‘Adaptation of Expressions Law’ to come out as soon as possible, namely on 18 June 1989. This resulted in the official replacement in languages other than Burmese of ‘Burma’ and ‘Burmese’ (or whatever other languages use) with ‘Myanmar’ and the extensive renaming of many towns, including the capital Rangoon which became ‘Yangon’. It should be pointed out that this renaming has virtually no impact on Burmese citizens speaking in Burmese, who continue to refer to both Myanma as well as Bama (this not unlike formal reference in the English language to ‘The Netherlands’ while informally using ‘Holland’). It was a measure solely intended to affect references (both written and spoken) to Burma in languages other than Burmese, who may not now refer to Burma. At national independence under U Nu, the country was known as the Union of Burma. Under Ne Win in 1974 this changed to the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma. In 1988 it briefly went back to Union of Burma, and now we must refer to the ‘Union of Myanmar’, or Pyidaungsu Myanmar Naingngandaw. Though taking place without referendum, this was officially endorsed by the United Nations five days after the regime's declaration. Because of the UN endorsal it has entered into widespread use, so that it is currently even used by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International.
* Extracted from Gustaaf Houtman, Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, Institute for the Study of Languages and Cultures of Asia and Africa Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 1999.