The name game, the nomenclature of nations
Last Updated September 26, 2007
As maroon-clad monks and citizens file down the rainy streets of Burma, protesting the sometimes brutal 45-year rule of the military, viewers can be forgiven if they're a little confused about where it's actually happening.
Depending on who's talking, the country is either called Myanmar, Burma or — the CBC's preference — Burma, also called Myanmar. The monk protests are happening in the capital city of Rangoon, to some. It's Yangon to others.
For the official name of the country, the United Nations recognizes Union of Myanmar, as do France and Japan. The United States, the United Kingdom and Canada do not, using Burma instead.
The BBC uses Burma exclusively, whereas CBC uses Burma in headlines and leads, but clarifies with Burma, also known as Myanmar, in the next reference. Until recently, however, we did it the other way around: Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.
The Burmese capital is called Rangoon by both media organizations instead of the military junta's name, Yangon.
To the victors the name, sometimes
A quick history lesson reveals the origins of the two contradictory names. The Republic of Burma was the name given to the democratic nation following its gaining independence from Great Britain in 1948.
In 1962, the democratic republic fell in a military coup. The regime renamed the country the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma in 1974.
In 1988, countrywide pro-democracy protests ended in a second military coup. The new ruling order, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, renamed the country the Union of Myanmar in 1989.
But the names themselves share a much deeper past. The name first appears in a manuscript from 1102, spelled Mirma. Later manuscripts spell the name Mranma, the current name used in Burmese language. The "mran" is actually pronounced "mian" - so it's pronounced Myanma. The "r" at the end of Myanmar is an English addition.
Burma is spelled Bama in Burmese languages. The "mr" sound is often condensed to a "b" spelling in colloquial Burmese. So the names Burma and Myanmar actually share the same origin, just variations of translation.
As opposing ideological factions fought for independence from the British Empire in the 1930s, the competing names took on political connotations. Left-wing independence parties used the name Bama, claiming it to be more inclusive of the many minority groups in the region annexed into one territory by the British.
The politics of naming
While the naming dispute over Burma/Myanmar might seem trivial, what a country calls itself can have political consequences — or sometimes it's just for show. In fact, quite often what most of us commonly call a country isn't its official name.
Russia is actually the Russian Federation, while the United Kingdom's full name is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
It's cumbersome to preface a country with "Republic of," "Islamic Republic of" or "People's Republic of" - and occasionally misleading.
The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is the UN-recognized name for what's commonly called North Korea, and the Republic of Korea is generally called South Korea. You decide which is actually democratic.
What's in a name?
The multitude of states formed (or re-formed) after the break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have confusing and sometimes contradictory naming conventions.
So, too, the different Congos. The Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) are actually two different bordering countries with very similar names. The Democratic Republic of the Congo was named Zaire in 1971 by president Mobutu. Following the end of the First Congo War in 1997, Mobutu was overthrown. When he went, so did his name for the DRC.
The Republic of Congo has held the same name since gaining its independence from France in 1960. It's also informally called Congo-Brazzaville locally and internationally.
The Republic of Macedonia declared its independence from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia following a referendum in 1991. Most countries immediately recognized the name, including the former Yugoslavia. However, Greece, fearing the new republic had territorial ambitions against the Greek province with the same name, refused to acknowledge Macedonia's existence.
As a compromise, in 1993 the UN admitted it as a member state under the moniker the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Sometimes the confusion can be used to a country's benefit. At the International Court of Justice, lawyers defending the Union of Serbia and Montenegro briefly argued charges of genocide against the country should be dropped, because it didn't exist when the alleged crimes occurred.
Canada has never officially dropped the prefix, "Dominion of" from its name. However, the 1982 Constitution and all following legal documents only refer to Canada.