I used to think that it really mattered whether or not I referred to Burma as Myanmar or Burma.  No, really.  I can remember when the change happened.  The Economist suddenly started talking about Yangon and Myanmar out of the blue.  Oh, the treachery, I thought.  SLORC said Myanmar, so obviously all right-thinking people had to say Burma.  Of course, at another time the British said Burma, so other right-thinking people would have insisted that something else be used.   

Then you spend about ten minutes looking into the significance of the change in Burma and you realise that this is silly.  Mranma/Myanma is one name that has been used to describe the country, and Bama is another.  One is apparently a literary style, the other is used more often in colloquial speech.  The traditional name of Burma evidently may or may not originally come from Bama, but is definitely held over from the British colonial designation for the place.  Why a different name can’t be reflected in English usage is a bit of a mystery.  Of course, it comes back to who made the change, rather than the substance of the change itself.  The logic seems to be: we won’t give them the satisfaction of using the new name!  That’ll teach ‘em a thing or two!  Of course, the Burmese government doesn’t really care that much which name we use–it isn’t about us–and so our valiant defiance of the dictators is so much huffing and puffing over nothing.   

All the time we use inapt names in English for countries that have never called themselves by that name (e.g., Armenia, Finland, Hungary, Greece), which has often puzzled me, since some of us get very annoyed with people who insist on calling us estadounidense and norteamericano.  These are the established names, and so for convenience I understand why we don’t run around talking about Hayastan and Hellas, but it would be nice if we could admit that it is a matter of convenience (and, one might say, a certain laziness) to use the non-indigenous names of other countries.  Strangely enough, we are more than happy to oblige foreign countries when other governments change their countries’ names (e.g., when Upper Volta became Burkina Faso, or Zaire became Congo yet again, or British Honduras became Belize).  Perhaps it is high time that we fought back against Fasoan tyranny and returned to the ridiculous-sounding geographical designation that preceded the current name.  Sometimes I will still say Zaire out of force of habit, but calling it Zaire for all those decades (which virtually everyone did) was, according to the logic of the anti-Myanmar crowd, a concession to Mobutu.  Since Mobutu was on “our” side in the Cold War, Westerners, so far as I know, did not worry themselves about whether or not they were giving in to some supposed anti-colonialist blackmail by using the official name of the country. 

Some people are upset by the official renaming of Bombay because Hindu nationalists were the ones who did it (I believe the old name is still frequently used out of habit), but it puzzles me why we shouldn’t, generally speaking, use the names for countries that the inhabitants themselves use or those that they say they would prefer.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with continuing to use old names, especially when they are well-established and familiar (we will not start calling Egypt Misr nor will we begin styling India Bharat anytime soon, I think), but actively protesting against the official name of a country–when it has as much claim to being a “legitimate” name as its alternative–seems like an odd way to express opposition to a regime.  It’s not as if the regime cares whether we use the new designation or not–the change is for domestic consumption anyway–and we are not lending aid and comfort to Burmese dictators if we happen to call it Myanmar.     

For instance, Iran has been the official name of that country in foreign relations since the 1920s, but there are still some who will insist on calling it Persia, thinking that they are somehow sticking it to the Ayatollah.  They are, if anything, sticking it to the ghost of Reza Khan and the Pahlavi rulers, which is pointless.  That Iran is the older indigenous name for the place only underscores how irrelevant this posturing over names really is.