What’s in a name? by underground

The recent devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis has displaced perhaps over a million and killed tens of thousands. The initial storm flattened villages and sent a tsunami wave crashing over low-lying coastal areas. Waterborne diseases now pose a further threat to those affected. The military dictatorship has hindered relief efforts from across the world, as agencies struggle to get the aid in to the country that is desperately needed.

When will the people of Burma get the assistance they so badly need? Or will the government of Myanmar continue to hinder relief efforts?

The military junta changed the name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989 (Rangoon also became Yangon). The UN and many nations recognised this, and so refer to the nation as Myanmar. Several countries, including the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and Australia, refer to the country officially as Burma. However, New Zealand’s government appears to now call it Myanmar.

News media differ on what name to refer to the troubled country, often even media within the same country. Considering the politics behind the name change, it is interesting which news sources refer to it as Myanmar and which opt for Burma.

The British media is uniform in their style, perhaps reflecting Britain’s colonial ties to the country. The BBC opts for Burma, as does the Independent, the Guardian, the Telegraph, Express, the Times and Sky News.

European media are, for the most part, similar to the UK’s in that Burma is the name given to the country. Germany’s Der Spiegel uses Burma, as does the remarkably trashy Bild (Sorry Germans, it was the only other German news source I know, feel free to inform my of other, more respectable sources!). France24 and Le Monde also opts for Burma, as does Italy’s La Repubblica and La Stampa. Spain’s El Pais and El Mundo, however, refer to the country as Myanmar.

Particularly fascinating is the American media, as there is no uniformity in the choice of names. The Washington Post opts for Burma, as does USA Today, whereas the New York Times refers to country as Myanmar. The Washington Times, perhaps appeasing all sides, uses both Burma and Myanmar in its stories. CNN, FOX, ABC, CBS and MSNBC each use Myanmar. Newsweek also goes for Myanmar, but Time magazine opts for Burma.

America’s northern neighbour’s media is also varied in their selections. Canada’s National Post and The Star use Burma, but The Toronto Sun uses Myanmar. The Vancouver Sun, like the Washington Times, uses both Myanmar and Burma(although the name reverts to Myanmar when you select the story online!).

Australia’s media follows their government’s lead; the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, West Australian, ABC, National Nine News and 7 News all use the old Burma.

Perhaps just to be different to the Aussies, New Zealand’s government opted for Myanmar, and the media followed suit. The New Zealand Herald, One News3 News and Fairfax’s stuff.co.nz all call the Asian nation Myanmar.

Of the Middle Eastern news sources I could find, and of those that actually had any coverage of the disaster, Qatar’s Al Jazeera, Dubai based Al Arabiya and Israel’s Jerusalem Post all refer to the country as Myanmar.

On the African continent, South Africa’s Mail and Guardian and Independent newspapers use Burma, whereas The Times uses Myanmar.

Argentina’s Buenos Aires Herald, Brazil’s Folha and Venezuela’s El Nacional each call the country Burma.

I had particular look forward to seeing how Asian media has covered this story, but unfortunately I can only read those sites that provide an English translation! So I cannot say that those sources I did find are representative of any one countries media. Of those I did find, both names were used, although overwhelmingly Myanmar was used. China’s Xinhua and People’s Daily, Japan’s Japan Times, Hong Kong based South China Morning Post, the Korea Herald and Indonesia’s Jakarta Post all refer to the country as Myanmar. South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo instead opts for Burma. The Times of India, Calcutta’s Telegraph and the New India Times all use Myanmar.


So what do this all mean? Does the use of either term alter the way the country is reported overseas? Should news consumers consider whether the choice of names has any bearing on how the story is reported?

In the case of Cyclone Nargis, I doubt it. Whether Burma or Myanmar is used is most likely irrelevant to how the story is reported. Most reports have focused on the devastation and the lose of life. Most articles have also been critical of the military junta (although it would be interesting to see if those that use Burma are more critical than those that use Myanmar). Additionally, most stories are from the same sources (for example Reuters or Associated Press), and style changes have been made accordingly for each publication.

But considering the political instability in the country, the recent protests by monks and the continued detainment of Aung Sin Suu Kyi, could the name chosen show the bias of the media outlet?

The choice is political. One choice acknowledges the Myanmar military government, whereas one does not. But should this mean there is bias in the reporting?

Does opting for the old Burma illustrate a favouring of the former colonial governance, perhaps implicitly saying that the Burmese are unable to govern themselves and require imperial? Or does using the military’s Myanmar perhaps indicate support for the dictatorship? Or does it not make any difference whatsoever and the names used are irrelevant?

I would probably say it makes little difference. A study looking at the angles taken by media who use either name would likely confirm there is no bias linked to a preference of names. It would certainly be interesting to look into.

Why would a media source choose one over the other?

(The BBC has covered this topic and gives their reasons for opting Burma in this article)


5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Water bourn diseases???????????

Comment by Colin Wilfred Holland

Sorry, waterborne.

Comment by undergroundnetwork

Great article, thanks for update too, I was thinking that Myanmar is a city of Burma (most of them do – maybe because Burma has kept itself alienated).

Why does all this happen?


Comment by Reemas

Interesting post – that’s quite a comprehensive round up of international media!
I reckon that, while not necessarily displaying bias, the choice of a name displays the standpoint of the journalist or media organisation. As I see it an organisation that uses “Burma” has made a conscious decision to do so, because it goes against the official term.

Comment by Katie Small

Thanks for the comment Katie.

I am yet to come to any conclusions as to whether the use of either name reflects a bias or even a position on the military government. I assume the necessary research would take more time than I have available! In my humble view, however, the name choice is political, but I am not altogether sure what it means for the news that is reported from the country. I cannot imagine that the media that opt for Myanmar are perhaps condoning or supporting the Junta, but those that opt for Burma are arguably positioning themselves against it, as they do not recognise the name change as legit.


Comment by undergroundnetwork

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