Burma, Myanmar and the Myth of Objectivity

by David Edmonds – twitter @DavidEdmonds100

Since my last blog post, there has been a decision within the BBC “to start to move” to calling ‘Burma, ‘Myanmar’.

Burma has always been an interest of mine because it was the big story in the first few weeks when I began in journalism.  Aung San Suu Kyi’s husband (now deceased) lived in Oxford and when the demonstrations broke out in Burma in September 1988 I would deliver news wires to him: in those pre-internet days he had virtually no other means of finding out what was going on.

In 1989, a year after they had massacred several thousand people, the Junta officially renamed Burma, Myanmar.  As I understand it, Burma and Myanmar have the same meaning – Myanmar is more formal than the official English-language Burma (or Burmah, as it was once spelt).  Some institutions/organizations, such as the UN, began to adopt the new term, Myanmar, almost immediately.  The British government did not; nor did the BBC.

Lots of countries change their name, of course.  Of all the continents, Africa is the most designation fickle: Abyssinia to Ethiopia, Gold Coast to Ghana, Upper Volta to Burkino Faso, Southwest Africa to Namibia, and Rhodesia to Zimbabwe.

The BBC says that one reason that it is moving towards ‘Myanmar’ is that Myanmar is now becoming recognisable and familiar to BBC audiences.  This is a good reason.  But it’s mildly disingenuous.  It did not take the BBC, or the British government, 25 years to start calling ‘Rhodesia’, Zimbabwe.

It’s very difficult to define what objectivity is in journalism.   It’s easier to explain what it isn’t.  It’s impossible to make sense of the idea of ‘complete objectivity’.  The labelling of countries/towns/political parties etc. highlights a particular dilemma in debates about bias, impartiality and objectivity.  For practical reasons reporters and presenters cannot carry on saying in each and every Burma news bulletin, “‘Burma, or as some people call it, Myanmar…”.  That would be tiresome.  And it would be unsatisfactory to switch usage from one bulletin to the next.

So news organizations have to choose.  And choosing, whatever the BBC says, is a political (small p) act.  Londonderry or Derry?  In Northern Ireland, nationalists tend to call the town Derry.  Unionists call it Londonderry. 

Where the name of a place is disputed, a news organization can’t sit on the fence, or the palisade, as fence critics would have it.  There is no objective middle ground.  And the real explanation for why the BBC didn’t call Burma, Myanmar, back in 1989, is that it would have conferred legitimacy on the Junta.  Given that the BBC had to choose one name or another, that was as worthy a consideration as any.  But it wasn’t an impartial choice.


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4 Responses to Burma, Myanmar and the Myth of Objectivity

  • David Edmonds says:

    I’ve just changed ‘when the riots broke out’ to ‘when ‘the demonstrations broke out’. Oh dear, I think I was using Junta terminology.

  • geoffrey goddard says:

    It is not about taking sides, it is about whether we need to have a more inclusive world for it to be a better place. In a country where the majority population is the Bamar, ‘Myanmar’ is more inclusive than ‘Burma’.

    • John says:

      Not necessarily. Myanmar is the literary, or written, equivalent of “Bama.” Ethnic Bamar people call themselves either Bamar myu lo or Myanma myu lo — it’s not a term that can be applied to Kayin, Chin, Shan, Mon or other ethnic minorities.

  • Bob Haun says:

    There is and will be more to investigate regarding this ruthless military thugocracy than the timing of and reasons for the change in usage from Burma to Myanmar (although I think the discussion is important and valid, especially for me, knowing that the Bamar is the majority population).

    The number of child virtual slave laborers, the extraction numbers for the minerals being mined every year, the deeper roles of China and other countries in mineral extraction and slave labor, the figures for starvation and preventable disease. All are important to me (although I am not a scholar of Burma/Myanmar).

    One aspect of Myanmar I find fascinating is its reliance on astrology for major decision making/planning; i.e., the rush to build the new capital city several years ago.

    Any thoughts on this aspect of Myanmar’s culture, esp. as it informs the iron fist government, I would much appreciate.