Mingalaba Myanmar! ...Or is it Burma?

Let me begin with a disclaimer (I’m a law student, after all):

Some of you may be wondering, as I did, how to appropriately refer to this country—Is it Burma or Myanmar? Technically, its official name is the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. In an effort to cut colonial ties, the military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989. It also disposed of a number of city names including Rangoon (now Yangon) and Pagan (now Bagan). To this day, the name change is a politically contentious issue. There are two main perspectives on the matter:

  1. The name “Burma” was never representative of the nation as a whole, given that it refers to the Burman ethnic group (making up roughly 68% of the population). Thus, many of the minority ethnic groups feel that “Myanmar” is a more inclusive name. The United Nations and the majority of the international community recognize Myanmar as the official name.
  2. The military junta never issued a referendum prior to instituting the name change in 1989. In the words of Aung San Suu Kyi, “I prefer Burma because the name was changed without any reference to the will of the people.” For this reason, nearly all opposition groups, many Burmese citizens (from a variety of ethnic backgrounds), and several key nations (including the US) still refer to the country as Burma.

I certainly have my own opinions on the matter. Regardless, as a foreigner, I feel obligated to use the terminology that most locals use when speaking to me. Therefore, throughout my blog, I will be referring to this country as Myanmar.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about my journey . . . I spent 34 hours traveling 8,559 miles from DC to New York to Frankfurt to Singapore, and—finally—to Yangon. Unfortunately, Yangon roadways are not equipped to handle the massive influx of vehicles that took place as a result of lowering the trade embargo. As a result, the drive from the airport to my hotel took another 1.5 hours in itself. On the upside, my guest house, is conveniently located in the Pazundaung township, which is within walking distance of Downtown Yangon.

I had the first couple of days to catch up on sleep and become more accustomed to Yangon. Thankfully, BD Sang, an employee of Burma Center Prague (and a local), was available to give me a brief introduction to the area. My first impression of Myanmar is that it is HOT—it’s over 100 °F and humid. People everywhere are walking around with umbrellas, but unlike in many other Southeast Asian nations, it’s clearly intended for practical (rather than cosmetic) purposes. The shade provides just enough relief to make the weather bearable. Like the roadways, the city itself is incredibly crowded. According to the United Nations, Yangon’s population was 5.21 million in 2014, and if the current trend is any indication, that number will only rise in the near future. I also noticed that Myanmar’s former economic stagnation has clearly taken a toll on the city’s buildings and infrastructure. There are many beautiful buildings (from both British colonial times and before) that are completely deteriorating. It also is fairly obvious that the country does not have the financial resources to invest in renovation projects. Moreover, judging by the piles of garbage that fill the gaps between buildings, and the equally cluttered streets and sidewalks, it seems that the locals don’t care. Who can blame them, really? When people are struggling to survive, keeping the country beautiful is very low on their list of priorities.

My first photo taken in Myanmar