Monday’s military coup in which Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under detention has again returned focus to one much discussed side issue: Where exactly did the coup take place?
Was it in Myanmar, as the country is officially called? Or was it in Burma, the name Washington and some other foreign administrations continue to use?
The answer is complicated and, as with many things in the country, politically charged.
For generations, the country was called Burma, after the dominant Burman ethnic group. But in 1989, one year after the ruling junta brutally suppressed a pro-democracy uprising, military leaders suddenly changed its name to Myanmar.
By then, Burma was an international pariah, desperate for any way to improve its image. Hoping for a sliver of international legitimacy, it said it was discarding a name handed down from its colonial past and to foster ethnic unity. The old name, officials said, excluded the country’s many ethnic minorities.
At home, though, it changed nothing. In the Burmese language, “Myanmar” is simply the more formal version of “Burma”. The country’s name was changed only in English.
It was linguistic sleight-of-hand, but few people were fooled. Much of the world showed defiance of the junta by refusing to use the new name.
A little over a decade ago, the country began a stumbling semi-democratic transition. The military retained extensive political power, but opposition leaders were freed from prison and house arrest, and elections were allowed. Longtime pro-democracy activist Ms Suu Kyi became the country’s civilian leader.
Over the years, many countries and news outlets had begun using the country’s official name. As repression eased and international opposition to the military became less vocal, Myanmar became increasingly common. Inside the country, opposition leaders made clear it didn’t matter much anymore.
Unlike most of the world, the US government still officially uses “Burma”, but even Washington has mellowed its stance.
In 2012, during a visit to the country, then-President Barack Obama used both Burma and Myanmar. An adviser to Myanmar’s president called that “very positive” and said it was an “acknowledgement of Myanmar’s government”.
Washington’s response to the coup seemed designed to highlight old criticisms, with both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and President Joe Biden pointedly avoiding the country’s legal name.
“The United States removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy,” Mr Biden said in a statement. “The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws.”
Most other countries, though, continued to call it Myanmar.