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Opinion: The harmful legacy of ‘Burmanising’ ethnic language

This week throngs of journalist descended on Burma’s capital Naypyidaw to discover who will be the country’s next president. Following weeks of rumour and speculation, it came as little surprise that the frontrunner was Htin Kyaw, a London-educated confidant of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. The biggest shock perhaps was the announcement of a little-known ethnic Chin parliamentarian as the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) upper house candidate: Henry Van Thio. Unfortunately the historic elevation of an indigenous Chin to a position of such political authority was quickly dampened by a near-universal butchering of his name.

The BBC and Reuters called him “Henry Vantriu”, The Guardian tried “Henry Ben Htee You” and the Wall Street Journal opted for “Henry Van Thiyu”, while local English-language outlets threw “Henry Ban Tri U” and other variants into the mix. While many quickly issued corrections, others did not, and either way their stories were already getting picked up by media across the world.

Of course anyone with rudimentary knowledge of Burma’s demography would know that Chin people spell their names using Roman letters, and the above endeavours reflect poor transliterations from the Burmese alphabet. The more assiduous journalist might have searched ethnic Chin news media for reports about an NLD candidate named Henry or perhaps asked a Chin person before filing their copy. But in the face of an ever-churning 24 hour media machine, accuracy often gets sacrificed in the name of speed.

Most journalists will probably shrug this off as a minor error or harmless mistake – after all Henry Van Thio was a relatively obscure figure until Thursday, when his name was thrust into the global spotlight. But while he will now become a household figure (he is widely tipped to be one of two co-vice presidents), the misspelling and misrepresentation of ethnic minority names in the media is far more entrenched.

When it comes to a former military dictatorship that has become synonymous with campaigns to ‘Burmanise’ ethnic minority communities and languages, it suddenly takes on a more sinister undertone. At best it demonstrates a sloppy indifference to the representation of minorities in the media, and at worst a tacit endorsement of the military’s war on ethnic culture.

The state-run New Light of Myanmar – whose incorrect spelling was happily regurgitated by some outlets – has a long and sordid history of erasing ethnic identity through language. A 2014 op-ed in the Chinland Guardian by Van Biak Thang noted that the government mouthpiece “consistently, perhaps intentionally” misspells the names of Chin MPs, athletes and towns.

“If we read about Chin State published in the English edition of the New Light of Myanmar, we sometimes don’t know who and where they are writing about because of the unusual wrong spellings of names,” a Chin pastor told the journal. Considering the governments systematic outrage against anyone who still says “Burma” instead of “Myanmar” it would be a bizarre coincidence if this use of language was accidental, adds the author.

“This has been consciously practiced in the country mainly by the authorities and their proxy media as well as Burmese media. And this is not acceptable,” said Van Biak Thang in an email.

“People in the media are aware that ethnic nationalities have got their own writing and spelling but they intentionally ignore it and directly translate ethnic names written in Burmese into English spellings of their own accord. For instance, how would you, as chief minister of the Chin state government, feel if your name is completely spelled wrong? This indicates a clear disrespect for the ethnic nationalities,” he said.

Similarly, ethnic minorities must submit all official applications in Burmese. The result is that their names will be transliterated from Burmese into English on passports, usually by completely annihilating the original spelling. This seems particularly absurd for Romanised languages, such as Chin and Kachin, but is an insult to all of Burma’s indigenous and ethnic nationalities – none of whom are allowed to use their mother tongues on official documentation.

In 1989, the Burmese junta arbitrarily amended the names of cities and regions to suit the military’s agenda. One consequence of this was the scrubbing of linguistic meaning from many places inhabited by ethnic minorities and indigenous communities. For example, the Shan town Yawnghwe, meaning “valley with abundant paddy” in Shan was changed to Nyaung Shwe or “golden banyan” in Burmese. As a report by the Shan Women’s Action Network notes, “not all transliterations are as poetic”, with the Shan word for town “mong” changed to the Burmese transliteration “mine”, which means bomb or landmine. Similarly, Chin names carry deep meanings reflecting their family and ancestral histories, says Van Biak Thang. “When the name is misspelled, its meanings are gone.”

The “Burmanisation” process coincided with the systematic eradication of indigenous cultures, schools and languages, bolstered by the junta’s ban on all ethnic language media. The military’s legacy of oppression and Burman-chauvinism continues to be felt today, with ethnic minority media outlets still regularly shuttered by the state and otherwise struggling to make a foothold in the market as Burma opens up. This is among the many reasons it is so important that English-language media get their terminology right.

Similar grievances can be found in other parts of Burma, including Kachin, Karen and Mon states, where names and places have been altered or replaced. Burmanised language – sometimes blatantly invented by reporters without consulting the person or community in question – has infiltrated the Burmese media landscape without raising much of an eyebrow.

For example, ethnic Karen leader Mutu Sae Poe is commonly referred to as “Mutu Say Paw”, Kachin rebel commander Gun Maw is often called “Gwun Maw” and Kokang leader Peng Jiasheng labelled “Phon Kya Shin”. There is also endemic misuse of ethnic and indigenous honorifics – sometimes used in addition to Burmese titles, or misspelled completely.

“Yesterday when the vice president’s name came out, we were thinking so hard ‘Who is this guy?’ The way the government and the media put it was completely wrong,” said Cheery Zahau, an ethnic Chin activist who contested a seat in Falam Township in Burma’s November election. “I don’t think they are sympathetic. In this sense, all Burmans are very arrogant about the names of ethnic people … The media should really be sensitive and always double-check.”


Part of the problem is the lack of diversity in the mainstream media, which continues to be dominated by ethnic Burmans. The ongoing influence of state media and government-sanctioned spellings is another major concern. Attitudes are unlikely to change unless media outlets make a concerted effort to promote inclusion and to recognise the value of cultural details that may be perceived as unimportant or mundane. Of course, it can be time-consuming and difficult for reporters to identify the correct spellings of non-Burman names and places, especially when faced with a looming deadline. But journalists have a responsibility to question and challenge the junta-designed narratives that have oppressed ethnic language and identity for decades, or risk becoming complicit. Language matters and if Burma hopes to move towards a more inclusive and democratic future, the media need to step up their game.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not reflect DVB editorial policy.


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