Foreign Policy Blogs

What’s in a (country’s) name? Lots—especially when disputed.

burma-myanmar-from burma-cente



Before the era of nation-states, Shakespeare had it easy. While  humanists may agree labels matter little, geographers in the 21st century must keep up with country name changes, and the accompanying politics.

Readers these days come across Myanmar (Burma), or Burma (Myanmar), depending on the writer’s point of view. Burma is the original name of the second-largest country in southeast Asia, known in recent years for a thawing autocracy and human rights luminary Aung San Suu Kyi.

The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stability Operations (CSO) in September put out a press release recounting its activities in “Burma.” Yet the U.N., Japan, France, Russia, and most other nations have relations with Myanmar, to which its name was changed after a 1989 military coup. The two are essentially the same, with Burma the more colloquial in the native tongue. That new rulers instituted “Myanmar,” the more traditional, literary name, hinted at establishing a new identity. When visiting the country in 2012, President Obama mentioned “Myanmar,” possibly signaling willingness to work with a reforming state.

All of which is to remind us that names — just like language in negotiations, and national narratives that support political positions of this or that — matter.

Domestic politics often drive identities behind country names.

The United States of America was presumably named (though debate continues) to emphasize federalism and show how semi-independent districts could operate as a nation, out of the yoke of an oppressive monarchy.

The history of the Persia’s name-change to Iran sounds like a comedy of errors. Ehsan Yarshater, writing in Iranian Studies, relates how Iran, the name of the country in Farsi, is a derivative of Aryana, a centuries-old name for Persian territory. He theorizes that in the 1930s the Persian ambassador to Germany was convinced by the Germans, then trumpeting the glories of Aryanism, to change the nation’s title to reflect its Aryan heritage, and so break with imperial difficulties with Britain and Russia. The change went through with unintended consequences: newspaper readers confused it with Iraq, regarded it as an Arab nation, or could not place it on the map. Moreover, the world over knew of Persian carpets and literature, yet “Iran” was faceless. The headlines of instability from the 1950s onward seared a negative association with the label Iran.

African nations and post-independence politics exemplify repudiation of colonial histories.

The “Belgian Congo” of King Leopold fame in 1971 became (with a new African ruler) Zaire, from a local word meaning “river that swallows all rivers.”  In 1997 yet another government re-named it Democratic Republic of the Congo, echoing the legacy of the Kongo kingdom that had existed for centuries before European incursion.

Upper Volta, the former French West Africa colony so named for its geographic area, retained the name until 1984 when revolutionaries re-named it Burkina Faso, two words from dominant ethnic groups, meaning “land of honest people.”

Regional histories and conflicts also linger large in the name-game.

Names of contested islands differ depending on who claims sovereignty. Such a dispute spurred the brief 1982 war over the Falkland Islands (the U.K. name) or the Malvinas (the Argentine one). Japan, literally a country of islands, claims areas close to both China and Russia, each nation having its own name, amid varying interpretations after World War II.

Taiwan RoC (Republic of China), or its mainlander moniker Taiwan PRC (People’s Republic of China), has been a regional chess match. So is the one-time naming of South Ossetia, in Georgian territory, as the ostensible counterpart to North Ossetia in Russia. Since Russia took de facto control of South Ossetia in 2008, watch that (map) space for an update.

Bolivia — and Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru — share the legacy of Simon Bolivar, with the term “Bolivarian Republic” loosely defining the ideal state after General Bolivar kicked the Spanish out of the region in the 1820s. Bolivar pushed not only for independence from imperial powers but also for strong, central government with emphasizing humanistic (as opposed to industrial) values. One can trace today’s democratic socialist states in this region back to Bolivar.

A more in-depth discussion of country names would explore the concept of nation, which usually takes identity from a dominant ethno-linguistic or tribal group. In Europe and the U.S., “nation” is associated with people of a state under one government. “National” institutions are almost always state structures. In the Middle East and Central/South Asia, however, the word khalk, or people, is often interchanged with the word for nation, which is more of a tribal or spatial (but non-state) principal.

Ask someone in the former Soviet Union what nationality he/she is and they will respond with, regardless of where they live, their ethnic group. In this vast region, citizenship and nationality are two very different things, reflecting views of history and culture — whether due to closer borders, smaller countries, or past conflict — that is largely glossed over in today’s culturally monolithic (albeit multi-ethnic) U.S.



Jason Anderson
Jason Anderson

Jason has lived and worked for over five years in Russian-speaking countries. He spent April-May 2014 researching religious extremist groups in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. He has project experience in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. He previously served as a trainer for U.S. military and civilians working alongside counterparts in Afghanistan, and as a coordinator with Afghan ministerial advisors on National Priority Program (NPP) funding proposals. Jason speaks conversational Russian and holds a Master of International Affairs from Columbia University.

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