We are now supposed to call the country which everybody knew as Burma (until very recently) Myanmar. Why? I will tell you why I think this is done in a minute, but first will tell you about some other places which have changed their names to an approximation of the local pronunciation and spelling, and more to the point, some which have not.
Here are some changes which have occurred in the last forty years; Ceylon has become Sri Lanka; Bombay has become Mumbai; and Peking has become Beijing.
Now for some places which we continue to call by their tradition English names, although in some cases they bear no relationship to the name given to these places in their own languages; Germany (Deutschland); Poland (Rzeczpospolita Polska); Copenhagen (København); or Austria which should be Österreich, if we are to use Austrian spelling and pronunciation.
Do you see a pattern emerging? All the places which we now call by their local names have a colonial past. These names were undoubtedly bestowed on these places by imperialists who took only a slight interest in the wishes of the locals. It is because those who are now in control of naming these places (who they are exactly I do not know, but I suspect it is the BBC) still have a deep sense of shame about our Empire that they tiptoe around the sensibilities of our former colonies.
The British Empire was rather high-handed at times, and some episodes like the Opium War were disgraceful, but on the whole it was a force for good. The abolition of the slave trade was accomplished by the British Navy while the abominable practice of slavery was still being carried on by the Americans for many more years, and it was even re-established by Napoleon after having been abolished by Revolutionary France. The imposition of British law upon India helped to unify that country (a unity that was lost with the end of empire), and produced the figure of Gandhi, a British educated lawyer. We also granted all our former colonies that wanted it independence with a good grace (except the first to go, the USA). Those who wished remain British, like Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands we have kept, in spite of the difficulties both these places have caused on our relations with the rest of the world. So I feel no embarrassment that my ancestors were at the centre of the British Empire, nor that I celebrated Empire Day myself as a schoolboy.
What the Great and Good who decree that we must no longer call a distant land Burma do not understand is that it is they, not the rest of us, who are belittling this former colony. The sub-text goes something like this; the Germans are a grown-up European nation who do not care whether we call them Deutschland or Germany. Nor do we expect to call the capital of Portugal Lisboa – the very idea is ridiculous. But the Burmese an inferior people who are not so sure of themselves, and so they need special treatment. It is not me who is calling the Burmese inferior – I do not believe they are. But it is the implication behind their new name.
If the BBC wish to refer to countries or cities by their local names they must do it for all countries. To do it for some but not for others is subtly offensive. They do not realise this of course. It would be quite ridiculous if the news announcers keep saying “Paree” instead of Paris, but that merely reflects how equally foolish it is to say Myanmar instead of Burma.