On Names and Knowledge

In the back of a small notebook, following pages of field notes and hastily- scrawled interview transcripts, there is a map. The map is one that I drew on the first day I arrived in Southern Shan state. Anticipating a quick succession of largely informal interviews, I’d planned for the map to be merely a reference— a simple diagram I could flip to quickly when situating people’s descriptions of townships and major cities. At the conclusion of my research, however, what began as a crude outline of the state, scattered with a handful of major cities, became unrecognizable and, in many senses, useless— a darkened jumble of scrawled notes, markings, and overlapping words, much of which were, in the end, illegible.

Between interviews, I’d re-drawn boundary lines, added references to new towns and villages, and attempted to fill in the sites, landmarks, and routes described by my research subjects. Yet, these minor additions were not the primary cause of my confusion. Instead, it was the labels I’d amassed— referring to towns, cities, and regions— that obscured an otherwise sensible representation of the region’s land. I’d begun with a black pen, noting current English and Burmese place-names copied from a map published by the national government. Days in, I quickly added, in blue ink, the English names and Burmese translations used during the British colonial era, many of which are still used colloquially today. More complicated, however, were local place-names, terms derived from the Pa’O and, occasionally, Shan languages. These names I also added to the map, in green. Soon, black, blue, and green words —in English, Burmese, Pa’O, and Shan— obscured the map, the region’s outline no longer visible beneath patches of text. These names were not just a source of confusion for me, but also for those I interviewed. Each mention of a village, town, or region often triggered a set of clarifications. Often, a relative, friend, or parent would help bridge the divide between the place-names and spatial markers I had memorized and the names used locally or historically.

The dilemma of naming was not just abstract, referenced only in conversation but with no material presence; rather, I encountered the complexities of labeling and demarcating daily, riding atop the back of a motorbike and reading roadside signs and official markers.

On one occasion, my friend Khun Aung Thein stopped his bike directly in front of one of the ubiquitous concrete, red and gold village markers found throughout Myanmar. I quickly read the name written on the sign— “Myan Aung Ywa.” This was not the village I had been told we would visit, so, assuming miscommunication, I questioned our location. My friend chuckled and waved off my question, “Who knows where that name came from! No one calls it that.” With that, he turned and walked toward the village. I ran after him, up the village’s main road. “This is so confusing! I never know where we are,” I complained, flipping through my map to make note of yet another alternative place-name. “It’s okay. You don’t need that” he replied, pointing to my notebook. “Just ask someone who is Pa’O. In our heads, we have our own maps.”


The geography my Pa’O friends situate their lives within— one that remains unacknowledged by formal maps or signs— exists in many ways as an alternative to that defined by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, most concretely through the 1989 Adaptation of Expressions Law. The highest level re-namings executed under the 1989 law are well known— the changing of the country’s name from “Burma to” “Myanmar” (or, officially, the “Union of Myanmar”) or the country’s largest city from “Rangoon” to “Yangon;” yet, many do not realize that the law also allowed for changes to the name of “any state, division, townships zone, township, town, ward, village tract or village, or the name of any river, stream, forest, mountain or island.” Initially described as replacing English- language terminology with indigenized Myanma pronunciations, the Law, in fact, implemented a sweeping shift in the formal processes of naming non-Burman locales. As all official signs, maps, and government records are written in the Burmese language, ethnic language names of places were either changed to traditional Burmese names, or transliterated from a local language into Burmese.

The impacts of such a re-naming policy are numerous and far-reaching. After the 1991 ceasefire between the PNO/PNA and the SPDC, as former conflict-ridden areas were increasingly connected with the country’s Burman center, the overlapping nature of Pa’O and Burmese language names caused much confusion. One friend described to me his experience writing letters home after he first arrived in Yangon in the 1990s— each letter he sent was returned, with the central post office in Yangon informing him, each time, that the destination he’d intended for his letter did not exist. “How could my home no longer exist,” he asked, upon each visit. Only later did he realize the issue was not that his home did not exist in the records used by post office workers— it did exist, but by a name he did not know.


The erasure of certain ways of knowing the world— and a replacement of a foreign, external form— however, has impacts more deeply-felt than those associated with the difficulties of sending a letter or identifying a village by its official, Burmese-language name. The efforts of the successive governments of Myanmar to re-shape the country via the map— not just through re-namings, but through the drawing of divisions, resettlement of villages, and demarcating of states and regions— makes concrete a particular view of how the country should be conceptualized, one inherently at odds with the understandings that structure local notions of belonging, authority, and ownership. If the country is to pursue what Aung San Suu Kyi has recently purposed— a 21st Century Panglong Convention— differing understandings of what the country of “Myanmar” entails will have to be reconciled. These different understandings might, at first sight, appear to be questions of language, but at their core, they are much more about representation, about what which voices are heard and, relatedly, which forms of knowledge are recognized. Whether these issues are broached as a part of the political dialogue remains to be seen, but from the perspective of many I met in Shan State, the formal recognition of non-Burman place-names would speak volumes. “I know there is a lot we cannot change,” a Pa’O friend told me recently, “But at least we should be able to choose the name of our homes, to call them what we want. “

Author: Courtney Wittekind

Courtney T. Wittekind is currently a PhD student in Social Anthropology at Harvard University. She completed a M.Phil at the University of Oxford where she studied as a member of St Antony’s College and Rhodes Scholar. Her current research centers on questions of transition, place, and the unseen in Myanmar’s Shan State.