Burmese don’t have last names. Here is why

The first problem Burmese travelling abroad encounter is having to tell people how they should call them. Usually they need to cut a slice of their names.

I often tell non-Burmese to just call me Aung. But none of my Burmese friends call me Aung. Think of it as Andrew becoming An or Jacob becoming Ja. Weird, isn’t it? All my Burmese friends call my entire name, Aung Kaung Myat.

So we do not inherit our names from our father or family. Or women do not take their husband’s name. Our names belong one hundred percent to ourselves.

How does it work?

People have given names and family names in the West or East Asia. But Burmese only have given names. Although people back in the days had one-word name, nowadays it is fashionable for parents to give their children longer names. As you will see later, this is a source of confusion between foreigners and Burmese. My grandfather’s name is Nu (not the former Prime Minister). But my name, Aung Kaung Myat, has three words. My youngest cousin’s name has five words. This trend must stop or else we will spend a great amount of time calling other people’s names.

The fact that Burmese names have multiple syllables confused the foreigners who interpret the first part of the name (Aung, for me) must be first name, second part (Kaung) middle name and last part (Myat) last name.

To give some examples, my father’s name is Tun Hla Kyaing. We don’t share any last names because we don’t have it in the first place. Aung San, the leading architect of the independence of modern Burma, has two-syllable name, none of which are his father’s name or family name. U Thant, third Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1961 to 1971, has one-syllable name, “Thant”. U is an honorific for adult males.

I thought our neighboring countries like Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam had the same system like we do until I met some of them. Burmese culture is probably the only one where people have their given names as full names. Why is that so?

Traditional astrology

There are two possible explanations. The first one is the popular belief in traditional astrology, which encourages the parents to consult with the astrologers to choose their children’s names to be as auspicious as possible. As a result, you will find that most of the boys/men in the country, myslef included, have the name, Aung, which means “success”. My name, Aung Kaung Myat, was chosen by Min Thein Kha, one of the most popular astrologists. My mom told me I didn’t have a name until I was 2 years old until one of my relatives went to the astrologist to consult.

Folks who could not go to the astrologist can turn to the traditional 8-day calendar to name a child. There are a range of alphabets designated for individuals days. Parents can name a child by using one of those alphabets as the first word. For example, Monday-born child’s name will start with the alphabets, က ka, ခ hka, ဂ ga, ဃ ga and င nga. Tuesday-born, စ sa, ဆ hsa, ဇ za, ည nya. And so on.

Maybe Burmese nationalism?

The patriotic or independence movements under the British colonial rule might have contributed largely to the resistance of Burmese-speaking population against the attempts of the British to incorporate Burmese society into the Anglo-Indian culture. My Cambodian friend told me it was not long ago that they started using first name, last name, possibly in the era of French colonial rule to modernize Cambodia. Perhaps the same attempt of the British government must have failed. I am not an anthropologist. So don’t quote me on that.

But do we want to change? NO

True it is inconvenient when we apply for a visa or when we fill in school or job applications abroad because we always need to cut our names into half to shoehorn into western-style names. Nevertheless, we don’t want to abandon this aspect of culture. The fact that women don’t have to change their names when getting married is a type of empowerment. At least, this is a good conversation starter when meeting strangers.

But your name is too long

Here is a trick young people sometimes use. You can abbreviate the first letters of their names. Some friends call me AKM. But again this only helps when texting because you are making three sounds anyway.

Journalism student from Burma/Non-believer/Radical Progressive.

Journalism student from Burma/Non-believer/Radical Progressive.