What’s in a name? Plenty for the countries that have changed theirs – will Macedonia be next?

Many countries changed their names at independence, most often from ones imposed by their colonisers

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2018, 8:40pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2018, 8:50pm

As Macedonian citizens vote on Sunday on whether to rename their country “The Republic of North Macedonia”, here is a look at other nations that have changed their names.

Many countries changed their names at independence, most often from ones imposed by their colonisers.

At their independence, for example, Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan), Botswana (Bechuanaland), Ghana (Gold Coast), Indonesia (Dutch East Indies), Malawi (Nyasaland) and Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) were created.

The 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union saw changes to the names of its now separate republics, such as Belarus (Belorussia), as happened with the disintegration of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

A few already-sovereign nations have chosen to rebaptise themselves, as Macedonia is proposing to do to settle a dispute with Greece over its name. Here are some recent examples:

Swaziland reverts to eSwatini

Fifty years after Swaziland’s independence from Britain, King Mswati III announced in April 2018 that the tiny country would “revert to its original name”, eSwatini, which means “land of the Swazi”. Africa’s last absolute monarch caught his nation by surprise, although the change had been mooted and there was some unhappiness with the previous one, a mix of Swazi and English.

Congo: to Zaire and back

At independence from Belgium in 1960, the central African country became the Republic of Congo, confusingly taking the same name as its neighbour. The two were differentiated by reference to their capitals – Brazzaville and Kinshasa.

A few years later the name was tweaked, and the country became the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But in 1971 there was a change to Zaire, imposed by general Joseph-Desire Mobutu who took power in a 1965 coup. He adopted a policy of replacing European-style names with African ones.

He became Mobutu Sese Seko and set up a dictatorship that lasted until Laurent-Desire Kabila captured the capital in 1997 and reinstated the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Burma chooses Myanmar

In 1989 Burma’s military government renamed the Southeast Asian country the “Republic of the Union of Myanmar”, to draw a line under its past as a British colony. It was only the English translation that changed, its name in the Burmese language remaining intact.

The opposition, led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, continued for years to use Burma, as did some countries that rejected the legitimacy of the junta. The use of Myanmar increased when the transition to democracy began in 2012 but in French “Birmanie” remains in common use.

From Upper Volta to Burkina Faso

Keeping the name Upper Volta for years after its independence from France in 1958, the landlocked west Africa nation was rebaptised Burkina Faso, or “land of upright men”, in 1984. The name – introduced by popular coup leader Thomas Sankara who took power a year earlier – combines two of the country’s languages. The previous title referred to its location along the Volta River.

Kampuchea returns to Cambodia

The Kingdom of Cambodia was named the Khmer Republic in 1970 when Prince Norodom Sihanouk was ousted in a US-backed coup. When Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge took over the Southeast Asian nation in 1975, they called it Democratic Kampuchea after its Khmer-language title.

The Vietnam-backed regime that toppled the genocidal Khmer Rouge in 1979 rebaptised the country the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. When Vietnam withdrew in 1989 and the monarchy was restored, Sihanouk becoming head of state, it returned to being Cambodia.

Dahomey becomes Benin

Fifteen years after its independence from France and a year after adopting Marxist policies, Dahomey renamed itself the People’s Republic of Benin in 1975. The name is a reference to the powerful pre-colonial Kingdom of Benin that was in what is now southwest Nigeria until the late 19th century.