US President Barack Obama’s landmark visit to Myanmar, known by the US as Burma, brings up an unusual problem of protocol: What does he call it?
If recent practice by visiting US officials is any guide, Obama will sidestep the issue by using neither name today when he becomes the first sitting US president to visit the country.
The former ruling junta summarily changed the name 23 years ago without consulting the people — a typically high-handed act by an unpopular regime that had gunned down hundreds of anti-government protesters the year before. The change was opposed by democracy advocates, who stuck with “Burma.”
As the country has opened up politically, shifting from five decades of direct military rule, the linguistic battle lines have blurred.
The US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand still officially refer it to it as Burma. However, as the relations with the reformist government of Burmese President Thein Sein have blossomed in the past year and dignitaries have beaten a path to his door, they have become less dogmatic about using the old name.
In December last year, when US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton became the highest-ranking US visitor to Myanmar in 56 years, she mostly referred to it as “this country” and did the same this September when she met Thein Sein in New York and announced easing of sanctions. Visiting US senators have used both names. Even at congressional hearings in Washington, there is an occasional mention of “Myanmar.” “Burma” is something Myanmar officials can get sore about.
“You might think this is a small matter, but the use of `Myanmar’ is a matter of national integrity,” Burmese Foreign Minister Wanna Maung Lwin told visiting US envoy Joseph Yun in May last year, according to the Myanmar Times newspaper. “Using the correct name of the country shows equality and mutual respect.”
This summer, Myanmar authorities also warned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi after she used “Burma” during high-profile trips abroad, saying “Republic of the Union of Myanmar” is enshrined in the constitution. She asserted her right to say what she wants, but has also said she is open to either name.
“It’s for each individual to make his or her own choice as to which he or she uses,” the Nobel laureate said in a Washington speech in September that many interpreted as a green light for the US to change its policy.
The truth is that for most Burmese, the name debate does not matter.
Myanmar, comprising a vast array of ethnic groups, did not exist as a single entity until it was colonized by the British in the 19th century. The country achieved independence in 1948 and took the English language name used by its former rulers, Burma.