NAYPYIDAW, Burma — What’s in a name? A lot, it turns out, when meeting for the first time with leaders of an authoritarian government.
On her historic visit to Burma this week, Hillary Rodham Clinton will wrestle with how to address its human rights abuses, its handling of political prisoners and its rumored weapons trade with North Korea. Meanwhile, her speechwriters will struggle with a vexing issue of their own: how exactly she refers to this country.
Should she call it Burma, Myanmar or nothing at all? Each is a choice fraught with political implications.
For more than a decade, the repressive government — still largely controlled by the military – has insisted that the country be called “Myanmar” in English, a name it adopted in 1989 after it declared martial law and brutally cracked down on pro-democratic uprisings, killing thousands in the process.
A year later, when Aung San Suu Kyi and her democratic party decisively won the general election, the military junta cracked down again, barring her party from power and keeping her under house arrest for most of the next two decades.
In support of her 1990 victory and in protest of the military’s actions, the U.S. government to this day persists in using “Burma” in all speeches and publications.
But dig a little deeper, and it gets more complicated.
There are some, even among the pro-democracy movement, who argue Myanmar may technically be the better name because it’s perceived as being more inclusive. While members of the country’s ethnic majority are known as Burmans, there are hundreds of other ethnic minority groups who may feel excluded by the name “Burma.”
“In some ways, Myanmar makes more sense,” said Aung Din, a former student protester and leader of the pro-democracy group U.S. Campaign for Burma. “But you look at the way the government did it. As if by changing the name, they could change the past … as if it could make people forget all those killed in the streets, all the suffering they caused.”
Others like Suu Kyi, who has routinely used “Burma” in English, have pointed to ironies inherent in having such a repressive government — responsible for killing and raping ethnic minorities — invoking ethnic inclusiveness as an argument for the usage of Myanmar.
“It’s not the name itself but the way it was changed, without asking the people what they wanted, without a referendum,” noted Charm Tong, a Burmese women’s advocate.
Linguistically, the difference between the two is murky. In the Burmese language, “Myanma” is the written version often used, and “Bama” the colloquial spoken name. Bama is believed to have derived from Myanma as the “m” sound eroded into a “b.”
To some, Burma — the name chosen by the country’s British rulers in the 19th century — carries a bitter taste of colonialism. But to others, Myanmar carries equally bitter overtones of its current rulers.
Even as the debate has continued within Burma, it has spread to the international community.
Within five days of the military junta’s decision, the United Nations endorsed the new name — under its general rule that countries should be referred to by their chosen name. Some countries, including China and Germany, have followed suit. But several English-speaking countries — the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia among them — have held firm.
Even nongovernmental organizations involved in human rights disagree. Amnesty International calls it Myanmar, while Human Rights Watch uses Burma.
Nowhere has the argument raged longer and been so thoroughly examined than in the media, with the sharp eyes of copy editors and persnickety style mavens.
For years, editors have argued the finer points of both sides. As a Lexington Herald editor explained in a 2008 to its readers: “It’s hard to apply the principle of ‘what do the people call themselves’ with regard to Burma/Myanmar, since a significant portion of the country’s common populace and exiles are at odds with its military government.”
The hallowed style gurus at the Associated Press made the switch to Myanmar in 2006.
The New York Times did it even earlier, in 1989, a decision that can be traced to Joseph Lelyveld, then foreign editor and later executive editor, who expressed regret in a 2007 Boston Globe column for having settled on Myanmar too early, before seeing how brutal its government would become.
“Now Myanmar is associated with those dreadful people,” Lelyveld told the Globe. “Basically, I was too fast off the mark.”
Some have tried to have it both ways. The Lonely Planet franchise, for example, has titled its guides “Myanmar (Burma).”
But over time, Myanmar has become the more popular option — adopted by CNN, most networks and outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal.
The Washington Post is now one of the lone holdouts, sticking with “Burma” but requiring that its scribes dutifully include the phrase “also known as Myanmar” in each story.
In recent years, the Burma/Myanmar dispute has spread to new media. After a rhetorical skirmish broke out on Wikipedia, editors proposed a two-week debate on the issue on the site. Advocates on both sides wrote up lengthy dissertations on the topic, citing precedents (like Burkina Faso, formerly known as Upper Volta) and invoking the founding principles of Wikipedians, Google search statistics and much more.
For a while reconciliation seemed near, with the floating of a grand compromise involving two articles. A “Burma” entry, it was proposed, would cover all history before 1989, and a “Myanmar” post would tackle post-1989. But that, too, was shot down.
Wikipedia’s administrators had the last word. The site’s page on the country now says “Burma …officially the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.”
For U.S. and Burmese officials, the subject remains incredibly touchy.
In January, at a U.N. discussion on human rights violations in Burma, the country’s delegate interrupted the U.S. representative, bristling over her passing reference to “the Burmese delegation.” After intervention by the session’s president, the U.S. representative continued her talk, simply avoiding the use of either name.
With Burma’s leaders just beginning to open up and reform, U.S. officials say they want to avoid sparking similar disputes during Clinton’s visit.
So instead, they will use phrases like “your country,” “what you call Myanmar,” “this land,” and the new capital of Naypyidaw in its place, according to senior administration officials who were not authorized to speak for attribution.
“This is the first time for us in visiting, so we want to come with respect for them, knowing it’s a sensitive issue,” said the official traveling with Clinton, “but also keeping in mind that it’s a sensitive issue for us, too.”
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