White House playing a name game on Burma

What’s in a name? For the Obama administration, a lot, when it comes to the repressive, long-isolated nation of Burma.

Seven months after the president’s historic trip to the Southeast Asian country, Obama will welcome President Thein Sein to the White House on Monday. But the administration has been working through some strategic machinations over how to refer to Thein Sein’s homeland -- as Burma, the U.S. government’s official policy, or as Myanmar, the ruling regime’s preferred name.

Burmese President Thein Sein speaks during a town hall event at the Voice of America in Washington May 19, 2013. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

Burmese President Thein Sein speaks during a town hall event at the Voice of America in Washington, May 19, 2013. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

In a news release last week announcing Thein Sein’s visit, the White House used the term “Myanmar,” but in another announcement on Monday, it did not use either name, referring only to the “Burmese people.”

The delicate balance is part of the Obama administration’s ongoing efforts to normalize relations with Burma, encouraging the country to pursue democratic reforms. By occasionally using Myanmar, the White House is offering “diplomatic courtesy” that reflects some of the “positive reforms” the Thein Sein government has pursued, said Caitlin Hayden, spokeswoman for the National Security Council.

Hayden emphasized, however, that the U.S. government has not changed its official policy to call the country Burma.

“While we are not changing our policy to officially adopt ‘Myanmar,’ we believe that showing respect for a government that is pursuing an ambitious reform, a government that is pursuing an ambitious reform agenda, is an important signal of support for its efforts and our desire to help the transformation succeed,” she said.

The president began the new practice of occasionally using Myanmar during his trip, after meeting with Thein Sein.

The matter is contentious. Burma is the colonial, English name based on the Burmese colloquial word for the country and the one that has long been used by the political opposition to the oppressive ruling junta. A year after brutally crushing pro-democracy demonstrations, the junta changed the name of the country from the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar in 1989.

The United States had long been sympathetic to the opposition, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who had continued using Burma during years of confinement in her lakeside villa. She was released in 2010 and welcomed Obama to her home last November, pledging to work with the ruling party on reforms.

Human-rights groups have criticized the Obama administration for moving too quickly to reward Burma’s ruling party for reforms that, they contend, have not taken root. Continued ethnic conflict has left more than 100,000 Muslims displaced from their homes, and the country has not allowed the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to open offices there.

Human Rights Watch, a leading advocacy group, criticized a recent release of political prisoners ahead of Thein Sein’s visit to the United States as a public relations ploy.

“Burma’s government still appears to be using political prisoner releases as a public relations tool, rather than to bring an end to politically motivated imprisonment,” said John Sifton, the group’s Asia advocacy director. Obama “must also make it clear that there are consequences if the Burmese government fails to implement its previous human rights pledges.”

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