Why it’s such a big deal that Obama said ‘Myanmar’ rather than Burma

November 19, 2012

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrive in Rangoon. (Soe Than Win -- AFP/Getty)

One small but potentially telling detail I and others were watching for in President Obama's trip Monday to Southeast Asia's longtime dictatorship and rogue nation Burma, a historic visit meant to encourage the country's impressive democratic reforms and to displace Chinese influence there, was what name Obama would use for the country. The United States still officially refers to it as Burma, even though the country's leadership renamed it Myanmar about 20 years ago. Neither name was an ideal option for Obama, who did use a number of phrases such as "this spectacular country." But you probably can't be the first sitting U.S. president to visit a country without using that country's name at least once, and he did: Myanmar. From The Washington Post's David Nakamura:

After meeting with President Thein Sein, the civilian leader who took control of the country from the junta, Obama for the first time referred to the country as “Myanmar,” the name used by the nation’s own leaders. The U.S. government’s policy has been to continue using “Burma” — the English name based on the Burmese colloquial word for the country and the one used by the opposition when speaking English. A year after brutally crushing pro-democracy demonstrations, the junta changed the name of the country in English from the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar in 1989.

This might seem like a small issue, but it gets to one of the most difficult questions in U.S. diplomacy with nasty regimes: How much legitimacy to bestow on a government that has done terrible things but is demonstrating both a willingness and ability improve? While Obama has emphasized that his visit is not an endorsement of the regime, using the name "Myanmar" would certainly risk that impression. The U.S. refusal to adopt "Myanmar" has been a way of communicating American disregard for the abusive military junta and its right to speak on behalf of the nation it rules. So, in a small way, adopting "Myanmar" at least hints at the United States moving away from this approach, and thus toward accepting the government's legitimacy. That would also mean potentially bolstering the legitimacy of the Burmese government, which is still staffed by a number of people who have done some awful things.

Some people aren't ready to accept the name Myanmar, and thus implicitly acknowledge the government's legitimacy in changing the country's name from Burma. One of them would seem to be Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi, whom Obama also met with on Monday. In a recent interview with a major Indian newspaper, The Hindu, she was asked which name she preferred. She explicitly linked her choice -- Burma -- with the government's legitimacy and its past abuses. Here's the relevant part of her answer, with my emphasis added:

Well, I think it’s up to you. I’ll explain why I use Burma. Burma was known as Burma since independence. Suddenly, after the military regime took over in 1988, one day, just like that, out of the blue, without so much as a by your leave from the people, they announced that Burma was going to be known as Myanmar in English from now on officially, and it would be Myanmar at the U.N. and so on. And the reason they gave is this, that Myanmar referred to all the peoples of this country whereas Burma, first of all, is a colonial name; and secondly, it had only to do with the ethnic Burmese.

To begin with, I object to a country’s name being changed without reference to the will of the people, without so much as the courtesy to ask the people what they might think of it. That of course is the sort of the thing only dictatorships do. So I object it to it on those grounds.

The case for Obama to use Myanmar gets to an uncomfortable reality of reforming dictatorships: sometimes the regime, for all its past and perhaps even ongoing abuses, is also the group capable of doing the most good. If Obama empowered the Burmese government by implicitly endorsing its chosen national name, then perhaps that also empowers the government to continue reforming. If Burmese leaders believed that the United States considered them all war criminals who should be locked up at The Hague as soon as possible -- or, worse, killed in a popular uprising like the one that toppled Libya's Moammar Gaddafi less than a decade after he gave up his nuclear weapons and instituted his own more meager reforms -- then they'd presumably be a lot less willing to push for more democracy and human rights.

The issue of Burma or Myanmar perhaps boils down to one of confidence. The more confident that Obama is in the Burmese government's ability to continue evolving from a military dictatorship to a liberal democracy, the more reason he would have to grant the small but significant concession of using their chosen name of Myanmar. If Obama continued to use Burma, that would communicate skepticism toward the government's efforts and perhaps even its sincerity, risking a backlash from that government or a setback in the burgeoning U.S.-Burma (U.S.-Myanmar?) relations he traveled there to improve. That he chose "Myanmar" shows a degree of confidence in the country's ruling government and in the reforms it's seeing through -- as well as a willingness to continue working with the regime, partially on its terms.

The Burma/Myanmar dilemma is still a difficult one -- will the State Department officially change its official designation from Burma to Myanmar? Will Secretary of State Hillary Clinton make a pointed reference to "Burma" if reforms stall? -- but no one said that the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia" would be easy.

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