Verbal minefield in country that dare not speak its name

NAYPYIDAW: On her historic visit to Burma this week, Hillary Clinton has wrestled with human rights abuses, political prisoners and a rumoured weapons trade with North Korea. Meanwhile, her speechwriters have struggled with a vexing issue of their own: how, exactly, she will refer to this country?

The question was: should she call it Myanmar, Burma or nothing at all? Each was fraught with political implications.

For more than a decade the authoritarian government has insisted that the country be called Myanmar in English, a name it adopted in 1989 after it declared martial law and cracked down on pro-democracy uprisings, killing thousands.

A year later, when Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy 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 victory and in protest at the military's actions, the US 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 in the pro-democracy movement, who argue that Myanmar may technically be the better name because it is perceived as being more inclusive.


While the country's majority ethnic group is known as Barmar, there are hundreds of minority groups that 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 US 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 opposed the change to Myanmar, have noted the irony of such a repressive government - responsible for killing and raping ethnic minorities - invoking ethnic inclusiveness as an argument for using Myanmar.

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 its British rulers in the 19th century) carries a bitter taste of colonialism. To others, Myanmar carries equally bitter overtones of its present rulers.

Even as the debate has continued within Myanmar, it has spread to the rest of the world.

Within five days of the 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. Several English-speaking countries - the US, Britain, Australia and Canada among them - have held firm.

For Mrs Clinton's visit, US officials said she planned to use phrases such as ''your country'', ''what you call Myanmar'' and ''this land''.

''This is the first time for us in visiting, so we want to come with respect for them, knowing it's a sensitive issue,'' an official said, ''but also keeping in mind that it's a sensitive issue for us, too.''

The Washington Post