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Is it 'Burma' or 'Myanmar'? US officials start shifting.

Sen. John McCain arrives Sunday with other US officials in Myanmar. Or is it Burma?

By Correspondent / January 22, 2012

Senator John McCain speaks to press on a tour of Burma, also called Myanmar.

Khin Maung Win/AP

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Bangkok, Thailand

Burma or Myanmar? As the country's military-backed government races headlong into reforms aimed at ending its long international isolation, US officials are changing their tone. For starters, they are beginning to use the government's preferred name for the country, "Myanmar," after two decades of sticking with "Burma." 

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“We have visited the Philippines, Vietnam, we are here, we are going to Myanmar tomorrow morning,” said Sen. John McCain, opening a press conference given by four US senators for journalists in Bangkok on Saturday afternoon.

It may seem like a small point, but in the subtle world of diplomacy this is heady stuff. It would seem to signal US recognition of the changes afoot in Myanmar and a willingness to work with a regime it has shunned for decades.

Until now, the US took its verbal cues from opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi when it came to the country's name. Attempting a symbolic stand against the arbitrariness of military rule, Ms. Suu Kyi and western governments have mostly stuck with “Burma” since the military junta changed the country's name to Myanmar in 1989.

But throughout Saturday's 45 minute Q&A with the senators, "Myanmar" was the term of choice, though the senior lawmakers at times slipped back into using "Burma."

When I asked whether the etymological shift presaged a changing US policy, Senator McCain cracked a joke about the “West Philippine Sea” (the name used by Manila to refer to the disputed South China Sea, also known as the East Sea in Vietnam), before telling me that “you raise a good point.”

He moved swiftly along to the next question. 

After US State Deptartment official Joseph Yun got an ear-bending last year from Myanmar's Foreign Minister Wunna Waung Lwin over his use of "Burma" during a visit to the country, perhaps the senators were just getting the script right before meeting President Thein Sein

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