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

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

Khin Maung Win/AP
Senator John McCain speaks to press on a tour of Burma, also called Myanmar.

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." 

“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

McCain, fellow veteran Sen. Joseph Lieberman, and colleagues Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Sen. Kelly Ayote travelled to Myanmar/Burma today, after visiting Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand. They will also meet opposition leader Suu Kyi, partly to assess next steps on possible removal of some US sanctions on the country

Her opinion will be key to whether the US waters down sanctions, as Senator Lieberman acknowledged on Saturday. "I wouldn't say we're giving her a total veto," Lieberman said, but added that "her views over when to end sanctions would heavily influence US policy”.

The next shift is likely after April 1 by-elections, in which Suu Kyi will run, and if they are deemed free and fair, the senators see no option for the US but to respond by removing some sanctions. 

But as far as anyone knows, Suu Kyi's take is that the country's name is "Burma," itself a tin-eared British colonial-era rendering of "Bama," a way people in country pronounced what was more formally called "Myanma." But then, many Burmese are easy either way. "I say Burma, I say Myanmar," one Burmese told me today when I raised the subject.

As an Irishman, I empathize, as many Irish place-names are mangled Anglicizations (manglicizations?) of Gaelic names, rather than meaningful translations into English of what the original actually means.

Back in 1989, the military regime spun the renaming as "Myanmar" as a concession to the country's more than 130 ethnic minorities whom the army decided were discriminated-against by the use of the allegedly-ethnocentric British adaptation. This was fresh from gunning down some 3,000 student demonstrators in then-capital Rangoon/Yangon (another lexical wrangle: think Burma/Rangoon and Myanmar/Yangon and you get the idea).

But ethnocentricism lived on in much worse form, real rather than symbolic. The army has destroyed more ethnic minority villages in eastern Burma than the Sudanese Army and its janjaweed militia allies managed in Darfur, according to data in a 2009 Harvard University report, as well as a litany of abuses such as forced labor, extrajudicial killing, child soldiers, and gang-rape.

While the regime has claimed "Myanmar" is the more inclusive term, linguist Maung Tha Noe told the BBC in 2010 that "Bamar" means all the people in this country, but that "Myanmar" excludes the country's ethnic minorities, such as the Karen, Mon, and Shan. But Bertil Linter, prolific author on the country, has a simpler take: "Burma" and "Myanmar" mean exactly the same thing. 

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