Burma? Myanmar?

by Charles C. W. Cooke

Burma. Per the Huffington Post:

President Barack Obama used that name during his historic visit Monday, but he also called Burma what its government and many other people have been calling it for years: Myanmar.

Obama’s use of that single word was warmly welcomed by top government officials here, who immediately imbued it with significance.

Myanmar presidential adviser Ko Ko Hlaing called the wording “very positive” and said it was an “acknowledgement of Myanmar’s government,” which has taken major steps toward easing repression and transitioning to democratic rule since the military stepped aside last year.

Speaking aboard Air Force One after Obama’s departure, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the presidential phrasing was “a diplomatic courtesy” for Myanmar’s reformist President Thein Sein.

“It doesn’t change the fact that the United States government position is still Burma,” he said. “But we’ve said we recognize that different people call this country by different names. Our view is that is something we can continue to discuss.”

It is true that “different people call this country by different names.” It’s also irrelevant. If “Burma” is good enough for every single pro-democracy type, it should be good enough for the president of the United States. 

The issue is so sensitive that Obama’s aides had said earlier Monday he would likely avoid mentioning either politically charged name. But he used both during his six-hour trip – “Myanmar” during morning talks with Thein Sein, “Burma” afterward while visiting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Ah, I see. So Obama is Janus. This is a little like, say, posturing as if you support the protesters in Iran, but then referring to the country as the “Islamic Republic of Iran,” dropping all mention of “regime change,” and promising to “extend a hand” to the dictatorship. Or perhaps it’s like referring to the Falklands as “the Falklands” when discussing the matter with the British, but trying to call the islands the “Malvinas” when in Colombia. Again, if “Burma” is good enough for Aung San Suu Kyi, then it’s good enough for Thein Sein. And if the “United States government position is still Burma,” then it can refer to it as such.

How would the United States have liked it if the British government had acknowledged the Confederacy when talking to representatives from seceded states, but affirmed the indivisibility of the Union when talking to William Seward? Or if the French had referred to “British colonies” when addressing King George, but the “United States” when addressing Jefferson and Adams? My guess is that it would have been livid. And correctly so; there is no room for Erwin Schrödinger in American foreign policy.

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