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U.S. Policy Is To Say 'Burma'; Obama Also Uses 'Myanmar'

Nov 19, 2012
Originally published on November 19, 2012 12:31 pm

We've noted before that whether you call the Southeast Asian nation Burma or Myanmar has mattered to many for many years.

It's official U.S. policy, out of support for the opposition that has pressed for democratic reform in that country, to call it Burma. That's the name the nation was known by before a military regime took power in 1989 and started using Myanmar.

Today, President Obama used both names. During his visit to Myanmar/Burma — the first ever by an American president — he said that "a process of democratic reform and economic reform here in Myanmar that has been begun by [President Thein Sein] is one that can lead to incredible development opportunities."

According to The Associated Press, "Obama's deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, said the presidential phrasing was 'a diplomatic courtesy' " for Thein Sein. The wire service adds that:

"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."

NPR's Scott Horsley, who is traveling with the president, tells us that Obama "used Myanmar in his meeting with President Thein Sein. He used Burma in his speech and in his meeting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi."

As All Things Considered reported last December, NPR "chooses to split the difference, using Myanmar on first reference, along with a reminder that the country is also known as Burma."

Update at 11:15 a.m. ET. More From White House Aide Ben Rhodes.

On Air Force One today, according to a White House transcript of the conversation, Rhodes was asked about the president's use of "Myanmar":

Question: "In the Thein Sein meeting he referenced Myanmar instead of Burma. Was that just a slipup or is it kind of a sign that you guys are sort of easing your references to the name?"

Rhodes: "The president felt that given the fact that — the government obviously goes by Myanmar; it's still a disputed issue. The United States government position is still Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi still refers to Burma. But then in his meeting with Thein Sein and his comment that he would refer to Myanmar, that that was a diplomatic courtesy to do, doesn't change the fact that the U.S. government position is still Burma.

"But we've said we recognize that different people call this country by different names, and we obviously accept that. We certainly accept that that's the view of President Thein Sein.

"So our view is that this is something we can continue to discuss moving forward, and it's a symbol of how this country, again, is working through issues that in the past stood in the way of progress but now can be addressed through dialogue."

Question: "Did he just decide that on the spot? Because the guidance we had gotten ahead of time was that he was likely not to use either name."

Rhodes: "Well, I think that was in reference to the speech when you asked me that question. No, I think in diplomatic meetings, it is often customary that when you're meeting with certain government officials you use Myanmar; when you're meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi and others who use Burma, you use Burma. So I think within the meeting it was the diplomatic practice to use Myanmar, and then he used it in his public comment."

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