What's in a name? In Myanmar (Burma), a lot

AFP , Thursday 1 Dec 2011

In Hillary Clinton's recent visit to Myanmar (Burma), shying away from putting a name and choosing a flag to the country reflects its rooted complexities

Some call the country Myanmar, others call it Burma, but for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on a landmark visit, there was a better solution—call it nothing.

Paying the first visit by a top US official in more than 50 years in a bid to push reform, Clinton faced a variety of obstacles but none required as much linguistic jujitsu as not mentioning the nation's name.

In public remarks in the showcase capital Naypyidaw, Clinton only employed the term Burma but said it sparingly, generally saying simply, "this country."

"The most consequential question facing this country is not its relationship with America or any other nation," Clinton said at a press conference.

"It is whether leaders will let their people live up to their God-given potential and claim their place at the heart of a Pacific century. Or will this country, once again, be left behind?" Clinton said.

The military leaders of "this country" changed the official name two decades ago to Myanmar, saying that the old term Burma was a sorry legacy of British colonialism and implied that the ethnically torn land belonged only to the Burman majority.

The opposition and exiles fiercely opposed the change, seeing it as a symbolic step to create an entirely new country, and the United States has stood in solidarity by officially calling the nation Burma.

Aides to Clinton acknowledged that she faced an unhappy choice—offending her hosts by using a name they reject or angering US lawmakers and exiles who consistently call the country Burma.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner, asked about the issue ahead of her trip, said that Clinton was "mindful of all the sensitivities" but that the policy of the United States had not changed.

The United States believes that "any change of the name of a country should be a decision" for its people, Toner said. For which people? "The Burmese people."

The US delegation had no way of finding a balance on another issue—the country's flag. Official cars and badges for the trip featured the yellow, green and red flag adopted under a controversial new constitution, not the classic blue-and-red.

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