YANGON, Burma (AP) — Officially at least, America still calls this Southeast Asian nation Burma, the favored appellation of dissidents and pro-democracy activists who opposed the former military junta’s move to summarily change its name 23 years ago.
During an historic visit Monday, President Barack Obama called Burma what the government and many other people have been calling it for years: Myanmar.
Whether slip of the tongue or intentional remark, that single word was noted and 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.
U.S. officials could not immediately be reached for comment on whether Washington’s policy would change. But that seemed unlikely to happen any time soon.
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 President Thein Sein, “Burma” afterward while visiting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi herself was criticized by the government for calling the nation Burma during a trip to Europe over the summer. The government said she should use the proper name, “Republic of the Union of Myanmar,” as stated in the constitution. But Suu Kyi has said “it’s for each individual to make his or her own choice as to which he or she uses.”
The debate is almost exclusively confined to the English language.
Myanmar, comprising a vast array of ethnic groups, did not exist as a single entity until it was colonized by the British in the 19th century. The country achieved independence in 1948 and took the English-language name used by its former rulers, Burma.
But it was formally known in Burmese, the national language, as “myanma naing ngan” or more colloquially as “bama pyi” or “country of Burma.” Both those usages persist, and the national anthem still refers to “bama pyi.”
When the now-defunct army junta altered the name in 1989, the change applied only to the English-language title.
But exiles and critics, just like the U.S., kept on using “Burma.” And many, including the U.S., still call its main city “Rangoon” instead of Yangon.
But like Myanmar itself, that has all begun to change.
Visiting U.S. senators have used both names. Even at congressional hearings in Washington, there’s an occasional mention of “Myanmar.”