In Burma, Obama Adapts His Language to Suit His Audience

By Patrick Goodenough | November 20, 2012 | 5:36 AM EST

President Obama meets with Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Rangoon on Monday, November 19, 2012. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

( – President Obama, during his historic trip to Burma this week, raised eyebrows by using the regime’s preferred name for the country – “Myanmar” – but only when meeting with its leader, President Thein Sein.

When Obama met with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, by contrast, he used the term “Burma,” as did Suu Kyi.

Since the then military junta arbitrarily decreed in 1989 that Burma should be called Myanmar, continued usage of the former name has become associated with opposition to military rule, and the United States’ policy has been to call the country Burma – until now.

While appearing inconsequential on the surface, the issue has been a sensitive one for Burma’s military-backed civilian government, and Obama’s use of Myanmar when he was with Thein Sein, a retired military general, was not unplanned.

“That was a diplomatic courtesy,” deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters on Air Force One as Obama flew to his next stop, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

“[It] doesn’t change the fact that the U.S. government position is still [to use] Burma.”

Rhodes said the issue of what the U.S. calls the country “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.”

When Obama delivered a speech at the University of Yangon, it was evident that he was going out of his way to sidestep the delicate name issue altogether.

In an almost 4,000-word speech, he used the name of the country he was visiting and talking about only once, a historical reference to the U.S. being one of the first to recognize the “Union of Burma” after its independence from Britain in 1948.

In every other reference to Burma – more than 20 – Obama used terms such as “your country,” “your nation” and “this country,” sometimes more than once in a single sentence.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who a year ago became the first secretary of state to visit Burma in half a century and accompanied Obama there on Monday, has also tended to use terms like “your country” rather than wade into the name dispute.

It matters to the Burmese government: When Suu Kyi visited Europe last summer – her first visit in 24 years, most of which she had spent in detention or under house arrest – officials at home scolded her for calling her country Burma, saying she should use its constitutional name “Republic of the Union of Myanmar.”

Writing in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Heritage Foundation scholar Nile Gardiner said Obama’s word choice demonstrated “a disturbing willingness to curry favor with unsavory regimes.”

During a U.S. Senate committee hearing in 2009 examining the issue of lifting sanctions against Burma, Georgetown University professor and Burma expert David Steinberg said the choice of which name one uses for the country “has become a surrogate indicator of political inclination.”

Steinberg said the regime regards the use of the term Burma as insulting. He pointed out that the U.S. has in other cases followed name changes made by governments, and implied that a shift to the term Myanmar would help improve relations.

Asked Monday whether Obama’s word choices matter, Steinberg said, “Myanmar or Burma – I think it does matter and would help to call it Myanmar.”

President Obama holds a bilateral meeting with Burmese President Thein Sein at the parliament building in Rangoon on Monday, November 19, 2012. (Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

“Essentially, the U.S. is denying the validity of the state, and elevating Aung San Suu Kyi, who objected to Myanmar, to the level of head of state,” he said, “and that is both unwise for the U.S. and unwise for Aung San Suu Kyi, who needs the trust of the military to assume any more elevated position in that society.”

Steinberg noted that media outlets, with the Washington Post one exception, now tend to use “Myanmar (formerly called Burma” rather than “Burma (sometimes called Myanmar).”

Obama’s reference to Myanmar while alongside Thein Sein recalled his use of the term “Islamic Republic of Iran” when during his early weeks in office he released a message marking Nowruz, the Persian new year.

At the time, Iranian commentators responded positively to his use of the phrase – twice in the 556-word message – with state-funded Press TV calling it “an explicit acceptance of the Islamic Revolution.”

Obama used “Islamic Republic of Iran” again in his Nowruz 2010 message, although it did not appear in his 2011 or 2012 messages.

During a Latin American visit last April Obama attempted to use the preferred Argentinian name for the Falkland Islands, Malvinas, also a sensitive issue in the ongoing sovereignty dispute over Britain’s self-governing territory in the South Atlantic.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow