WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's landmark visit to Myanmar, known by the U.S. as Burma, brings up an unusual problem of protocol: What does he call it?
If recent practice by visiting U.S. officials is any guide, Obama will sidestep the issue by using neither name Monday when he becomes the first sitting American president to visit the country.
The former ruling junta summarily changed the name 23 years ago without consulting the people — a typically high-handed act by an unpopular regime that had gunned down hundreds of anti-government protesters the year before. The change was opposed by democracy advocates, who stuck with "Burma."
As the country has opened up politically, shifting from five decades of direct military rule, the linguistic battle lines have blurred some.
The U.S., Britain, Canada and New Zealand still officially refer it to it as Burma. But as the relations with the reformist government of President Thein Sein have blossomed in past year and dignitaries have beaten a path to his door, they have become less dogmatic about using the old name.
Last December, when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton became the highest-ranking U.S. visitor to Myanmar in 56 years, she mostly referred to it as "this country" and did the same this September when she met Thein Sein in New York and announced easing of sanctions. Visiting U.S. senators have used both names. Even at congressional hearings in Washington, there's an occasional mention of "Myanmar."
"Burma" is something Myanmar officials can get sore about.
"You might think this is a small matter, but the use of 'Myanmar' is a matter of national integrity," Foreign Minister Wanna Maung Lwin told visiting U.S. envoy Joseph Yun in May 2011, according to the Myanmar Times newspaper. "Using the correct name of the country shows equality and mutual respect."
This summer, Myanmar authorities also warned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi after she used "Burma" during high-profile trips abroad, saying "Republic of the Union of Myanmar" is enshrined in the constitution. She asserted her right to say what she wants but has also said she's open to either name.
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