A White House spokesman described use of the word “Myanmar” as a “courtesy.”
Speaking alongside President Thein Sein, a retired military general who heads Burma’s nominally-civilian government, Obama praised him for “moving Myanmar down a path of both political and economic reform” and “leading Myanmar in a new direction.”
“As a consequence of these changes in policy inside of Myanmar, the United States has been able to relax sanctions that had been placed on Myanmar, and many countries around the world have followed suit,” he said.
In 1989, the then-ruling military junta, which called itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), decreed that Burma should henceforth be called Myanmar. Some governments and media organizations duly complied but others chose to retain the original name. Usage of the term Burma became for many around the world symbolic of disapproval of military rule.
U.S. policy has been to use Burma, and the State Department said in an Aug. 2012 fact sheet that, “It remains U.S. policy to refer to the country as Burma.”
Asked by a reporter, “What kind of signal are you trying to send,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Monday, “The United States government, over time, has begun to allow limited use of the name Myanmar as a diplomatic courtesy. Burma has undertaken a number of positive reforms, including releasing over 850 political prisoners, easing media restriction, permitting freedom of speech, assembly and movement. We have responded by expanding our engagement with the government, easing a number of sanctions, and, as a courtesy, in appropriate settings, more frequently using the name Myanmar.
“While we are not changing our policy to officially adopt Myanmar, we believe that showing respect for a government that is pursuing an ambitious reform — that is pursuing an ambitious reform program and a government that is pursuing that agenda is an important signal of support for its efforts and our desire to help the transformation succeed.”
Carney added it is still U.S. policy “that Burma is the name of the country.”
The CIA world fact book states, in an entry last updated this month, that “since 1989 the military authorities in Burma, and the current parliamentary government, have promoted the name Myanmar as a conventional name for their state; the U.S. Government has not adopted the name, which is a derivative of the Burmese short-form name Myanma Naingngandaw.”
Thein Sein, who was a senior member of the SPDC until it was disbanded in 2011, was on Monday paying the first visit to the U.S. by a Burmese leader in almost half a century.
The visit followed one by Obama to Burma last November, the first ever by an American president to the southeast Asian nation.
During that visit, Obama used the term Myanmar when with Thein Sein, but reverted to Burma when standing alongside the veteran democracy activist, Aung San Suu Kyi.
As the presidential party flew out, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters Obama had called the country Myanmar when with Thein Sein as “a diplomatic courtesy,” but added that having done so “doesn’t change the fact that the U.S. government position is still [to use] Burma.”
Suu Kyi, who spent most of the more than two decades of military rule in detention or under house arrest, shuns the term Myanmar.
Speaking to reporters after a meeting with visiting New Zealand Prime Minister John Key last November, she expressed disappointment that some governments, including Key’s, were now using the name Myanmar.
“I have made the point that ‘Myanmar’ was imposed on this country,” she said. “The people were not asked what they thought of it. One day, in the state newspapers it was announced … I think that it was imposed on this country in a totally undemocratic way.”
“I still object to it,” she added. “I shall always refer to this country as Burma, until the Burmese people decide what they want it to be called.”
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