Burma or Myanmar? Obama says both

2012-11-19 15:01
US President Barack Obama waves to the crowd as he leaves the stage after speaking at Yangon University in Yangon, Myanmar. (Carolyn Kaster, AP)

US President Barack Obama waves to the crowd as he leaves the stage after speaking at Yangon University in Yangon, Myanmar. (Carolyn Kaster, AP)

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Obama, Suu Kyi discuss reform

2012-11-19 11:50

US President Barack Obama and Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi discussed reform efforts. Watch.WATCH

Yangon - Some call the country Myanmar, others call it Burma. On his historic trip to the former army-ruled nation on Monday, Barack Obama called it both.

Paying the first visit by a serving US president to Yangon - or Rangoon - Obama broke with American tradition by employing the term "Myanmar" after his talks with President Thein Sein.

"We think that a process of democratic reform and economic reform here in Myanmar that has been begun by the president is one that can lead to incredible development opportunities here," he said as Thein Sein listened.

Later, however, when he met opposition leader and fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi he called the country "Burma" - the preferred name of the nation's pro-democracy activists.

"Today marks the next step in a new chapter between the United States and Burma," Obama said.

The country's military leaders 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.

Diplomatic courtesy

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.

The White House said after Obama's switch that the US government position was still to refer to the country as Burma.

Obama was paying a diplomatic courtesy to Thein Sein by referring to the country as Myanmar in their meeting, said Ben Rhodes, a US deputy national security advisor.

"The US government position is still Burma but as we have said, different people call this country by different names," he told reporters aboard Air Force One as Obama flew to neighbouring Cambodia afterwards for a regional summit.

For Obama, however, the linguistic jujitsu was nothing compared to his troubles pronouncing the name of the opposition leader, whom he repeatedly referred to as "Aung Yan Suu Kyi" as she stood by - minus her usual charismatic smile.

Read more on:    thein sein  |  barack obama  |  aung san suu kyi  |  myanmar
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