What's in a Country's Name?

Newspapers this week have been plastered with headlines of violent crackdowns against peaceful demonstrations by Buddhist monks. Exactly where this is taking place depends on whom you ask.

Thursday, the Washington Post carried the headline "Burma Meets Protests With Violence" on its front page while The New York Times exclaimed, "Myanmar Attacks Protestors, Arresting Monks."

As the confrontation between pro-democracy protesters and the repressive military regime continues to dominate the news, the debate over what to call the country not only confuses audiences, but also cuts across a contentious political debate that goes back nearly two decades.

Until 1989 the southeast Asian country of more than 47 million people was known as Burma. Since then, however, the ruling military junta has called the country Myanmar. It even renamed the capital from Rangoon to Yangon.

That year the military regime, which had dominant political control for the previous 26 years, lost landslide elections to the main opposition party. It refused to hand over power and instead jailed many opposition leaders. Others fled the country and formed dissident groups abroad, maintaining that their homeland is called Burma.

The government still holds a vice grip on even basic freedoms, making Myanmar (or Burma) one of the most repressed countries in the world.

The U.S. government has clearly taken the side of the opposition, insisting that the country's rightful name is Burma.

"The decision for that might have something to do with the fact that the decision internally in Burma to change the name of the country was done by the military junta rather than by a democratically elected government," said State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey.

"I think maybe we choose not to use language of a totalitarian, dictatorial regime that oppresses its people," White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said.

Tuesday, President Bush announced new sanctions on the regime in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, declaring that "Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma."

But as Bush looked out at the U.N. assembly from the podium, he wouldn't see anyone from that country, at least according to the placards that adorn the desks of each country's delegation. The United Nations refers to the country as Myanmar.

"The U.N. refers to countries by the title their governments choose," U.N. spokesman Farham Haq said.

The U.S. government isn't the only one to refer to the country as Burma. The British, who ruled the country for 62 years in the 19th century, do as well.

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