While the Obama administration is hailing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s upcoming trip to Burma as a possible breakthrough in relations with the military junta, one diplomatic pothole is lurking: the name of the country she is visiting.
The military leaders renamed the country Myanmar in 1989, but the United States still refers to it as Burma, an English-language translation of the name used during the country’s British colonial days.
“Secretary Clinton will be respectful of all parties and mindful of all — of sensitivities regarding this particular issue. But with regard to the name, you know, it’s long-standing U.S. policy to refer to the country as Burma,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner told reporters today when asked about the potential controversy.
“We believe that any change of the name of a country should be a decision for the Burmese people to make,” he added.
When it was pointed out to him that the opposition in the country eventually agreed to the name change, Toner replied: “We don’t believe it was valid.”
On Friday President Obama announced that he was sending Secretary Clinton to the isolated southeast Asian country, the first time America’s top diplomat has visited in 50 years.
“We feel that it’s an appropriate time to send the secretary of state there and visit Burma,” Toner told reporters today.
Earlier this month Clinton dispatched the US special envoy for Burma Derek Mitchell and her top human rights aide Michael Posner to see if there was a possibility for improved relations after the government has taken some steps to allow the political opposition to operate.
“We had seen, you know, some movement and that we felt that it was an important moment of opportunity here to take advantage of to try to engage the government. We’ve been clear all along that we expect to see more out of Burma. But again, this is an opportunity that we believe has presented itself to go there, obviously talk with the — with the opposition, talk with Aung San Suu Kyi and also discuss with the government ways that we can move this process forward,” Toner said.
Toner would not say what incentives Clinton will bring with her, but said the United States would like to see the country’s leaders release all political prisoners, amend its electoral laws to allow greater freedom for the opposition, and allow for free and fair elections.