Bangkok (The Nation/ANN) - As fans from Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia tune in to the London 2012 Olympic Games, the opening ceremony's "Parade of Athletes" leaves me wondering, what's in a name?
That question may well resonate with athletes marching under the name "Chinese Taipei", or for the handful of athletes who have no official affiliation to a National Olympic Committee and will compete under the title "Independent Olympic Athletes". This could include athletes from the former Netherlands Antilles - the former Dutch islands of the Caribbean - or from South Sudan, the world's youngest nation.
Other athletes march behind flags of countries whose names have changed through the years. Case in point: the team marching somewhere between Mozambique and Namibia. That would be the team of athletes from Myanmar, also widely known, of course, as Burma.
According to the official London 2012 website, Thailand's first group of Olympians - an eight-man team in athletics - competed at the Helsinki 1952 Olympic Games. That was a few years after the Kingdom had changed its official name in English back to Thailand, from Siam, in 1949.
For Myanmar, and some of the news media that cover that nation, it is a little bit more complicated. Burma - and I do mean Burma, not Myanmar - was first represented by a four-man team at the London 1948 Olympic Games. It wasn't until 1989 that the country competed under the name of Myanmar.
This tracked the nation's history of name changes since independence.
In 1989, the country's military leaders changed their nation's official name in English from the "Union of Burma" to the "Union of Myanmar". One rationale was that the name Myanmar was more inclusive of the nation's ethnicities, beyond the majority Bamar or Burman people. Another was that the name Burma was associated with the colonial British.
Then, in 2010, Myanmar's rulers changed the nation's flag, national anthem and official name yet again. This time to the "Republic of the Union of Myanmar", as outlined in a new constitution published in 2008. Linguists also note that "Myanmar" is a more ceremonious form of "Burma", with both being used locally depending on context.
Yet, members of the democratic opposition and other political activitists including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi - much to the displeasure of Myanmar's present leaders - continue to use the name Burma in English.
So too do the US and UK governments.
The US State Department says the US government uses Burma "out of support for the democratic opposition and its victory in the 1990 election" - an election won overwhelmingly by Aung San Suu Kyi's party and abrogated by the ruling military junta.
This US policy about the use of Burma was underscored to me during my own tenure as US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank (ADB).
In early May 2008, at the ADB annual meeting held that year in Madrid, the head of the US delegation began his official statement by acknowledging the tremendous loss of life due to Cyclone Nargis, the worst natural disaster in the recorded history of Myanmar. Making landfall on May 2, 2008, the tropical cyclone destroyed villages across the Irrawaddy Delta, killing more than 135,000 people.
"Let me begin on a sad note," my colleague from the US Treasury said, "and say that our hearts go out to the victims of the cyclone that hit Burma over the weekend".
Weeks afterward, a not-quite-Olympian war of words raged between my office and the bureaucrats of the ADB, who produced an official transcript changing the US official's statement, replacing Burma with Myanmar. After protests and push-back, a "compromise" was ultimately reached in line with US and ADB policy. The solution: no ADB transcript of the US head of delegation's remarks was included in the official records. Instead, anyone interested in reading the US statement was directed to the US Treasury website.
Having since stepped down from the ADB board of directors, I am no longer bound by official US policy on the use of Burma versus Myanmar. Yet, I still cringe a little when editors change my use of Burma to Myanmar in my writings on Asia and economic development in the region.
When will the United Kingdom or the United States change its position on which name to use? Likewise, when will the BBC or The Guardian in the UK, or The Washington Post, start using Myanmar? (The Guardian's style guide makes clear its present position. The entry under Burma reads simply, "not Myanmar".) The Financial Times, The New York Times, CNN and others already have made the name change in their reporting.
For goverments in Southeast Asia, the name change is a done deal, recognised by the United Nations and Asean. For US and UK policy-makers though, acknowledging the new name is also about politics and a political statement - not just about the process by which the name change was done, but also about the pace of change on such critical issues as democracy, inclusiveness and human rights.
It may be months, or years, before Washington and London decide to "let Burma be Myanmar". Important consultations must take place, and the continued pace and sustainability of reforms in Myanmar will need to be assessed.
In the meantime though, let's not talk of word games and name changes. Instead, sit back and enjoy the Olympic Games. Even as we root for our own national teams, here's a thought. Whether competing under the name Burma or Myanmar, no athlete from that nation has yet won an Olympic medal.
Four years ago at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, athletes from only five of Asean's 10 nations - Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam - won medals. Imagine the joy in the region if that too were to change this year - no matter what the athletes call their home country.
Curtis S Chin is a senior fellow and executive-in-residence at the Asian Institute of Technology, and a managing director with RiverPeak Group. He served as US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank from 2007-2010.
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