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Burma: What's in a name?

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Jon Williams Jon Williams | 08:37 UK time, Thursday, 14 June 2012

Today, “The Lady” begins a 17-day visit to Europe. Aung San Suu Kyi arrives at an important moment in her country – but what should we call it?

Aung San Suu Kyi

Some news organisations refer to it as Myanmar, others, including the BBC choose to call it Burma. Over the next week, there will be lots of reporting about the country. So how do we decide which name to use?

The nation's military leaders changed the English language version of the country's name to Myanmar in 1989. The name change was opposed by pro-democracy campaigners and by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. They argue that the name was changed by a military junta that had no legitimacy - the NLD won elections in the country a year later, but the junta refused to recognise the result.

The decision to change the name of a country or a city is often politically sensitive, frequently the result of a nation shedding its colonial past, for example, Rhodesia's transition to Zimbabwe or India's commercial capital Bombay becoming Mumbai.

When Hillary Clinton visited the new capital Naypyidaw late last year, her advisors said she would not use either Myanmar or Burma, but would use phrases like "your country", "this land" and "what you call Myanmar". Officials said it was a sensitive issue for their hosts, but also for the US government.

That is not an option for the BBC. For us, the issue is about what is most helpful to our audiences. The BBC Burmese Service was founded in 1940. It has covered independence, uprisings and long years of military rule. It plays a vital role in bringing accurate, impartial news to the people of Burma, reaching an audience of many millions inside the country. In English - and in Burmese - our responsibility is to our audience. For now, most know the country as Burma, so, for now, that's what we continue to call it.

Others take a different view. The United Nations and the New York Times began calling the nation Myanmar in 1989, while the Associated Press adopted "Myanmar" in 2006. The BBC continues to keep names under review. Earlier this year we adopted the name "Chennai" for the Indian city of Madras - by contrast, we still refer to Bangalore rather than Bengaluru.

Jon Williams is the BBC World News editor.



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