13 May 2008

What’s In A Country’s Name?

Once there was Ceylon. Now it’s Sri Lanka. Once there was Upper Volta. Now it’s Burkina Faso. The list of such national name changes goes on and on. Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. Siam to Thailand. Some countries take a long route to establishing their identities: Belgian Congo to Republic of Congo, then Democratic Republic of Congo to Zaire and now back to Democratic Republic of Congo (not to be confused with the neighboring Republic of Congo, which was why the two countries were also referred to in the past as Congo-Brazzaville and Congo-Kinshasa.)

We bring this up because of the current media divisions over what to call that Southeast Asian country just devastated by a massive cyclone. In English, VOA calls it Burma, as does the BBC along with the London Times, the Washington Post, the Sydney Morning Herald, Time and Newsweek.

On the other hand, the Associated Press, CNN, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, the Economist, Reuters, the French news agency AFP, the Japanese news agency Kyodo and National (US) Public Radio (NPR) call the same country Myanmar.

Oposition activists and exiles appear to favor Burma, largely because the country’s military rulers made the switch to Myanmar after seizing power in 1988.

The U.S. government uses Burma intentionally. According to the State Department’s background notes on what it refers to as the “Union of Burma”: “Although the SPDC (State Peace and Development Council or military junta) changed the name of the country to ‘Myanmar,’ the democratically elected but never convened Parliament of 1990 does not recognize the name change, and the democratic opposition continues to use the name ‘Burma.’ Due to consistent support for the democratically elected leaders, the U.S. Government likewise uses 'Burma.'”

But what do Burmese themselves use? After all, in English, we call Germany “Germany” even though Germans call it “Deutschland”; similarly, in English, we call it “China” but the Chinese call it “Zhongguo”, or Middle Kingdom.

Well, according to VOA’s East Asia and Pacific Division, the way “Burma” is said in Burmese is “Myanmar” and that is how VOA’s Burmese Service says it. So maybe it’s not such a big issue after all.

Curiously, we haven’t received any emails on this topic of Burma vs. Myanmar. We have, however, been inundated with messages about another name dispute: Macedonia vs. FYROM (or the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).

One man, referring to an item by VOA's David Gollust, wrote us to complain about the State Department which, he charged, "for its own political reasons call the FYROM as 'Macedonia'. The FYROM is a Slavic country with a Slavic language and has no connection at all with ancient Macedonia. Macedonia’s history is part of Greek history as Macedonia with its own particular aspects was nevertheless Greek the same way as people in Crete are Cretans but are and feel Greek. The efforts of the Administration of the FYROM and its brainwashing of its people to steal another nation’s heritage must be one of the biggest of its kind in history. It is acceptable for a country to decide to call itself whatever it wants as long as it does not offend another country’s historical and cultural heritage.”

For the record, Gollust, VOA’s skilled veteran diplomatic correspondent, wrote in that piece: “After its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, Macedonia became a U.N. member under the provisional name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or FYROM. That was at the insistence of Greece, which contends the name Macedonia implies a territorial claim on its northern province of the same name. The United States in 2004 announced it would henceforth refer to the Skopje government as the Republic of Macedonia, the name it prefers.”

But other email writers complained about the reference in the Gollust item to the “Skopje government.” One man wrote that: “I emphatically refute the use of the term Government of Skopje in your article when referring to the government… USA has recognized the Republic of Macedonia by its constitutional name hence there is no justifiable reason to deviate from that name.”

Actually no disrespect is intended. Journalists looking for an alternative to repeating the name of a country may from time to time in a story couple the name of that country’s capital with the word “government” to produce phrases like “the Khartoum government” instead of Sudan. (See this story by Gollust.)

The same goes for “the Skopje government.” It’s a stylistic choice, not a political one, and, as we have noted before, we try never to make journalistic decisions on the basis of politics.

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