As Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi heads home from her landmark European tour, authorities back home have warned her not to use the name ‘Burma’ to refer to the country.
The country’s Union Election Commission published an article in state newspapers Friday ordering her National League for Democracy (NLD) party to call the country “Myanmar,” the name introduced during the regime of the former military junta.
It said all parliamentarians were required to do so and that the Nobel laureate had used the wrong term during the trip to Europe, a five-nation tour the opposition leader finished on Friday.
“Again, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi called Myanmar ‘Burma’ in her speeches during her Europe tour,” it added, referring to her by the honorific “Daw.”
Senior NLD leader Win Tin told RFA in an interview that the party objected to the admonishment, saying that it was important to use the term foreign countries had always been familiar with when referring to the country in English.
“We at the NLD don’t accept this, because when we say it in Burmese we say ‘Myanmar,’ and in English, we use the term ‘Burma’ as it is known to the world,” he said in an interview.
The name of the country has long had two forms in the Burmese language: ‘Myanmar’ is the formal name while ‘Burma’ has traditionally been used in informal conversation.
In 1989 the then-ruling junta deemed that the country should be officially known in English as Myanmar.
But opponents of the military, including pro-democracy parties like the NLD, continued to use the old form of the name, saying the name had been changed without the people’s consent.
“The world calls Japan ‘Japan’ while it calls itself Nippon, and it’s like that for China. There was no meaning behind this. It is used as known to the world,” Win Tin said.
When the military regime instituted the switch in 1989, it said it was to appease minority non-Burman ethnic groups.
“They said ‘Myanmar’ is an inclusive word for all tribes, but it is just not true. Only the word ‘Burma’ is inclusive,” Win Tin said.
He said he did not know if the NLD would consider changing its stance on the issue.
“I don’t know what the NLD will decide. This has to be discussed with scholars,” he said.
NLD spokesman Nyan Win said the election commission’s complaint was a non-issue.
“Referring to the country as Burma does not amount to disrespecting the constitution,” he said.
In April, the NLD won historic by-elections by a landslide, putting Aung San Suu Kyi into office for the first time, after she had spent most of the past two decades under house arrest.
Since joining parliament in May, the Nobel laureate has pushed for further reforms as the country undertakes a process of national reconciliation.
Htay Oo, chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party, the successor to the military regime’s mass organization, said that all members of parliament (MPs) must use the official term.
“All MPs have to follow the constitution. They become MPs according to that constitution, right? So it is better to use the term from the constitution,” he said in an interview.
“Elected parliamentary members especially should abide by it, and I myself do,” he said.
He said the people’s consent was unnecessary to change the country’s name.
“I don’t think they failed because it is unnecessary,” he said. “Many agreed on the change. Since the constitution is voted on by the people, it also means the term Myanmar is confirmed.”
He refused to say what kind of legal action could be taken against people, whether citizens or members of parliament, who use the wrong term.
The U.S., Canada, and the UK still use ‘Burma,’ but many other countries and the UN use ‘Myanmar.’
‘Ready to lead’
During her five-nation European tour, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is fluent in English, urged foreign countries to support Burma’s democratic transition.
On her visits to Switzerland, Norway, Ireland, Britain, and France, she was welcomed as an international democracy icon and received awards, including the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize that she was unable to receive in person while under house arrest.
Before preparing to head home on Friday, she said she would be willing to govern Burma one day if asked.
“I think all party leaders have to prepare themselves for the possibility, if they truly believe in the democratic process,” she told Agence-France Presse in an interview.
“But it’s not something that I think of all the time. In fact, I think one has to concentrate on present work, of course preparing for the future. The present has to be linked to one’s hopes for the future.”
Aung San Suu Kyi’s high-profile trip to speak at an international economic summit in Bangkok in May, her first trip abroad in over two decades, was believed to have strained her relations with President Thein Sein, who abruptly cancelled his own state visit to Thailand.
Her return to Burma Saturday comes in time for the next parliamentary session that opens in July.
Reported by Nayrein Kyaw and Nyan Win Aung for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.