[Viewpoint] An Olympic question to ponder

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[Viewpoint] An Olympic question to ponder

As fans from Asia and the rest of the world tune in to the London 2012 Olympic Games to cheer on home country teams from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the opening ceremony’s “Parade of Athletes” leaves me wondering: What’s in a name?

That question may well resonate with the handful of athletes who have no official affiliation to a national Olympic committee and compete under the title “Independent Olympic Athletes,” such as those from the former Netherlands Antilles - the once Dutch islands of the Caribbean.

Some athletes march behind flags of countries whose names have changed through the years. Case in point: the Olympic team from Myanmar, also widely known, of course, as Burma.

Others represent homelands divided by history or conflict. Just ask the athletes marching under the banner “Chinese Taipei,” what’s in a name? Or those from the two Koreas.

According to the official London 2012 Web site, the Republic of Korea - South Korea - first appeared in its own right at the 1948 London Games. Weight lifter Kim Sung-jip took bronze in the middleweight division, winning the first medal under Korean colors. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea - North Korea - was first represented at the 1964 Winter Games.

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-person team at the 1948 London 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 diverse ethnic groups, beyond the majority Bamar or Burman ethnic people. Another was that the name Burma was too associated with the British colonial rule.

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 activists 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 U.S. and U.K. governments.

The U.S. State Department says the U.S. 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 ignored by the ruling military.

This U.S. policy about the use of Burma was underscored to me during my own tenure as U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank.

In early May 2008, at the ADB annual meeting held that year in Madrid, the head of the U.S. 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.

“Let me begin on a sad note,” my colleague from U.S. Treasury said, “and say that our hearts go out to the victims of the cyclone that hit Burma over the weekend.”

In the weeks that followed, a not-quite-Olympian war of words raged between my office and the bureaucrats of the ADB who produced an official transcript changing the U.S. official’s statement, replacing Burma with Myanmar. After protests and push-backs, a “compromise” was ultimately reached in line with the U.S. and ADB policy. The solution: no ADB transcript of the U.S. head of delegation’s remarks was included in the official records. Instead, anyone interested in reading the statement is directed to the U.S. Treasury Web site.

Having since stepped down from the ADB Board of Directors, I am no longer bound by official U.S. 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 U.K. 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 governments in Asia, the name change is a done deal, recognized by the United Nations. For U.S. and U.K. 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, whether in Seoul or Sydney, 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. Imagine the joy if that too were to change this year - no matter what the athletes call their home country.

*The author, former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is a senior fellow and executive-in-residence at the Asian Institute of Technology, and a managing director with RiverPeak Group.

by Curtis S. Chin
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