Trying to please all sides during his historic visit Monday, President Obama referred to both “Burma,” the traditional name preferred by dissidents and pro-democracy advocates, as well as “Myanmar,” the new name used by the country’s authoritarian government, during his brief stay.
The United States government still calls the nation Burma, its former name before a military junta changed it nearly 23 years ago. But Mr. Obama, the first sitting president to visit the nation, used Myanmar when talking to the country’s officials, an apparent recognition that the government has taken significant steps toward easing political oppression and transitioning to more democratic rule.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One after Mr. Obama left the country, U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said Mr. Obama had used the word Myanmar as a “diplomatic courtesy” to President Thein Sein.
“It doesn’t change the fact that the United States government position is still Burma,” he said. “But we’ve said we recognize that different people call this country by different names. Our view is that is something we can continue to discuss.”
Mr. Obama’s aides previously told reporters he would try to avoid mentioning either name, but that plan didn’t play out once Mr. Obama was on the ground. During the six-hour trip, he used “Myanmar” during morning talks with Mr. Thein Sein and “Burma” in the afternoon when visiting opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
During his six-hour stop in Burma, smiling, flag-waving crowds flooded the streets to greet Mr. Obama’s motorcade and watch him depart.
During an address at the University of Yangon, Mr. Obama offered a “hand of friendship” and a commitment to helping Burma’s democracy mature, but he also said the U.S. would be watching for any serious backsliding and would gauge its support accordingly.
But Mr. Obama focused much of his message on the positive changes Burma is experiencing after decades of military rule.
“This remarkable journey has just begun, and has so much further to go,” he said. Reforms launched from the top of society must meet the aspirations of citizens who form its foundation. The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished — they must be strengthened; they must become a shining North Star for all this nation’s people.”
The brief swing through Burma is part of a four-day trip to Southeast Asia that began in Thailand Sunday and ends Tuesday in Cambodia where Mr. Obama will take part in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Obama visited the lakeside villa in Yangon of longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent most of her past 20 years under house detention at her home until she was freed in 2010. Hugging her, Mr. Obama praised the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s fortitude and said she is a global inspiration for all others suffering under repressive regimes.
Speaking from her balcony with Mr. Obama at her side, Mrs. Suu Kyi sounded a note of caution over Burma’s rapid political reforms.
“The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight,” she said. “We have to be very careful that we’re not lured by the mirage of success.”
Some human rights groups have said Mr. Obama’s trip to Burma is premature, coming as the country is still suffering from ethnic violence that has left hundreds dead and up to 100,000 people displaced in the country.
The White House has said the president’s visit is not an endorsement of the Burmese government but an acknowledgment that there’s a democratic process underway that nobody could have foreseen a few years ago.