- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 30, 2007

Name that country

The past week’s protests in Burma rekindled a long-running debate on the foreign desk: Should we continue to call the country Burma or should we join most other American news organizations in adopting the new name given to the country by its ruling military junta in 1989 — Myanmar?

There are not many of us in the newsroom who were around in 1989 when the decision was made not to go along with the name change. In part, I imagine, it was based on doubts about the legitimacy of the repressive government that had made the change and on respect for a democratic opposition movement that continued to use the name Burma.

No doubt, the decision also was driven by a longstanding reluctance to go along with arbitrary name changes at this newspaper, where tradition-minded editors proudly seek to preserve values and habits harking back to the heyday of the newspaper industry.

Newspaper people are by training and inclination skeptical in any case, and slow to go along with anything that might be seen as a fad. We still use Bombay, Calcutta and Madras as the names of the three huge cities in India, for instance, even though local officials some years ago changed the names to Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.

Similarly, we refused to change our style when a murderous Khmer Rouge government came to power in Cambodia and urged the world to call the country by the new name Kampuchea — a coinage that failed to outlive the Khmer Rouge itself.

Some name changes, of course, become so well-established that we would look foolish if we persisted in using the old name. No one tries to use the name Ceylon for what is now Sri Lanka, for instance, and Peking is used these days only as part of the name of a Chinese duck dish.

Sometimes when we do adopt a name change, we later have reason to regret it. We went along when the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko changed the name of his African country from Belgian Congo to Zaire, then had to change again when another government changed the name back to Democratic Republic of the Congo.

White House view

Other news organizations similarly adapt, each at its own speed, when countries and cities change their names. The Washington Post still uses Burma to describe the scene of the past week’s protests, while the New York Times, Associated Press and Reuters news agency all have switched to Myanmar (and Yangon for the former capital, which we still call Rangoon.)

What had been mainly a matter of stylistic preference on Burma took on new significance late last week when the White House announced that it would continue to use the name Burma in order to make a political point.

“We choose not to use the language of a totalitarian dictatorial regime that oppresses its people,” spokesman Tony Fratto was quoted by wire agencies as having said on Thursday. He added that the “deliberate” choice to call the country Burma was meant as a show of support for the pro-democracy activists in that country.

The country is formally recognized as Myanmar by the United Nations and most international organizations, but Agence France-Presse noted that the State Department and CIA have never adopted the use of that name on the grounds that the change was never approved by a Burmese parliament that was democratically elected in 1990 but never allowed to convene by the junta.

It’s nice to know we are in good company with our usage, but as at any self-respecting news organization, our senior editors will reserve for themselves the decision when, if ever, to change our style.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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