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The Guardian view on Burma, Myanmar, and faltering steps toward democracy

Aung San Suu Kyi speaking at a rally on 21 August. ‘Constitutional amendments that would have set aside the notorious clause that prevents Aung San Suu Kyi standing for the presidency … failed in the legislature.’ Photograph: Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

August 31, 2015

Let Myanmar be called by the name its rulers prefer, but let them also make good on their promises of democracy

What’s in a name? The Guardian has been until now one of a dwindling number of newspapers and broadcasters using the term Burma rather than Myanmar, the regime’s official name for the country. What has divided the media on this issue is that the name Burma is associated with the democratic movement there, while the name Myanmar is associated with the army-dominated government which decreed its use in 1989, a year after troops had shot down thousands of demonstrators.

The choice of name was thus a way of indicating, or at least of hinting at, approval or disapproval. We will from today be using the name Myanmar, partly because it has become almost universal and partly because colonial names should be part of the past, along with the empires that gave rise to them. True, with Burma, that argument is a blurred one. Burma is the name of the country in spoken Burmese, Myanmar the name in written Burmese. Still, the choice was made by a government that wanted to distance itself from the British era, and that is an understandable motive, one that has rewritten the names of many countries, provinces and cities around the globe.

The argument is clearer with Rangoon, a British mispronunciation of Yangon, which will now be our choice when referring to the former capital. It would be pleasing to add that the problem that lay behind the controversy over the country’s name, namely its lack of progress toward democracy, is also a part of the past, but that is far from the case. In recent months, the government of Myanmar has signally failed to advance that progress, in spite of its supposed commitment to do so.

Constitutional amendments that would have set aside the notorious clause that prevents Aung San Suu Kyi standing for the presidency and reduced the seats reserved for the military in parliament failed in the legislature, the fundamental reason being that the generals and ex-generals who still call the shots in Myanmar refused to take the steps without which a true transition to civilian government is impossible. These failures alone made it unlikely that the general elections due in November, even if free and fair in process, can have a genuinely democratic outcome.

Then, earlier this month, a further blow fell when the regime summarily removed Shwe Mann, the speaker of the lower house, from his position as head of the government party. He too is a former general, but one who had identified himself with reform and formed an alliance with Aung San Suu Kyi, whose support could have secured him the presidency in the indirect elections for that post after the November vote. Some doubted his sincerity. Nevertheless his alliance with the woman who embodies the democratic cause in Myanmar did represent a way forward after other avenues had been blocked, and one which might have struck a better and fairer balance between elected representatives and an officer class reluctant to cede its power and prerogatives.

The next development could be that the government party, widely expected to be trounced in the elections, will be pumped up by one dubious means or another. While a country can easily alter its name, moving to democracy requires a real readiness for change. Sadly, Burma’s generals so far seem to lack that essential qualification.

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