Shortly after the Abbott Government took office in September 2013, it overturned the decision by Labor Foreign Minister Bob Carr in 2012 to recognise Burma’s new official name, Myanmar. This had long been the country’s traditional name but it was only adopted as the official name in English by the military government in 1989.
The new name had been accepted by most countries, the UN and other major international organisations. However, a few governments, some political groups and certain high profile individuals (notably then opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi) clung to the old name as a protest against the military regime's failure to consult the people about the change.
The Abbott Government decreed that, in all official communications with the country's capital, Naypyidaw, Australia was to refer to 'Myanmar’, and ‘the Government of Myanmar’, as required by diplomatic protocol. In all internal correspondence, however, and on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) website, the name ‘Burma’ was to be used.
The word around Canberra at the time was that this was another ‘captain’s call’ by Tony Abbott, who insisted the old name be used despite concerns expressed by the Australian embassy in Rangoon (Yangon), the Department of Foreign Affairs, and possibly even the foreign minister’s office.
The new policy led to some strange results. In some media releases both Myanmar and Burma were used, depending on the context. The DFAT website also used both terms, but, because it was often difficult to differentiate between so-called internal and external communications, it was often not clear why one name was used in preference to the other.
The situation was made more confusing by the policy’s inconsistent application. For example, during the visit to Australia in November 2013 of Aung San Suu Kyi, Prime Minister Abbott publicly referred to 'Burma' and ‘the government of Burma’. Repeated requests for clarification of the policy were ignored.
The decision to revert to the old name took observers in Australia and elsewhere by surprise, as it seemed to lack any rationale, let alone any benefit to Australia. It also ran counter to clear global trends. As I told Dan Flitton of the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year, it was ‘an inexplicable retrograde step that can only have harmed Australia’s interests, both in Burma and the region’.
There are now rumours circulating that, under Australia’s new, and less idiosyncratic prime minister, it has been decided once again to use the name Myanmar in all official publications, statements and correspondence. Such a decision would be welcomed by all those trying to work, and develop better relations, with the government in Naypyidaw.
However, the picture is still unclear.
Media releases issued by the foreign minister refer only to Myanmar and the Myanmar Government but the DFAT website still has a country profile for Burma. Other links on the site refer to both Burma and Myanmar. For example, there is an ‘Overview of Australia’s aid program to Burma’ linked to a publication titled ‘Aid Investment Plan Myanmar: 2015-2020’.
Ironically, a question may now arise over the preferred terminology of the new government elected on 8 November. Already there has been speculation that the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy may see a more relaxed attitude towards the use of Burma, or possibly even another formal name change. The issue could even be put to the people for a final decision.
If a decision has already been made for Australia to use the name Myanmar again, then like the 2013 decision to revert to Burma, it seems to have been made without any public announcement, let alone explanation. This leaves observers both in Australia and abroad to speculate about the possible reasons for the change.
One can only imagine what the people of Burma/Myanmar make of all this.
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