Alicia C. Shepard
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls it Burma. But when her words are reported on NPR, the network refers to the country in Southeast Asia as Myanmar.
A listener doesn't like it.
"In clips included as part of every NPR newscast I have heard today, our Secretary of State refers to Burma as Burma," Tom Benghauser of Denver wrote on July 21. "Why can't NPR do the same? Why do you insist on using Myanmar, the name given to Burma by the military thugs who continue to terrorize a wonderful people?"
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that the Obama administration is concerned by the possibility that North Korea, with a history of illicit sales of missiles and nuclear technology, is developing military ties to Myanmar.
She did not refer explicitly to a nuclear connection but made clear that the matter is disconcerting.
"We know there are also growing concerns about military cooperation between North Korea and Burma which we take very seriously," she said when asked about it at a news conference in the Thai capital. Myanmar, also known as Burma, is run by a military regime.
"It would be destabilizing for the region, it would pose a direct threat to Burma's neighbors," she said, adding that as a treaty ally of Thailand, the United States takes the matter seriously."
What accounts for the difference? NPR's foreign editor, Loren Jenkins, said NPR has decided to call the country how the current government refers to itself.
"The government of what was once known as Burma changed the name as many countries in what was once the colonial Third world have done," said Jenkins via an email. "It is their right to do so and not to accept that is to take a political position which NPR does not.
"When what was once called The Congo changed its name to Zaire decades ago under the late President/dictator Mobutu, we didn't keep calling the Congo (After Mobutu's death, the new government reverted to calling it The Democratic Republic of Congo which is what we do today). India too has chosen to change the colonial names of many of its cities (Bombay is today Mumbai) and we recognize that. So why not call what was once Burma by the name its rulers — and the UN, by the way — call it."
NPR has had this policy since April 2004 when the Foreign Desk decided that the term Myanmar was enough in current usage to go with it. Before that, NPR used, "Burma, also known as Myanmar."
The State Department refers to the country as Burma to register its disapproval of the current regime, which changed the name in 1989. The department has called for the release of the 2,100 political prisoners in Burma including the most famous prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The opposite is true for the U.N., which uses Myanmar.
"We use Myanmar in deference to the wishes of their government," said U.N. spokesperson, Farhan Haq. "We go by the name the accredited government gives. We are an organization made up of member states and we listen to the member states."
Interestingly, The Washington Post and The New York Times take different approaches.
"In the most recent stories featuring either name, it looks like The New York Times says Myanmar and then qualifies it with Burma," said Mary Glendinning, an NPR librarian. "The Washington Post calls it Burma but goes on later to include Myanmar."