Myanmar or Burma? What’s in a name?

The US continues to call the country Burma, even while the Associated Press uses the name Myanmar. Why the hesitance? One theory is that the name change from Burma was a change of the nameplate so-to-speak; a linguistic sleight of hand since internally it means the same thing. The other is that it’s inconvenient to acknowledge the name that was changed by a group that isn’t playing by the rules.

Take this bland statement by the US Department of State:

The United States supports a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Burma that respects the human rights of all its people. Burma remains a country in transition to democracy….”

From the US Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet. JANUARY 21, 2020

The UN, on the other hand calls a spade a spade:

Hundreds of civilians, including at least 44 children, have been killed in the crackdown across Myanmar since the military coup on 1 February.

On the other hand the US secretary of State said this:

“The Burmese military regime has ignored the will of the people of Burma to restore the country’s path toward democracy and has continued to commit lethal attacks against protesters in addition to random attacks on bystanders.”

OK, so extra points for using ‘lethal attacks,’ and ‘will of the people’ when referring to the country by its previous name.

What’s in a name? We don’t refer to “New Holland” when we talk of Australia, or even Bombay these days because Mumbai is the more accurate. Imagine if the United Kingdom refused use the word Mumbai, because the Shiv Sena party, in 1995 changed the name as a thumb in the eye to colonialism.

The US policy on Myanmar is so convoluted that it is no wonder the rest of the world thinks our geography sucks. And this is not new. Hillary Clinton, as secretary of State practically refused to say ‘Burma’ calling the country by other dodgy nouns. Here’s the latest doublespeak from the new White House as quoted on VOA:

“Our official policy is that we say ‘Burma’ but use ‘Myanmar’ as a courtesy in certain communications,” Jen Psaki, the White House spokesperson, said when asked to address the issue during a press conference this week.”

Meaning they apparently like to be courteous, and politically correct while being out of step with reality. So she goes on:

“So, for example, the embassy website refers to Burma — Myanmar because they are by definition dealing with officials and the public. The State Department website uses ‘Burma (Myanmar)’ in some places and ‘Burma’ in others.”

Oh, I get it. Using curly brackets and an m-dash really clarifies matters.

Photo: Nazly Ahmed

While you’re doing that Ms. Psaki, why not rename Sri Lanka as “Ceylon-Sri Lanka” on your official site (this will make the CEYLON Tourist Board thrilled; the CEYLON Tea exporters might do a high-five outside your embassy in Colombo.) You could even call the country “Sri Lanka (Ceylon)-(Serendib)” in other places because it makes the hoi polloi feel like you know your history.

You’re welcome!

Will Clinton’s push for ‘smart power’ bring networked diplomacy?

At the heart of diplomacy, says incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (speaking at her visit to the State Department yesterday) is smart power. I trust this is not as something analogous to ‘soft power.’  To me smart power would be all about taking diplomacy into a 3.0 world. We all understand what 2.0 stands for, since this thinking debuted three years ago.

Like web 3.0 thinking (see Google’s Eric Schmidt take a crack at it), the folks looking at how to engage in diplomacy 3.0 would do well to understand how information, ideas, even value systems move virally across networks. They would do well to look at a paper that was written by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, titled ‘Network Diplomacy.” Amazingly, it was written in 2001! It’s about networked intelligence, dialogues, listening, sharing and trust.

Much of what it talked about is more or less accepted now in business and public relations –and only grudgingly in diplomacy. I say this because I asked a friend at a State Dept agency about networking and he said they were disallowed from joining networks for security reasons. That didn”t seem right since I know from closely tracking Dipnote, how engaged and networked some of them were.

Rules against networking existed in the murky 1.0 world. Where we locked down our employees, and monitored what links they clicked on, and then blamed them for not sharing knowledge or having rotten data. Or as they called it in the intelligence 1.0 era, for having ‘faulty intelligence.’

Back to the Carnegie paper, it observes that networks trump hierarchies, and that foreign policy is not just a sum-total of discrete events but an ongoing global engagement. To this end,

“networks are able to bring together much broader communities to flexibly address problems in ways that hierarchies often cannot.”

Let’s hope we see ‘smart power’ grids roll out fast!

Foreign policy flourishes in social media

I am a frequent reader of the State department’s blog, Dipnote, that attempts to give a human angle to foreign policy -beyond the press releases, official statements and ‘code words’ we have come to know so well.

Dipnote links to an @Google interview with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and her British counterpart David Miliband (a MIT graduate who happens to have his own YouTube channel, and blog.) This interview is hosted on …YouTube. Suddenly foreign policy via social media doesn’t look so dry.

Rice makes an excellent, passionate albeit slightly flawed analysis of Iraq; between her and Miliband, you get a sense that this is the kind of discourse we (and the world) missed in the last eight years. I’m not saying that social media made this happen, but without doubt these discussions were stifled by the old media that only permitted slogans and sound bites. Only at a venue like this could she say that “we are not, as a government, ever going to ‘improve’ the image of America.” That’s what the people of America do best, she concedes. Which is another way of saying that the government should not be in the business of image building.

The new managing editor of Dipnote, Luke Forgeson, calls the blog the online version of a town hall meeting. As Miliband observes elsewhere, “diplomats need to reach out beyond governments to talk to people – at home and around the world.”