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It's a tricky job to fan the flickers of freedom in Burma

Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - 12:01 am

They can turn into a roaring fire or be blown out of existence.

During President Obama’s unprecedented trip to Burma – the first-ever visit to that country by an American chief executive – there were a few verbal miscues. Obama called President Thein Sein “President Sein,” an awkward, overly familiar reference that most Burmese would cringe at. He mispronounced that name of opposition leader and Nobel Peace Price laureate Aung San Suu Kyi several times. And, most serious of all, he referred more than once to the nation as Myanmar, the name arbitrarily chosen by the military junta 23 years ago, rather than Burma, the name still favored by dissidents and pro-democracy advocates and the “official” name recognized by the United States.

But he got one thing right: The repression of the people of Burma has started to give way to “flickers of progress” that must become a shining star and “must not be extinguished.” Little bit of a mixed metaphor there, but the point is clear. Flickers – and it’s the fires of freedom we’re talking about here – can be carefully nursed into a roaring flame, or they can be snuffed out by the slightest wind.

Encouraging such nascent movements is a tricky business for those of us who already have freedom and think the world will be safer when we have more company. Accept the reforms of the oppressors too eagerly, and they might not be persuaded to go further. Praise the oppressors too lightly, and they might take back what they’re already done. Friends of democracy must stand with democratic movements but not gratuitously insult those who hold the keys of power.

So something as apparently trivial as what we call a country can matter a great deal. By still recognizing the historical name Burma, we signal that we do not and cannot support repression. We also hold out the possibility of recognizing the junta’s preference of Myanmar if and when we think their reform efforts are serious and long-lasting.

U.S. Deputy National Security adviser Ben Rhodes says Obama’s use of phrasing was deliberate – he used Myanmar several times in the presence of President Their Sein and Burma several times while visiting with Aung San Suu Kyi. The president wasn’t changing U.S. policy on the spot, Rhodes says, but an attempt to provide a “diplomatic courtesy” to the country’s rules and “recognize that different people” call the country “by different names.”

Forgive us for saying so, but that is wishy-washy, “lead from behind” nonsense. It is being far too clever in an attempt to straddle way too many fences. We should stand with our Burmese friends. We are still waiting to see if we have any Myanmar friends.