Mission of Burma

The Associated Press may have relented in the Burma/Myanmar debate, but the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal isn’t budging. The Asian country’s military leaders renamed it in 1988, a change that hasn’t been universally embraced. For example, in this piece critical of a U.N. official for insisting on using “Myanmar” as the name, the Journal says:

The Burmese democracy movement of Aung San Suu Kyi continues to call it by its rightful name, and we’ll stick with her over the junta.

I had my own experience about this country’s name a few years ago. When I was on the wire desk at The News & Observer, the managing editor collared me one afternoon and asked: “Why is the BBC calling this place Burma, and the wire story we used today called it Myanmar?” I told her I would look into the matter and make a recommendation. After some calls and e-mails to the wire services as well as some quick research, here’s what I came up with:

Stories should use “Myanmar” in references to this country. The government there, however unpleasant it might be, has stated that this is the nation’s name, and international organizations have accepted it. Because the United States and some other Western countries have resisted the use of “Myanmar,” stories that instead use “Burma” will imply support for the resistance by these countries. Stories about the country should include a phrase such as “also known as Burma” to indicate that some people continue to call it that and to remind readers that the country’s government has changed its name in the relatively recent past.

The AP Stylebook has since added an entry preferring “Myanmar,” and I have moved on from the newsroom to the classroom. My memo is still useful in class discussions on matters of geography and style.

Now if I could only get the AP to go with “Ground Zero” as an acceptable uppercase usage in references to the World Trade Center site…



  1. I personally believe “Ground Zero” is a terrible name for the World Trade Center site. It’s twisting an established phrase into a new meaning, and – while I fully understand the devastation of those attacks – grossly inflating the damage done that day. It’s “everything changed!!!” and it helps enable those who would use the attack to turn this country into something it should not ever become. No one proposes that name for the Pentagon, after all, and why? Because it was not as visually powerful. But those visuals are why we threw our civil liberties at the administration’s feet for so long, and I hate to think of a name perpetuating that mindset.

  2. Ridger,

    I see your points. Students in my classes have made the same arguments. I see precedent for “Ground Zero” in the “directions and regions” entry in the AP Stylebook. Just like the South is the South, I propose that the WTC site is the Ground Zero.

    That said, I agree that the Pentagon attack and the crash in Pennsylvania are unfairly overlooked in discussion of Sept. 11. In my wire-editing days, I always took the effort to rewrite copy that forgot to mention those aspects of the attack. I had to do that often.

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