RANGOON — Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said on Tuesday that how she chooses to refer to the country of her birth is directly related to one the basic principles of democracy: freedom of expression.
“I call my country ‘Burma’ as we did a long time ago. I’m not insulting other people. Because I believe in democracy, I’m sure that I can call it as I like,” said the Nobel laureate at a press conference held at the Rangoon headquarters of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD).
It was Suu Kyi’s first press conference since her return to Burma from a 17-day tour of Europe that ended on June 29.
A few days before her return, the country’s Union Election Commission (UEC), which enforces laws dealing with political parties, issued a warning to Suu Kyi to stop using the word “Burma.” Instead, it said, she should use the constitutionally decreed title, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.
The country’s former military rulers changed the name in English from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, saying that the latter better represented the country’s ethnic diversity.
“The State Law and Order Restoration Council changed the name without a public consensus,” said Suu Kyi, referring to the military junta that seized power in 1988. “They didn’t bother to consider what the public opinion about the new name was. They didn’t show any respect to the people.”
In taking Suu Kyi to task for her choice of words, the UEC said that her repeated reference to the country as Burma during her trips to Thailand and Europe contravened the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. It warned her and her party to “respect the Constitution” and use the proper name.
Nyan Win, the spokesperson of the NLD, said at the press conference that legally, there should be no problem with using “Burma” as the name of the country.
“There’s no provision in the Constitution that says ‘Myanmar’ shouldn’t be called ‘Burma.’ It only says we have to respect the Constitution. Using ‘Burma’ has nothing to do with having respect for the Constitution. So we can’t accept the commission’s warning from a legal point of view,” he said.
Since her release from house arrest in 2010, the political prisoner-turned-MP has used the word “Burma” whenever speaking in English. The word is also commonly used by other Burmese opposition politicians and exiles, as well by as some foreign governments and international media, usually to indicate the illegitimacy of the regime that changed the official name of the country.
At Tuesday’s press conference, which was held a day before Parliament is due to reconvene in Naypyidaw, Suu Kyi also stressed the need for a transparent legislative process.
“Currently, we can learn the contents of a law only when it has been passed. If there’s transparency, every person concerned will have a chance to study, discuss and make suggestions as to what should be in the provision. By doing so, I think, they will do their best for the benefit of people before passing a law,” said the 67-year old MP.
Suu Kyi also said she felt very encouraged by the support for Burmese democracy demonstrated by the leaders and people she met in Europe.
“Many people all over the world are tremendously good to Burma. If our country is on its way to democracy, it’s very evident that there are people who want to help us. How much we benefit from this depends ultimately on us and on how we make the best use of this goodwill,” she said.
Asked about the differences between the Parliament in Naypyidaw and those in the European countries she visited, she said, “Ours is quite big.”
“I’ve been to the Parliament only a very short time so it’s difficult for me to say how our legislature is functioning. As far as I’m aware, people in our Parliament seem stiff, and there is no hum of activity.”