MYANMAR: Our Tongue-Tied American President

Though the media in Asia and the rest of the world mainly applauded President Obama’s historic visit to Myanmar (Burma), some in the media nonetheless felt compelled to draw attention to his linguistic shortcomings. Oh well…and, really, they did have a point.

What happened was that Obama had to deal with both Thein Sein as well as Aung San Suu Kyi during his visit, and had to remember which name (Myanmar? Burma?) to use when referring to the nation. It seemed as though all the coaching in the world didn’t prepare Obama for the pronunciation and social cues of this country. Twice he mispronounced opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s name, a mistake a US president should not be making. In her humble disposition, The Lady only smiled at this presidential slip-up. Adding to Obama’s faux pas was his referral to Thein Sein as “President Sein”.

Perhaps the worst blunder of his visit was the awkward kiss on Suu Kyi’s cheek, a move that left some observers outraged by his ignorance of appropriate public conduct with women.

Perhaps in an attempt to regain his credibility as a cosmopolitan, Obama returned to Rangoon University with a greeting in an impeccable Burmese accent. During his speech he — surely wisely — avoided using Myanmar or Burma directly, choosing only to say “your nation” or “this country”.

Though his gaffes were rightly headlined on the world stage, what should not be overshadowed is the importance of his visit. On the day Obama arrived, 45 political dissidents were released from prison. The government also released a statement saying they would allow the Red Cross into their prisons.

Obama may get tongue tied when pronouncing Asian names but his intentions remain admirable, and there is no question that his visit marked a historical step towards greater humanitarian efforts in Burma.

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