Myanmar and Israel—Fighting the Semantic Wars

By —— Bio and Archives--October 3, 2007

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Is it “Myanmar” or “Burma”? “Yangon” or “Rangoon”?

Burma and its major city Rangoon were renamed Myanmar and Yangon in 1989 by the military junta that had seized power there at that time.


The United Nations has officially recognised these changes in names by one of its member countries
America, England and Australia have not.

President George Bush, and Prime Ministers Gordon Brown and John Howard still continue to use “Burma” and “Rangoon”. Such use is deliberate and is intended to signal their total rejection of the junta’s takeover and anything done thereafter as a result.

Not a bad way to get your point across—by the use of just one word. Such is the power of semantics..

China, Russia and the Association of South East Asian Nations [ASEAN] on the other hand follow the United Nations and use “Myanmar” and “Yangon”.

In their view, when you deal with a Government you cannot interfere in the internal affairs of that country. Nothing could be more internal than calling a rose by any other name.

Semantics—especially where place names are concerned—clearly play a big part in either clouding or clearly defining the real political issues that dog the conduct of foreign relations by many countries.

What is particularly interesting in this current semantic battleground is the role taken by the media. They are split on which terms to use.

President Bush’s choice is not the choice of all in the US media.

The Voice of America, the Wahsington Post and Time follow the President and use “Burma” and “Rangoon”. However the New York Times, CNN and the Wall Street Journal use “Myanmar” and “Yangon”.

Reuters, Associated Press and the International Herald Tribune have come down on the side of the United Nations and use “Myanmar” and “Yangon”. They would consider themselves as being even-handed in accepting the choice of an independent arbiter.

Deliberate policy decisions are obviously being taken by individual media outlets as to which names to use—probably indicating their political position on the crisis. This is a healthy exercise in freedom of speech rather than all slavishly following each other in their reporting.

Honours are about even in the media’s semantic war over Burma/Myanmar.

The media split on Burma /Myanmar is however absent when it comes to using the place names “Judea and Samaria” rather than the place name “the West Bank”  to describe the area captured by Israel from Jordan in 1967.

“Judea and Samaria” were the names used by the United Nations in Resolution 181 on 29 November 1947 - the famous Partition Resolution—that is now in the media spotlight once again.

That constituted as official an endorsement as you could get from the United Nations of the correct place names for an area that had been so designated and known for the previous 3000 years.

Judea and Samaria were the two locations of the two biblical Kingdoms of the Jews—the southern Kingdom of Judah and the northern Kingdom of Israel, the capital of which was for a time in the town of Samaria. These areas were the cradle of the Jewish Nation. The main religious sites and tombs holy to the Jews are located there. 450000 Jews live there today.

“The West Bank” was only coined by Jordan in 1950 and was used till 1967 to delineate the area west of the Jordan River which had been seized by Jordan in the 1948 Arab-Israel War when Jews living there had been driven out by the Jordanian army. This new name operated to irrevocably sever any historic connection of the Jews with the place of their national birth and existence .

Israel’s attempt to reinstate the term “Judea and Samaria” after its capture from Jordan in 1967 has been undermined by clever and persistent Arab use of the term “West Bank” at every opportunity in the media.

Only some right wing Jewish media in Israel and abroad now consistently and repeatedly use “Judea and Samaria”

The Israeli Foreign Office and the Foreign Minister use both as the occasion suits them. The fact that 450000 Jews live there now is apparently of little consequence to the Government that is supposed to be protecting their rights of permanent residence as provided by international law.

The international media have adopted the term “West Bank” without demur in virtually every editorial piece they publish. By extension this territory has now become “occupied Arab land”, or “occupied Palestinian territories” as the Arabs ram home their semantic advantage on a daily basis.

The claims of the Jews to these areas have been arbitrarily dismissed by the media pack who hunt together with a broad unanimity and use the term “West Bank”—in stark contrast to the case of Burma/Myanmar.

One news outlet - the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) - has adopted a fair and reasoned stance calling the region “the West Bank ( Judea and Samaria, Israel’s biblical heartland)” or “Judea and Samaria ( the “West Bank”)”.

This small area of land is going to receive blanket coverage in the media over the next six months.

Perhaps those in the media now deliberately making choices on the use of “Burma” or “Myanmar” might take the lead from CBN and make their own individual decisions to acknowledge the 3000 year old geographical names of “Judea and Samaria” alongside the use of the 50-year-old term “West Bank”—thus giving recognition to the fact that Jews also have claims there as well as the Arabs.

The old adage “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me” has been turned on its head by the media’s failure to identify the “West Bank” as being also known as “Judea and Samaria.”

It is never too late to redress the imbalance.

Newsagencies in Iran and China of all places have used the term “Judea and Samaria” recently. Western media outlets should use both names to dispel the notion of any possible bias in favour of the Arabs.


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David Singer -- Bio and Archives | Comments

David Singer is an Australian Lawyer, a Foundation Member of the International Analyst Network and Convenor of Jordan is Palestine International—an organization calling for sovereignty of the West Bank and Gaza to be allocated between Israel and Jordan as the two successor States to the Mandate for Palestine. Previous articles written by him can be found at: jordanispalestine.blogspot.com

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