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Rohingya still a dirty word in Myanmar

Mandalay (UCAN): The Muslim minority in Rakhine, Myanmar, identify as themselves as Rohingya, a term that the country’s new civilian government, just like the previous military regime, refuses to acknowledge.

The government instead insists on referring to the Rohingyas as Bengalis, implying that they are, instead, illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. This is despite the fact that the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for decades.

In April, the embassy of the United States of America (US) mentioned the Rohingya in a statement of condolence for the more than 20 people who died after a boat sunk off the Myanmese coast. This sparked a protest outside the US embassy in Yangon, led by nationalist groups including hardline Buddhist monks, who denounced the use of the word.

Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, headed the country’s state counsellor and de-facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, asked the US to refrain from using the term because it does not assist the country’s national reconciliation efforts.

This has escalated criticism of the Nobel Peace laureate whose reputation is losing its shine. Observers say her government is apparently bowing to pressure from nationalist groups who oppose the rights of the Rohingya in the predominantly Buddhist country.

Hardline Buddhism has emerged since violence erupted in Rakhine in 2012. Spearheaded by ultra-nationalist monks from the Committee of Protection of Race and Religion, known as Ma Ba Tha, they successfully lobbied the previous, military-backed government to impose laws that targeted the Rohingya.

U Parmaukkha, a prominent nationalist monk from Magway Monastery in Yangon and a member of Ma Ba Tha, accused the US of “interfering in Myanmar’s sovereignty” and said that the use of the term, Rohingya, impacts negatively on Myanmar’s development because they are not among the country’s official 135 ethnic groups.

“I call on the new government led by Aung San Suu Kyi to reveal publicly that the Rohingya are not in the country. There will be large protests if it fails to do it,” U Parmaukkha said

Scot Marciel, the US ambassador to Myanmar, said on May 10 that the US would continue to use Rohingya as it is international practice to recognise communities by the name they would prefer.

Khine Pyi Soe, vice president of the Arakan National Party, a popular hardline Buddhist party in Rakhine, said that the use of Rohingya as a term could fuel tensions within Myanmar.

“I think that the US might use Rohingya as it is a familiar term among the international community but inside the country, it is a sensitive one,” Khine Pyi Soe said adding that the government has a lot riding on the issue.

“If the government makes missteps on the Rakhine issue, it may lose public support and affect the next election in 2020,” Khine Pyi claimed.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticized for her silence on the Rohingya issue and for her lack of details on how the new government will protect the rights of the Muslim minority.

Win Naing, a regional lawmaker with the National League for Democracy in the Thandwe, Rakhine, acknowledged it is a complicated matter.

“The new government would need to find a solution and consider how best we can deal with this delicate issue as it is not possible to push them (the Rohingya) out of the country,” Win Naing said.

Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya advocate from the Thetkaepyin refugee camp near Sittwe, voiced his concerns about the administration if it continues to bow to nationalists.

“The truth may not prevail if the government ignores history. The new government’s ignorance is tarnishing its reputation,” Kyaw Hla Aung said.

Kyaw Hla Aung insisted the Rohingyas are a part of Myanmar’s history. He described how his father’s identity card mentioned Rohang which means a person of the Rohang, an old Muslim term used in what is now Arakan state, western Myanmar.

Rohingya, are seen by rights groups as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. They have lived in Myanmar for generations, but currently there are over one million of them who are stateless in Rakhine. They have been denied citizenship, freedom of movement, education and healthcare.

More than 150,000 have been confined to camps in apartheid-like conditions since 2012 when sectarian violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims left scores of people dead.

Due to dire conditions in the camps, thousands have taken perilous boat journeys in the hope of finding a new life in Malaysia and Thailand. 

Traffickers have subjected many of the refugees to horrific abuses. Hundreds, maybe thousands, have perished at sea.

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