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US embassy asked to refrain from using ‘Rohingya’: official

Members of a Buddhist nationalist group shout slogans during a protest outside U.S. Embassy in Yangon, Myanmar against the embassy's April 20, 2016 statement with the word "Rohingya" Thursday, April 28, 2016. Myanmar nationalist believe long-persecuted and stateless Muslim minority in western Rakhine state who self identify themselves as "Rohingya" as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh and refer to them as "Bengalis." About 400 protesters, including Buddhist monks, marched in front of the embassy and held a protest rally. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)

By Aung Kyaw Min
Myanmar Times
May 4, 2016

Bowing to nationalist pressure, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday requested the US embassy in Yangon refrain from using the term “Rohingya”, according to an official.

The move follows increasing dissent from nationalist protesters after the US embassy released a statement expressing condolences for victims of a boat sinking accident who were reported to be Rohingya.

Nationalists swarmed the US embassy in an unauthorised march along University Avenue Road on April 28. The nationalist activists and monks, backed by Ma Ba Tha – or the Committee to Protect Race and Religion as it is formally called in English – demanded the embassy retract the statement and accused the US of interfering with Myanmar affairs.

Rohingya are not recognised as among the 135 official ethnic groups and are referred to as “Bengalis” by those who do not support their right to self-identification.

In a statement released on May 2, Ma Ba Tha encouraged people to ignore the US embassy statement, and treat the country as if it had broken diplomatic ties with Myanmar. The term “Rohingya” is “fake” and those who use it violate the sovereignty of the state, the statement said.

The nationalists planned to stage another, much larger rally outside the embassy on May 5, with a protest column marching in from Ayeyarwady Region. But the organisers said if the Myanmar government denounced the embassy for meddling in identity politics beforehand, the protest could be called off.

U Soe Lynn Han, deputy director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said yesterday that the US embassy was advised to avoid using the term “Rohingya” in the future.

“We told them that the use of the term by the US embassy is not supportive of national reconciliation in Myanmar. They said they have noted the request,” he said.

The US embassy was not able to confirm the request or provide a statement in response by press time yesterday.

Spokesperson for the President’s Office and the State Counsellor U Zaw Htaw previously told The Myanmar Times that the dispute over the terminology would be handled behind closed doors through “diplomatic channels”.

U Soe Lynn Han said “high-level” talks were held over the issue, but he did not go into detail about what was said or who was present. He said only that the discussion had clearly produced “positive” results.

When asked whether the new government had an official policy on the use of the word “Rohingya” and if the official terminology would be distributed to all the embassies, the ministry’s deputy director general said he could not comment.

“I can say only that this [request to the US] was the policy of the minister,” U Soe Lynn Han said.

The US has repeatedly defended its use of the word “Rohingya”.

In a press conference on the same day as the nationalist protest at the gates of the embassy, the new US ambassador Scot Marciel said it was not a “political decision” but “normal practice” to call people what they wish to be called.

Asked if he would continue using the term “Rohingya”, Mr Marciel said, “We have used that term before, President Obama has used that term before”, but throughout the interview with the press he did not himself use the word “Rohingya”.

US President Barack Obama has repeatedly called on Myanmar to end discrimination against Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State where many are confined to temporary IDP camps built four years ago. Mr Obama repeatedly used the term “Rohingya” when he came to Myanmar in 2014, on his second visit to the country. Mr Obama was the first US president to visit Myanmar while in office, and his administration counts the rapprochement of relations with Myanmar as a major foreign policy success.

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