The Myanmar Times
The Myanmar Times

State counsellor urges avoidance of words ‘Rohingya’ and ‘Bengali’

Speaking for the first time since taking office about the issue of inter-communal violence in Rakhine State, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi told reporters in a press briefing yesterday that she did not support the use of either of the terms “Rohingya” or “Bengali”.

Meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry in Nay Pyi Taw, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who also serves as foreign minister, stressed that arguing about the nomenclature was not helpful to her administration’s effort in finding a workable solution for the conflict in Rakhine State.

“The reason why I said ‘you’ve got to be very firm about not using emotive terms’ is because such terms make it very difficult for us to find peaceful and sensible resolutions to our problems,” she said. She said the terms “Bengali” and “Rohingya” had created greater divisions between the two communities.

The controversy was brought into the spotlight when the US embassy in Yangon issued a statement in April expressing condolences for victims of a boat sinking incident. Nationalists then gathered outside the embassy to protest the use of the term “Rohingya”. Later, a senior official from Myanmar’s foreign ministry under the direction of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi asked the embassy not to use the word.

The US ambassador to Myanmar, Scot Marciel, had previously told reporters that calling a community by the name it used to identify itself was international practice.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said the words “Rohingya” and “Bengali” have political implications that are not acceptable to many people.

“The Rakhine Buddhists object to the term ‘Rohingya’ just as much as Muslims object to the term ‘Bengali’ because they have all kinds of political and emotional implications, which are unacceptable to the opposite party,” she said.

She also said encouraging use of either of the terms would create more animosity that would undermine efforts to find solutions acceptable by the two communities.

The previous government led by former general U Thein Sein had referred to the Muslim community in Rakhine State as “Bengalis”, translated from the Myanmar word for “Bangladeshi” or “of or relating to Bangladesh”.

Mr Kerry said he spoke with Daw Aung Suu Kyi about the terminology and stressed that certain important issues needed to be solved. “What is critical to focus on is solving the problem … which is improving the situation on the ground to promote development, promote respect for human rights, and to benefit all of those who live in Rakhine and throughout Myanmar,” he said.

“We’ve come here to say to the minister that we are committed to work with her in the effort to do that: to try to solve the problem, not grow the problem; to provide solutions, not to provide divisions. I think it is important for everybody to work constructively in that direction,” he added.

However, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Mr Kerry both stressed that the ability to self-identity was important for people all over the world. “We are not in any way undermining people’s desire to establish their own identity,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said.

“What we are asking for is that those who really wish us well should be aware of the implication of terms and their use quite perhaps unwittingly, not knowing what the implications are for those of us who have to cope with the actual problems that arise from this disagreement over what name to use.”

She said the government has “already given as much humanitarian access as has been requested with regard to the IDP camps”. “In order to stop people from having to live in IDP camps, we have to create the kind of situation where they can live peacefully and securely outside the camps,” she said.

Mr Kerry also met yesterday with Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to discuss conditions for holding a so-called 21st-century Pang-long Conference, to discuss the rights of ethnic minorities, and the role of the military in the multi-party democracy, said a post on the senior general’s Facebook page.

The post also said that Mr Kerry and Snr Gen Min Aung Hlaing discussed ties between the two countries and between their respective militaries.