Suu Kyi asks US to stop saying ‘Rohingya’

Aung San Suu Kyi welcomes US President Barack Obama to her home in Yangon in 2012. Source: Wikimedia 


Myanmar recognises 135 ethnic groups but refuses to add the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine State to the list.

Aung San Suu Kyi, state counsellor (or de facto prime minister) of the new government, advised the US ambassador against using the term “Rohingya” about the group that has lived in western Myanmar for centuries.

Her administration did not recognise them as citizens, said her spokesman, Kyaw Zay Ya from the Foreign Ministry.

“We won’t use the term Rohingya because Rohingya are not recognised as among the 135 official ethnic groups,” said Kyaw Zay Ya. “Our position is that using the controversial term does not support the national reconciliation process and solving problems.”

Human rights activists had hoped the Nobel Peace Prize laureate would reverse discriminatory policies that had marginalised the Rohingya and prompted many to flee on perilous boat journeys towards Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Suu Kyi’s supporters, including the Dalai Lama, had hoped she would defend the stateless Rohingya after her party’s overwhelming victory in last November’s election.

“She is not saying anything about the Rohingya people in Myanmar and their rights to religion and education and health care said Aung Win, a Rakhine Rohingya leader. “As a Nobel Peace Prize winner, why is she so silent?”

The new US ambassador, Scot Marciel, met Suu Kyi late last month, presumably to discuss the issue.

The Rohingya are denied basic rights, including citizenship, freedom of worship, education, marriage and freedom of travel. More than 100,000 who were driven from their homes by violent Buddhist nationalist mobs in 2012 and are in resettlement camps.

Myanmar’s media controversially calls them “Bengalis”, implying that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Protesters marched on the US Embassy in Yangon last month after it used the word Rohingya in a statement of condolence for the deaths of at least 20 people whose boat capsized on April 19 off the Rakhine coast.

Buddhist activists called on Suu Kyi’s government to challenge the embassy.

Marciel said it was standard practice around the world to let communities decide for themselves what to be called.

“And normally, when that happens, we would call them what they want to be called,” he told the media in April. “It’s not a political decision; it’s just a normal practice.”

Suu Kyi raised the issue with Marciel the next day, which was welcomed by the Buddhist nationalist Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (Ma Ba Tha).

“We don’t want that word because they are not our nationality,” said Thaw Bar Ka, a leader of the Ma Ba Tha, ignoring the patchwork make up of the rest of the diverse union. “And now I read the news that the Foreign Ministry agrees with us. It’s really good. At first, I thought the new government would be useless on this issue.”

International observers are deeply disappointed by the NLD’s populist stance.

“It’s dismaying that the new NLD-led government is continuing this wrongheaded effort to police the language of Yangon-based diplomats about the Rohingya,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.