About 300 Myanmar nationalists on Thursday publicly excoriated the United States for using the term Rohingya to refer to the stateless, Muslim, ethnic minority group that has long lived in the western part of the country, despite the Buddhist majority’s view that they are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Buddhist monks and other protesters marched from Yangon University to the American embassy in the commercial city, where some made speeches opposing the U.S. embassy’s use of Rohingya in a statement issued on April 20.
“The U.S. embassy should take care using such controversial terms,” said Pamaukkha, a prominent monk from the nationalist Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha. “They used the term Rohingya instead of Bengalis–illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.”
“International diplomats should study Myanmar’s history,” he said. “I want to declare something here to all foreign countries through the U.S. embassy that there is no such ethnicity as Rohingya in our country.”
About 1.1 million Rohingya live in Rakhine state where authorities have imposed harsh restrictions on their movement and access to social services such as health care. The previous government considered them illegal immigrants, although many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Win Ko Ko Lat, leader of the Myanmar National Network, which organizes demonstrations, said the U.S. embassy had insulted Myanmar’s sovereignty by using the term Rohingya instead of Bengali.
“We don’t have a Rohingya ethnicity here,” Win Ko Ko Lat said. “If the embassy continues using this term, we will strongly reject it and protest.”
The protesters had received permission to protest at Boseinhyman stadium in Bahan township, but decided to march instead, said Lt. Col. Kyaw Htut, head of the western Yangon region police.
About about 100 security personnel were deployed during the event, he said.
Protest organizers now face charges for holding the demonstration in an unapproved location, he said.
In its statement, the U.S. embassy extended condolences to the families of 21 people who died when a boat transporting them capsized on April 19. The statement cited local reports that identified the victims as Rohingya who lived in an internally displaced people’s camp in Sittwe in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
“We were saddened by the news about those who tragically lost their lives after a boat capsized near Thae Chaung in Sittwe township on April 19, and we extend our condolences to the families of the victims, who local reports state were from the Rohingya community,” it said.
More than 100,000 Rohingya were forced to live in apartheid-like conditions in squalid camps after violence erupted between them and local Buddhists in 2012, leaving more than 200 dead and tens of thousands homeless. Since then, thousands of others have fled persecution on rickety boats to other Southeast Asian countries.
The demonstration took place a day after President Htin Kyaw accepted the credentials of the new U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel.
State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) party came to power at the beginning of April, has so far failed to address the Rohingya issue, prompting criticism from rights groups.
A government spokesman told Reuters on Thursday that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was dealing with the name issue, but provided no further details.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo, Kyaw Zaw Win and Htet Arkar. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.