More than 500 people protested on Friday in Myanmar’s northern city of Mandalay, demanding that the government officially denounce the U.S. government's use of the term “Rohingya” to describe western Myanmar’s Muslim minority group.
About 50 Buddhist monks from the nationalist organization Ma Ba Tha and members of the Mandalay nationalist Saturday Group led a march along one of the main roads in east Mandalay, shouted slogans, and carried placards condemning the U.S. embassy’s use of “Rohingya.”
About 1.1 million Rohingya live in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state where they are persecuted and stateless, and live in squalid displaced persons camps.
Myanmar does not officially recognize them as an ethnic group and denies them basic rights, while hard-line Buddhists and other nationalists assert that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
“We are demanding that the current government and Foreign Affairs Ministry officially announce that we don’t have a Rohingya ethnic group in our country and demand that the U.S. embassy officially renounce the term and pledge not to use it in the future,” said Pyae Phyo Aung, one of the protest organizers from the Saturday Group.
The dispute arose after the U.S. embassy had extended condolences to the families of 21 people who died when a boat transporting them capsized on April 19. It cited local reports that identified the victims as Rohingya who had lived in an internally displaced people’s camp in Sittwe.
The nationalists said they will keep protesting until the U.S. government officially acknowledges that the Rohingya are not included among Myanmar’s official ethnic groups.
In late April, about 300 nationalists, including Buddhist monks, publicly denounced the U.S. for using the word Rohingya during a protest march from Yangon University to the American embassy in Myanmar’s former capital.
Call for expulsion of Muslims
In a related development, about 700 residents of Rakhine’s capital Sittwe, sent a signed letter to state Chief Minister Nyi Pu on Friday, demanding that he expel all Muslims from the city’s Aung Mingalar ward, a local resident said.
Colonel Htein Lin, Rakhine’s security and border affairs minister, said the state government could not expel the Muslims from the ward right away, and that he would conduct a verification process to determine which ones were not registered to live there, Sittwe resident Than Tun told RFA.
Government officials, representatives from the Muslim community, and youth groups will conduct checks of residents in Aung Mingalar ward on May 21, Than Tun said.
The ward is the only Muslim area in the city and has about 4,000 Muslim residents, according to a 2012 list by immigration officials, he said.
“The number of people living in this ward is more than we had thought,” he said.
“We have heard that a foreign country is planning to build a hospital, schools and market in this ward,” Than Tun said. “We are worried about the possibility of having problems between Rakhine ethnics and the Muslims. That’s why we are demanding they be expelled from the city.”
Scot Marciel, the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, said on Tuesday that the country would continue to refer to western Myanmar’s Muslim minority group as “Rohingyas,” brushing off an official request and street protests over the term.
Myanmar's Foreign Ministry, headed by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, last week advised foreign embassies in the country to avoid using “Rohingya” after nationalists staged a protest outside the U.S. embassy.
About 140,000 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 have fled on rickety boats to seek refuge in other Southeast Asian countries. About 120,000 Rohingya remain in the camps.
By Set Paing Toe and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.