U.S. Rethinking Sanctions on Myanmar But Firm on Using 'Rohingya' Term

By Paul Eckert
myanmar-marciel-05102016.jpg U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel delivers an address on Myanmar-US relations in Yangon, May 10, 2016.

The new U.S. ambassador to Myanmar said on Tuesday Washington is rethinking outstanding sanctions it had imposed to prod the country's former ruling military junta to take democratic reforms to avoid unintended impacts on development in the Southeast Asian nation.

However, ambassador Scot Marciel said the United States would continue to refer to western Myanmar's indigenous Muslim minority group as "Rohingyas," brushing off an official request and street protests over the term.

The United States had begun lifting a raft of sanctions in 2011 to reward changes put in place after a quasi-military government took over from the hard-line junta that had ruled the former Burma for five decades. Some trade curbs remain in place against business dealings with military-linked businessmen.

"We recognize that even these limited, targeted sanctions occasionally have unintended effects on the broader economy," ambassador Scot Marciel said at a news conference at the American Center in Yangon, the commercial capital.

"Now in the aftermath of the transition to the new elected government we are again reviewing our sanctions," he said, without elaborating on possible outcomes of the policy review.

Marcial said U.S. policy would continue to refer to the community of about 1.1 million persecuted, stateless Muslims living in western Myanmar by their preferred term "Rohingya."

"The normal U.S. practice and the normal international practice is that communities anywhere have the right, or have the ability to decide what they are going to be called. And normally when that happens, we would call them what they asked to be called. It's not a political decision, it's just a normal practice."

Last week Myanmar's Foreign Ministry, which is headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, advised foreign embassies in Myanmar to avoid using the term "Rohingya" and nationalists staged a protest outside the U.S. embassy the day after Marciel presented his credentials demanding American diplomats stop using that name.   

Myanmar does not officially recognize the Rohingya 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 inMyanmar for generations.

Marciel declined to address reports that Aung San Suu Kyi, de facto leader of Myanmar, had personally asked him not to use the term. "I prefer not to publicly talk about private diplomatic conversations," he said.

Apartheid-like conditions

AFP quoted Myanmar foreign ministry official Aye Aye Soe as saying her office had asked Marciel not to use the term "Rohingya."

"Yes, it is true that we told Ambassador Scot Marciel when he came Naypyitaw not to use the term 'Rohingya' because it is not supportive in solving the problem that is happening in Rakhine state," Aye Aye Soe, deputy director general of the ministry's political department, told AFP. "And it can even worsen the situation there."

"This is his right to say or call whatever he wants, but this is not leading to a solution of the problems," she said. "People are just fighting over this term instead of solving the problem. This can make things difficult for the two communities in Rakhine to gain trust again."

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.

State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) party came to power at the beginning of April after a landslide election victory five months earlier, has so far failed to address the Rohingya issue, prompting criticism from many outside Myanmar who have supported the Nobel Laureate's long struggle for democracy.

"Human rights advocates have hoped that she and her ruling National League for Democracy party would dismantle the repressive measures against the Rohingya," said The Los Angeles Times in an editorial published Tuesday.

"Suu Kyi, who was disturbingly noncommittal on the issue during the election, has now spoken up -- but, woefully, only to endorse the previous government's discriminatory practice of refusing to recognize the Rohingya as one of the country's more than 130 officially sanctioned ethnic groups," said the newspaper, which advocated retaining some U.S. sanctions.

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