Rakhine Buddhists in the town of Sittwe in western Myanmar’s restive Rakhine state submitted an open letter to the country’s leaders on Friday saying they will not accept terms other than “Bengali” to refer to the members of the minority Muslim community who live there.
Hundreds of ethnic Rakhine residents and Buddhist monks signed the letter to State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Htin Kyaw, and military commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, said Aung Htay, a local resident who signed the document.
The speakers of the upper and lower house of parliament, the heads of several ministries, and the leaders of the Rakhine state government also received the letter.
The government issued an order last month directing state-owned media to use the phrase “Muslim community in Rakhine state” to refer to the roughly 1.1 million Muslims who live there—also known as Rohingya—during a visit by Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s special envoy on the situation of human rights in Myanmar.
Lee ended her 12-day mission to Myanmar on Friday.
The country’s majority Buddhists refuse to use the term Rohingya to refer to members of the group, whom they consider to be “Bengalis,” illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh, though many have lived in Myanmar for generations. But the government now also forbids the use of the term “Bengalis.”
“The use of the phrase “Muslim community in Rakhine state” means there are two groups—Buddhists and Muslims—who live [here],” Aung Htay told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“It seems as though the name 'Rakhine ethnic' will soon disappear,” he said. “We sent the letter because we want the president and Union government ministers to study and learn about the geography and history of Rakhine state.”
The letter is part of a larger campaign in Sittwe in which ethnic Rakhine Buddists have posted notices on the walls of people’s homes, indicating that they do not accept the phrase “Muslim community in Rakhine state,” he said.
The statements read “Rakhine is Rakhine, Bengali is Bengali.”
The nationalists are planning to carry out the same campaign in 17 other townships in Rakhine on Sunday, he said.
Confined to camps
Some 140,000 Rohingya Muslims were displaced after violence erupted four years ago between them and Rakhine Buddhists, leaving more than 200 dead and tens of thousands homeless. The Rohingya, who bore the brunt of the attacks, were later forced to live in refugee camps.
About 120,000 Rohingya currently remain in the camps, while thousands of others have fled persecution in the Buddhist-dominated country on rickety boats to other Southeast Asian countries in recent years.
The government does not consider the Rohingya to be full citizens of Myanmar and denies them basic rights, freedom of movement, and access to social services and education.
After the government issued its written order on June 16 mandating the use of “Muslim community in Rakhine state,” the Arakan National Party (ANP)—the political party that represents the interests of the Buddhist people in Rakhine state—released a statement saying it would continue to use “Bengalis” in defiance.
In May, the Myanmar government advised the United States and other embassies to avoid using the divisive term “Rohingya.”
Reported by Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.