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Government instructs against using 'Rohingya' or 'Bengalis'

Myanmar's new term 'Muslims in Rakhine State' is debated and seen as controversial

Government instructs against using 'Rohingya' or 'Bengalis'

Supporters and monks belonging to the hardline Buddhist groupMa Ba Tha rally against the Rohingya community, in Yangon on April 28. (Photo by AFP)

Myanmar's new civilian-led government is involved in a controversy for suggesting the term "Muslims in Rakhine State" and avoiding describing the community as "Bengalis."

The Ministry of Information instructed state media on June 16 not to use "Rohingya" or "Bengalis" and to use "Muslims in Rakhine State" and "Buddhists in Rakhine State" to describe the local people in the state.

Myanmar's State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party was democratically voted to power after decades of military rule, has asked several high-level dignitaries to refrain from using either term, including requesting the United Nations Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee currently visiting Myanmar to do the same.

The Muslim minority in Myanmar's state of Rakhine self-identify as Rohingya. Earlier governments had insisted on referring to the Rohingyas as Bengalis, implying that the minority group are instead illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. This is done despite the fact that vast numbers of the Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for decades.

Soe Naing from Rakhine Social Network, said that they have decided on protests in several townships in Rakhine on July 3, including sending objection letters to the president, over the government's new term.

"We don't accept the new term as they are 'Bengalis' so we will express our strong objection by rallying," Soe Naing, an organizer for the July 3 protest told ucanews.com.

Kyaw Min, chairman of the Democracy and Human Rights Party in Yangon, told ucanews.com that the government should stress on equal rights for the minority Muslims instead of emphasizing on the term to describe them.

Kyaw Min who in 2005 was sentenced to 47 years in prison for his pro-democracy work with Suu Kyi says that he had high hopes on her but sadly, she is "cautious and silent" on the Rohingya issue.

Last week, the Arakan National Party (ANP)-hardline Buddhist party in Rakhine, released a statement rejecting the government's new terminology.

"We feel that the new government attempts to treat as the same ethnic Rakhines and 'Bengalis'," Aye Nu Sein, chairwoman of ANP, told ucanews.com.

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Kyaw Hla Aung, a Rohingya activist from Thetkaepyin refugee camp near Sittwe, said the community wants to self-identify as Rohingya and so won't accept the government's new term.

"If we accept the 'Muslims in Rakhine State' term, we worry about losing our Rohingya identity and true history," Kyaw Hla Aung told ucanews.com.

Hatred and bigotry toward the minority Rohingya have been deeply rooted in Rakhine State.

In recent years there has been growing nationalism spearheaded by hardline groups such as the Ma Ba Tha that is led by senior Buddhist monks.

More than 120,000 Rohingya Muslims were forced into squalid camps with apartheid-like conditions since 2012 when anti-Muslim violence left scores dead.

"Rohingya" simply means "inhabitant of Rohang," the early Muslim name for Arakan.

Muslims probably arrived in what was then the independent kingdom of Arakan (now Rakhine) as long ago as the 8th century. They were seafarers and traders from the Middle East, and were joined in the 17th century by tens of thousands of Bengali Muslims captured by the marauding Arakanese, according to an Economist report from June 2015.

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