By Kyaw Ye Lynn
Several thousand Buddhist nationalists have taken to the streets of Myanmar's western Rakhine State to protest a new term proposed by the government to describe the area's around one million stateless Rohingya Muslims.
Rakhine Buddhists -- including many monks -- held aloft signs reading “Bengali is Bengali, Rakhine is Rakhine” on the streets of state capital Sittwe and 17 other towns Sunday evening to denounce the government.
During last month's trip to the country by the United Nations Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, the government instructed state-owned media to avoid using the terms “ Rohingya or Bengali” and “Rakhine”, saying they should instead using “Muslim community in Rakhine State” and “Buddhist community in Rakhine State” for the two.
Organizer Chaw Yin told protesters in Gwa town Sunday that they would not use the terms.
“We will continue using 'Bengali' to describe Bengali illegal immigrants. We will [also] not use 'Buddhist community in Rakhine State'. We are Rakhine ethnics, and call ourselves Rakhine ethnic," she said.
Bengali is a term used by many Myanmar people to suggest that Rohingya – described by the U.N. as the world’s most persecuted minority group – are illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
“The government must call them Bengalis,” she underlined, claiming that the term for Buddhists would make the Rakhine ethnicity disappear.
Prior to the demonstration, Rakhine nationalists sent an open letter to key players of the country -- including President Htin Kyaw, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and military chief Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing -- objecting to the term.
The letter is part of a larger campaign in Sittwe in which Rakhine nationalists have posted notices reading “Rakhine is Rakhine, Bengali is Bengali” on the walls of Buddhists' homes.
Last week, the Arakan National Party (ANP) -- which won the majority of seats in Rakhine in last year’s general election -- said it was totally unacceptable to use the new term to describe the "Bengali".
A statement insisted that such “illegal immigrants” had been listed under the category “Chittagonian” in censuses conducted during British colonial rule and under “Bengali” in censuses of 1973, 1983 and 2014.
“This new term would efface the origin of these Bengalis, and fabricate that these people are Rakhine natives,” it said.
Rakhine is also home to other Muslims, such as the Kaman. Unlike the Rohingya, the Kaman is officially recognized as one of Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups.
Since her party's victory in the Nov. 8 election, Suu Kyi has been placed under tremendous international pressure to solve problems faced by Rohingya but has had to play a careful balancing act for fear of upsetting the country's nationalists, many of whom have accused Muslims of trying to eradicate the country's Buddhist traditions.
Suu Kyi has, however, enforced the notion that the root of many of the impoverished region's problems are economic, and is encouraging investment in the area, which in turn the National League for Democracy hopes will lead to reconciliation between the Buddhist and Muslim communities.