RANGOON — The Arakan State government has bowed to the demands of Arakan nationalist groups by issuing a statement on Monday that it would refer to the Buddhist majority as the “Arakanese Race,” instead of “the Buddhist community in Arakan State.”
However, the state government was silent over the designation of the largely stateless Rohingya Muslim minority, prompting frustration among Arakanese politicians and civil society leaders, who insist they be called “Bengali,” to imply they are illegal migrants who do not belong in Arakan State.
On Sunday, in 15 out of 17 townships in Arakan State, thousands of Buddhist residents conducted protest marches against new and supposedly “neutral” government terminology for Buddhist and Muslim communities in the state.
At a session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, Burma’s representative Thet Thinzar Htun requested that the term “Muslim community in Arakan State” be used instead of the contentious terms “Rohingya” or “Bengali,” so as to foster “harmony” and “mutual trust” between the Buddhist and Muslim communities.
The following week, while UN human rights envoy Yanghee Lee visited Arakan State, the Ministry of Information instructed state-owned publications to use the terms “the Muslim Community in Arakan State” and “the Buddhist Community in Arakan State.”
On Sunday, banners and chants urged the National League for Democracy (NLD) government to stop using both terms, and included slogans such as, “Arakan State belongs to the Arakanese,” “Bengalis must be called Bengalis,” and “be afraid of the native Arakanese.”
Arakan State government spokesman Min Aung said they would use the term “Arakanese Race” because it was the “will of the Arakanese community.”
Although Monday’s official statement was silent on the designation of Muslims, Min Aung added that the state government would “respect the public’s voice and use the term ‘Bengali,’ in accordance with their demand,” to refer to the Rohingya.
However, Min Aung refused to confirm whether the state government would officially announce a policy of using “Bengali,” referring to it as a “separate issue.” He suggested that The Irrawaddy was asking “leading questions” on the matter.
Min Aung also said that Monday’s statement was issued on behalf of the state government alone, and does not reflect the position of the Union government.
Pe Than, a lawmaker in the Lower House of the Union Parliament for the Arakan National Party (ANP), which represents the Buddhist majority in the state, criticized the state government’s statement for ignoring the “core Arakanese demand” that the government abandon the term “Muslim community in Arakan State”—which implies, unacceptably in his view, that the Rohingya belong to Arakan State.
Pe Than also suspected that the statement, with its conspicuous omission, may have been issued on the instructions of the Union government.
Both the Union and Arakan State governments are controlled by the NLD, even though the ANP won the largest plurality of seats in the Arakan State parliament. The ANP have been excluded from a high level committee on Arakan State led by Aung San Suu Kyi, further exacerbating tensions between the NLD and the ANP.
“The main problem is how they will designate the terms. What we want is a decisive stand from the government, similar to the previous government,” said Pe Than.
Pe Than added that the issue should be resolved by the Ministry of Information and was not the responsibility of the Arakan State government, particularly given that the term “Muslim community in Arakan State” was aired at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Pe Than admitted that he and other ANP lawmakers had been briefed by Suu Kyi in Napyidaw in March about the new NLD government’s intentions to deploy new terms for Buddhist and Muslim communities in Arakan State. However, they had not expected them to be floated first at the UN.
The ANP lawmaker suggested that that “Muslim migrants in Arakan State” might be an acceptable term for the Rohingya, since it denoted origins outside of the state.
Pe Than went on to say, “We don’t care about too much about the exact words, which may one day disappear. What we care most about is whether the government will issue [citizenship documentation] to people in line with the 1982 Citizenship Law.”
The 1982 Citizenship Law—draw up under military dictator Ne Win—renders most Rohingya stateless, since they are not included among a list of 135 “official” ethnic groups, and many do not have the documentation to prove family residency over three generations.
The Irrawaddy phoned President’s Office spokesperson Zaw Htay on Monday but he declined to answer questions, directing the reporter back to the Arakan State government’s statement.
Wai Hun Aung, a social activist with the Wunlark Development Foundation, said, “It doesn’t matter who issued the statement [the state or union government]. The main point is that [the Rohingya] be called Bengali.”
He assumed that the statement was sincere in its attempt to assuage the concerns of the Buddhist Arakanese, but he declared it “totally irrelevant” to the “people’s demand”: that ‘‘Bengalis be called just Bengalis.”
Wai Hun Aung himself suspected that the Union government in Naypyidaw directed the statement, because the Arakan State Chief Minister Nyi Pu (an NLD appointee) and some state level ministers have been away from the capital Sittwe.