NAYPYIDAW — Burmese government officials on Thursday criticized UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon over the use of the term Rohingya, after the visiting leader had called for better treatment of the stateless Muslim minority.
The secretary general said in a reaction later on Thursday that the government’s focus on the terminology was “unnecessary” and could “lead to entrenched polarization.”
Shortly after arriving for the Asean and East Asia summits on Wednesday, Ban had told journalists that he “encouraged Myanmar leaders to uphold human rights, take a strong stance against incitement, and ensure humanitarian access to Rohingya living in vulnerable conditions.”
This irked the government, however, and prompted a response from Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Thant Kyaw, as well as from Arakan State Chief Minister Maung Maung Ohn.
“We’ve repeatedly explained that we’re not happy with the use of the word Rohingya by the United Nations, or by neighboring countries, including Bangladesh,” Thant Kyaw told journalists at the Asean conference center I Naypyidaw.
“We duly understand the humanitarian issue facing this minority and we’ll keep supporting them,” he said, adding, “[But] whenever the United Nations has used the word Rohingya, we keep telling them we do not accept it.”
Arakan Chief Minister Maung Maung Ohn sent a letter to the secretary-general, which was distributed among journalists at the Asean Summit.
Maung Maung Ohn wrote that Ban’s use of the term Rohingya “can have lasting detrimental impact on our ability to do the work needed on the ground to bring the [Muslim and Buddhist] communities together.”
“The term ‘Rohingya’ has fostered distrust and further led to a greater divide between the [Arakanese] and the Bengali populations as well as between the Myanmar people and the international community,” he wrote, adding that use of the term “has alienated the [Arakanese] population and further fueled their distrust of all the United Nations agencies and international organizations.”
Since 2012, Arakan State has been wracked by outbreak of deadly inter-communal violence between Arakanese Buddhists and the Rohingya that have displaced 140,000 people, mostly Muslims.
Burma’s Buddhist-dominated government is accused of imposing a range of human rights-violating restrictions on the stateless Rohingya, who are not allowed to travel and lack access to basic government services such as education and health care.
The government and the Arakanese population reject the group’s claims to citizenship and right to self-identify as Rohingya—the government insists on calling the group “Bengalis” to suggest they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Asked by The Irrawaddy about the government’s criticism, Ban said, “There should be no misunderstanding on the conditions of the United Nations on this terminology; I’m appealing to you, let us overcome this issue of terminology, if you continue to talk about terminology it may lead to entrenched polarization, this is not necessary.”
“Whatever the terminology, Rohingya or Bengalis, what is important is that we create the conditions where two communities can live harmoniously and where the United Nations can give assistance for communities to develop… That is more important,” he told a press conference.
Maung Maung Ohn is a former Burma Army general who was put in charge in Arakan State in recent months. Since then, the government has put forth a controversial Action Plan for Arakan State that involves permanent segregation of the communities, and internment of Rohingya who refuse to register as “Bengalis.”
A United States official said on Thursday that Washington calls for a completely new Action Plan.
Ban also said on Thursday that he met with President Thein Sein, Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, to discuss Burma’s peace process, the Arakan crisis, and next year’s general elections.
He urged all parties to push the stalled nationwide ceasefire negotiations forward as such a ceasefire is “a pillar of the reform process.”
“Compromise will be critical as the parties reach the final stage of a nationwide ceasefire agreement and the framework for political dialogue. The reappearance of clashes shows that the mindset of the past needs to be overcome by a leap of faith on both sides,” he said.
“The status and lives of the people of Myanmar, especially those of the minority communities, who face daily discrimination, oppression and injustice, is a core concern of the United Nations.”