MANDALAY — Some 400 nationalists gathered in Mandalay on Friday to demand that the government officially denounce, within three days, the US Embassy’s use of the term “Rohingya.”
Joined by more than 50 monks from the ultra-hardline Buddhist nationalist association Ma Ba Tha, protesters wore yellow headbands and white T-shirts with “No Rohingya” and pictures of the ancient Burmese King Anawrattha printed on them as they called for government action.
“The government of [Aung San Suu Kyi] is responsible for condemning the United States and urging the world to stop saying ‘Rohingya,’” said U Sandar Thiri, secretary of the National Buddhist Monk Association of Mandalay, a group backed by firebrand monk U Wirathu.
“If the government doesn’t take action within three days, we’ll only ramp up our movement, such as by opening protest camps in certain areas, until the government acts,” he added.
Protesters marched to 62nd street, one of the main roads in the eastern part of Mandalay, shouting slogans, carrying placards and condemning the US Embassy’s use of the word in question in a statement on April 20 that extended condolences and expressed concern over the death of at least 21 internally displaced Muslims when a boat capsized near Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State.
“There have never been Rohingya among Burma’s ethnic groups. The US Embassy’s referral of Bengalis as Rohingya is insulting to our history and to our country, which is in danger of seeing Bengalis become one of our ethnic groups and join our citizenry,” said Pyae Phyo Aung, who helped to organize the protest in Mandalay.
Like many people in Burma, Pyae Phyo Aung was using “Bengalis” to refer to the Rohingya, the contention being that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, despite many members of the Muslim minority having lived in Arakan State for generations.
“The US Ambassador to Burma said that he will continue to respect the name of the people, which means that he and his government will continue to use ‘Rohingya’ and that we will continue to take it as an insult to our country,” he added.
A statement from U Wirathu, read aloud by one of the protesters, said that use of the word “Rohingya” would be one of the top challenges facing Burma’s new government and that it would show whether the government can balance this issue with its relationship with the United States.
“The US government is only saying that it promotes democracy, development and peace, when in reality it’s trying to destroy these things in our country,” the statement said.
“Using that word and casting [Rohingya Muslims] as poor people in this country is an insult, an act of provocation and interference in our country’s affairs. If the government neglects our feelings on this issue, has no transparency and isn’t brave enough to handle this situation, then we will have to be the ones to take action, instead of the government.”
Protesters sought to march in front of the divisional government office, but police blockaded them from going near the building, forcing protesters to disperse a few block from the office.
Protesters also demanded that the government drop charges against demonstrators who staged a similar protest in front of the US Embassy in Rangoon in late April.
Many international human rights groups point the finger at Ma Ba Tha and other ultra-nationalist groups for the increase in anti-Muslim violence in Burma in recent years. A report from Fortify Rights and United to End Genocide released on Monday said that there are more than 140,000 Rohingya and other Muslims confined to some 40 “squalid” internment camps in Arakan State.