Nationalists Protest Govt’s New Arakan State Terminology

By Moe Myint 1 July 2016

RANGOON — Arakanese nationalist groups from Sittwe, Arakan State, sent an open letter to President Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi objecting to the government’s new terminology for those who self-identify as Rohingya prior to a protest they have planned for next week.

About 500 residents and 70 Buddhist monks signed the letter, which objected to the administration’s preferred “Muslims from Arakan State” jargon, which the government trotted out in hopes of easing tensions between the local Buddhist and Muslim communities.

The statement was delivered to Burma Army Commander-in-Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, Upper and Lower House Speakers, the ministries of defense, home affairs, information, and labor, immigrations and population, as well as the Arakan State government.

Last weekend, about 300 Arakanese nationalists, monks and civil society organizations (CSOs) in the state capital of Sittwe decided to launch a poster campaign for every Arakanese house with signs that said, “Rakhine is Rakhine, Bengali is Bengali,” highlighting that they would continue to use the word “Bengali” to describe the self-identifying Rohingya—who they believe are interlopers from Bangladesh—instead of taking on the government’s new nomenclature.

A sign posted by nationalists in Arakan State that reads, ‘Rakhine is Rakhine, Bengali is Bengali.’ (Photo: Zaw Zaw Naing / The Rakhine Gazette)
A sign posted by nationalists in Arakan State that reads, ‘Rakhine is Rakhine, Bengali is Bengali.’ (Photo: Zaw Zaw Naing / The Rakhine Gazette)

Two weeks ago, Burma’s representative to the United Nations (UN), Thet Thinzar Htun, said that using “the Muslim community in Arakan State” instead of the contentious term “Rohingya” would help foster harmony and mutual trust between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Arakan State.

Days later, Yanghee Lee, UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, visited Arakan State and met with both Buddhist and Muslim communities. During her time in the country, the Ministry of Information officially instructed state-owned publications to use the terms “the Muslim Community in Arakan State” and “the Buddhist Community of Arakan State.”

The National League for Democracy (NLD) government hoped to chart a neutral course with its new terminology, but both sides have rejected it and doubt that it will succeed.

The open letter stated that if the Union government adopts the new labels, it is intentionally hiding the Muslim community’s Bengali origins and will be viewed as an attempt to destroy the Arakan race.

“We strongly object and will not accept any term except Bengali,” stated the letter.

Arakan nationalist Than Htun claimed that the groups have already obtained official permission to peacefully assemble in every township in Arakan State on July 3. Police chiefs in Sittwe, Buthidaung, Thandwe, Kyauktaw and Maungdaw townships all confirmed that they were aware of and would allow a massive protest.

Khin Maung, Kyauktaw Township police chief, told The Irrawaddy that a demonstration with up to 1,000 protestors had been approved.

On Friday, an invitation letter from the Arakan State government circulated on social media, requesting that influential nationalist monks who would join the rally first hold talks at the state government’s offices on July 2. Arakan State Chief Minister Nyi Pu was unavailable to comment for this story.

U Eainda Sakka, an abbot from Sittwe, was invited to the government meeting but said there was no specific information or explanation included in the letter. He said he assumed it was related to the upcoming rally, but that if the chief minister hoped that they would avoid emotive slogans [Suu Kyi previously labeled ‘Rohingya’ and ‘Bengali’ as emotive terms], they would not acquiesce, as they had already received permission in accordance with the law.

“Maybe they will tell us to manage the rally and keep the situation calm,” he added.