YANGON — Myanmar’s religious affairs and culture minister said on Tuesday that his recent remarks branding an unspecified faith an “extreme religion” did not refer to all Muslims but only to “Bengalis.”
Myanmar government officials use “Bengali” to refer to Rohingya, whom they do not consider an ethnic group but illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
At a funeral ceremony for a prominent Buddhist monk last month, Minister U Aung Ko said “the followers of an extreme religion take three or four wives and have families with 15 or 20 children,” posing a risk to Myanmar’s monogamous Buddhists.
Although the minister did not name the religion he was referring to, an Islamic organization based in Yangon, the Society of Enlightening Quranic Knowledge, took offense and issued a statement rebuking U Aung Ko for calling any religion “extreme.”
On Friday, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture released a public announcement claiming that U Aung Ko was not targeting any one religion but “‘religious extremists’ from every faith in the country” and asked the public for a tolerant interpretation of the minister’s remarks.
When asked about his remarks by reporters on Tuesday, U Aung Ko said he did not mean to offend the Muslim community in Myanmar.
“In fact I mean to say Bengali as another religion,” he said, claiming that “Bengali” youth in refugee camps in Bangladesh were being pressured to go to Myanmar.
“With an exploding population, their ambition is to march to Rakhine [State] and Myanmar. That’s what I want to say,” the minister said.
More then 700,000 Rohingya have fled Rakhine for Bangladesh since August 2017, when coordinated attacks on security posts by the militant Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army triggered a military crackdown. The UN and others have accused Myanmar’s military of ethnic cleansing by unleashing a campaign of arson, rape and murder against the Rohingya. The military says it was carrying out legitimate operations against a terrorist organization.
Most of the refugees now live in sprawling camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar District.
More than 1 million Rohingya were estimated to be living in northern Rakhine before the military crackdown and constituted nearly 90 percent of the local population.