Squabbles Over Terminology Obscure Suu Kyi’s Larger Goals

By The Irrawaddy 13 May 2016

A New York Times editorial this week slammed what it called “Aung San Suu Kyi’s Cowardly Stance on the Rohingya,” in reaction to a request earlier this month from Suu Kyi’s Foreign Ministry to the US Embassy to avoid using the term “Rohingya.” The appeal came after an embassy statement last month offering condolences over the drowning of more than 20 displaced Muslims in Arakan State provoked a demonstration outside the embassy building for using the contentious term.

The New York Times is wrong to conclude that Suu Kyi, having bravely championed the rights of her compatriots in the face of despotism for a generation, has “continued” the unacceptable policies of Burma’s former military rulers.

The Irrawaddy has reported closely on the conflict in Arakan State since 2012, when sectarian violence first broke out (resulting in some 140,000 displaced, mostly Rohingya Muslim), through to the tenure of the new government after the National League for Democracy’s (NLD) landslide win in the November 2015 election. Throughout, we have been witness to the sheer magnitude of unfair attacks against the NLD on issues pertaining to religion and ethnicity.

In Arakan State, the NLD government faces a pressing new challenge in the form of ethnic armed insurgency, with the Arakan Army engaged in fierce hostilities with the Burma Army, on top of the unresolved religious conflict. Meanwhile the new government is striving to realize its election promises to end the country’s civil wars and achieve national reconciliation—along with the tremendous burden of rebuilding a wrecked economy and enfeebled national institutions.

Under such circumstances, the NLD has to enlist the cooperation of the Burma Army. After five decades of repressive military rule, the Burma Army maintains its grip on core sections of the country’s political apparatus and economy. The New York Times has misconstrued this reality, characterizing her necessarily cautious policy as a joining of hands with the military.

The new US Ambassador to Burma Scot Marciel appears to understand how Suu Kyi and the NLD government must proceed in rebuilding their country and establishing democracy.

“The normal US practice and the normal international practice is that communities anywhere have the right, or have the ability, to decide what they are going to be called. And normally when that happens, we would call them what they asked to be called. It’s not a political decision, it’s just a normal practice,” Marciel told members of the press and civil society on Tuesday. The ambassador, however, avoided using “Rohingya” for the duration of the press conference.

Although international media have largely overlooked it, the diplomatic community are aware that Burma’s Foreign Ministry has adopted a more moderate stance regarding terminology—advising the international community against using “Rohingya” as polarizing and unproductive—in comparison with the forthright position of the previous government: that there were no Rohingya in Burma, only “Bengalis” (the term widely used within Burmese society to imply that the Rohingya are interlopers from Bangladesh).

In an engagement with the diplomatic community last month, Suu Kyi as foreign minister also signaled a deviation from the insistence of the military government and its successor under President Thein Sein that the country be called “Myanmar” rather than Burma. She told the assembled diplomats from over 60 countries that they were free to use either term.

The Irrawaddy believes that, rather than arguing over terminology, it is crucial to initiate a dialogue between the Buddhist majority and Muslim minority in Arakan State and negotiate a lasting solution, which would alleviate the everyday suffering of all communities in the impoverished state.

The NLD government must invite stakeholders both from the country’s ethnic insurgencies and its inter-religious conflicts to attend, and be heard, at the proposed “21st Century Panglong Conference” on national reconciliation and internal peace. The much-touted “union spirit” can only emerge under conditions of equality and mutual understanding among the diverse people of Burma—the one secure foundation for nation building.

At the same time, the NLD government needs to show humanity toward communities currently excluded under the 1982 Citizenship Law (notably the Rohingya, who are not listed among the 135 ethnic groups who automatically qualify for citizenship). Plans should be adopted in cooperation with the United Nations, international organizations and friendly foreign governments to promote peaceful coexistence between Burma’s diverse communities, guaranteeing their fundamental human rights including access to medical services and schooling for children.

Only under such transformed conditions will the government be able to claim that there is no “ethnic cleansing” or systematic discrimination in Arakan State—and that the NLD government, unlike its predecessors, is not part of the problem but part of the solution.

Meanwhile, the international media and foreign governments should try for a deeper understanding of Burma’s complex ethnic makeup and its fault-lines, to avoid making statements that may inadvertently fuel strife between communities.

When questioned on the Rohingya issue in a press conference right before last year’s general election, Suu Kyi said it was unhelpful to exaggerate problems in Burma.

“All those who have goodwill toward this country should remember the Burmese saying: You have to make big problems small, and small problems disappear,” said Suu Kyi.

This editorial was originally published in Burmese on The Irrawaddy’s Burmese-language website.