Buddhist nationalists held demonstrations across Arakan State on Sunday to protest the Burmese government’s recommendation that, for the sake of diplomatic protocol, the ethnic Rohingya minority in the region be referred to as the “Muslim community in Arakan State”.
Demonstrations took place simultaneously in 15 of the 17 townships in Arakan, also known as Rakhine State.
Thousands of Arakanese Buddhists joined rallies in: Sittwe; Mimbya; Mrauk-U; Kyauktaw; Pauktaw; Myebon; Kyaukphyu; Taunggup; Ramree Islands; Ann; Sandoway [Thandwe]; Ponnakyun; Butheedaung, Maungdaw and Rathedaung. The two townships where protests were not held were Gwa and Manaung.
Residents in the township of Gwa said they too are planning to stage a protest, on 5 July, and are currently awaiting permission from the local police.
The Arakanese Buddhist nationalists were expressing anger at the suggestion raised by a delegation representing the new Aung San Suu Kyi-led government at a UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva last month that for the sake of diplomacy – and seeking not to inflame tensions – the UN sessions should avoid using either of the terms “Rohingya” or “Bengali”.
Many Burmese and Arakanese refuse to acknowledge the name “Rohingya” and insist on referring to the one-million-strong community as “Bengalis” – suggesting that the ethnic group hails from Bangladesh and is not indigenous to Burma.
The matter is deeply divisive nowadays in Burma. In 2012, tensions boiled over when both Buddhist and Muslim mobs took to the streets. Dozens were killed in several months of violence, while some 140,000 persons were forced from their homes.
Speaking from Sunday’s anti-Muslim rally in Myebon, organiser Thein Zan said, “Only [Buddhist] Arakanese should be considered the indigenous population of Arakan State. We totally denounce and object to the suggestion that the term ‘Muslim community in Arakan State’ be adopted without informing, liaising with or gauging the opinion of the Arakanese people, the Arakan National Party, the regional government, and the chief minister.”
In regional capital Sittwe, demonstrator Than Tun told DVB: “We see this terminology as extremely dangerous for the future. We would rather stick to the names ‘Arakanese’ for the Arakanese, and ‘Bengali’ for the Bengalis.”
Also speaking to DVB on Sunday, Kyauktaw protest organiser Aye Saw echoed the sentiments of many when he said, “The government’s use of incorrect terminology at the UN meeting could lead to the extinction of the Arakanese people.”