Hundreds of Buddhist nationalists staged a protest in front of the United States Embassy in Yangon on Thursday afternoon, to oppose the embassy’s use of the word “Rohingya” to refer to the stateless Muslims in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State.
Some 200 people, led by a dozen Buddhist monks of the nationalist Ma Ba Tha movement, assembled in front of the embassy at about 2 pm and shouted slogans, such as “Those who use the word Rohingya are our enemies!”
U Thuseitta, a monk, addressed the protestors and shouted towards the embassy: “Don’t meddle in our internal affairs! The use of the word Rohingya is an insult to all Myanmar people.”
In the past, the embassy and US government officials have regularly used the term Rohingya to describe the Muslim minority. Myanmar’s government, nationalist groups and many among the general public call the group “Bengalis,” in order to suggest they illegally entered western Myanmar from bordering Bangladesh.
U Pamukkha, a well-known Ma Ba Tha monk, was present during the protest and told Myanmar Now in an interview that it was being held as, “There's no (name) Rohingya in the 135 ethnic groups (designated in Myanmar’s 1982 Citizenship Law)... We are responding to their comments that imply the existence of such a group, though it does not exist.”
The Muslim minority insists that its members are called Rohingya and have a claim to Myanmar citizenship as their community has had a presence in Rakhine for many generations.
In a recent Facebook post, the embassy used the term to express sadness over the deaths of several Rohingyas, who drowned last week in a boat accident near Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State. The group was reportedly travelling by boat to buy goods at a local market, and had been forced to travel this way to avoid restrictions imposed on them concerning travel over land.
Public protests against the American government have been extremely rare in Myanmar. Even in past decades of military rule, during which Washington and Naypyitaw had strained relations, there were no such events.
Asked if the protest would discourage the embassy from using the term Rohingya, an embassy spokesperson said, “Around the world, people have the ability to self-identify.” He added that the United States supports people's rights to peacefully assemble and protest to express their opinions.
Tensions between Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya have remained high since the eruption of communal violence in 2012, which killed dozens and left more than 100,000 people, mostly Rohingya, displaced. They continue to live segregated and dwell in crowded, dirty camps with limited access to basic government services.
The protesters on Thursday also condemned Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s State Counsellor and foreign minister, for her failure to react to the remarks by the embassy.
The protest was led by members of Myanmar National Network and monks belonging to the Patriotic Myanmar Monks Union. The Yangon-based groups have emerged alongside the influential Ma Ba Tha movement, which rose to prominence during the term of the previous government of President Thein Sein.
Police were deployed and provided a strong security presence in front of the embassy on Thursday. A police chief observing the protest said it was officially permitted by the authorities, though at a different location in the city and not near the embassy.
“We will file lawsuits against the organisers for protesting here,” said Kyaw Htut, head police of Yangon’s western district. “But the reason we did not prevent them coming in front of the embassy is that we knew they were not going to do any destructive things.”