By Kyaw Ye Lynn
YANGON, Myanmar (AA) – Around 500 Buddhist nationalists have staged an unauthorized demonstration outside the U.S embassy in Yangon to protest the use of the term “Rohingya” to describe the country’s stateless and persecuted Muslim minority.
Many such nationalists refuse to even recognize the term, instead referring to the Muslim ethnic group as “Bengali” which suggests they are illegal immigrants from neighboring country Bangladesh.
Win Zaw Zaw Latt, from the Yangon-based Myanmar National Network, told Anadolu Agency prior to Thursday’s demonstration in the country’s commercial capital that it had been organized to tell the U.S. embassy to respect the government and people of Myanmar.
“It is already clear that there is no such ethnicity as Rohingya in our country,” he claimed. “We demand the U.S. as well as western countries and the EU to stop using the term Rohingya.”
The embassy used the term in a recent statement to illustrate its concerns about the situation in western Rakhine State, where communal violence between ethnic Buddhists and Muslims in 2013 left 57 Muslims and 31 Buddhists dead, around 100,000 people displaced in camps and more than 2,500 houses burned — most of which belonged to Rohingya.
Over 100 police were deployed to quell protesters outside the embassy Thursday which had been barricaded with wire fences earlier in the day.
The protesters were joined by around 50 monks from Buddhist nationalist association Ma Ba Tha.
A senior police officer called the demonstration unauthorized, and said action would be taken against organizers.
Following the demonstration, Pamaukkha – a prominent Ma Ba Tha monk in Yangon — offered his condolences to a group he referred to as “Bengali” who lost their lives April 19 when their boat capsized off western Rakhine State.
He used the opportunity, however, to underline his stance.
“International diplomats should care using such controversial terms [as Rohingya],” he told Anadolu Agency. “They are Bengali – illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. We don’t have a Rohingya ethnicity here. We would never accept them as one of our ethnic groups.”
At least 18 people are believed to have died when the boat — transporting residents of an internally displaced people’s camp to Rakhine’s capital Sittwe — capsized.
Sittwe-based police officer Aye Khin Maung told local media last week that the 49 people were “Bengali” heading to purchase supplies in preparation for the region’s rainy season.
In its statement, the U.S. embassy extended condolences to the families of the victims, adding that local reports had said that they were “Rohingya”.
“Restrictions on access to markets, livelihoods, and other basic services in Rakhine State can lead to communities unnecessarily risking their lives in an attempt to improve their quality of life,” it added.
Rohingya have faced widespread persecution for decades, but their situation has become ever more perilous since 2012, when Buddhist rioters rampaged through villages in Sittwe, torching Rohingya houses and attacking people with machetes and other crude weapons.
Since then, around 140,000 Rohingya — and some members of the Kaman community — have been unable to return to their villages, confined to a swathe of land in squalid displacement camps, where they are often denied basic healthcare.
The Rohingya are denied citizenship under a 1982 law that has been widely condemned by rights groups, and were excluded from a general election Nov. 8 that saw Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party come to power.