The new U.S. ambassador to Myanmar stressed on Tuesday that he will keep using the term Rohingya for the persecuted Muslim ethnic minority group even though the government asked him to refrain from it.
Scot Marciel took over as the head of the U.S. mission at a critical time after Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in historic elections.
“Our position globally and our international practice is to recognize that communities anywhere have the ability to choose what they should be called… and we respect that,” said Marciel, in response to a question on whether he intended to continue using the term Rohingya.
He added that this has been Washington’s policy before and that the Obama administration intended to stick to it.
Feted by many in the West for her role as champion of Myanmar’s democracy movement during long years of military domination, Suu Kyi has been criticized overseas, and by some in Myanmar, for saying little about the abuses faced by the Rohingya.
Speaking out for the group would carry a political cost at home. The Rohingya is widely disliked in Myanmar, including by some in Suu Kyi’s party. She risks losing support by taking up the cause of the minority group.
Members of the 1.1 million-strong group, most of whom live in apartheid-like conditions in a remote part of northwestern Myanmar, are seen by many Myanmar Buddhists as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The term is a divisive issue.
Conflict over land and resources in the western state of Rakhine, where most of the estimated 1 million Rohingya live, caused deadly violence between Buddhists and Muslims which later spread to other parts of the country. Some 125,000 Rohingya were forced to flee their homes and now live in poor conditions in decrepit camps.
Last year, the Saudi government asked Myanmar’s authorities to stop the persecution of the Rohingya.
It also expressed deep concern over their tragic situation.
Myanmar’s previous military-linked government referred to the group as Bengalis, implying they were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Last week, officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is run by Suu Kyi, said they had requested Marciel to refrain from using the term they dubbed “controversial.”
They said the Rohingya were not among the officially recognized ethnic minorities and in their view using the term was not supportive of Myanmar’s national reconciliation process.
Asked whether Suu Kyi asked him to stop using the term Rohingya, Marciel refused to comment on what he referred to as “private diplomatic conversations.”