Stateless Rohingya Muslims who have been trapped for years in refugee camps in Bangladesh are looking to Myanmar’s new de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, to help them return to Rakhine state as citizens.
But during a Sunday press conference alongside U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the Nobel laureate and longtime leader of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement declined to utter the word “Rohingya, ” saying that the National League for Democracy (NLD) party -led government needed to be given room to solve the issue.
The word “Rohingya” was an “incendiary” term for Buddhists living in western Rakhine state, Suu Kyi told reporters in Naypyitaw.
“[W]e’ve got to be very firm about not using emotive terms … because emotive terms make it difficult for us to find a peaceful and sensible resolution of our problems,” she said in response to a question from a correspondent for Radio Free Asia (RFA), a sister entity of BenarNews.
“All we are asking is that people should be aware of the difficulties that we are facing and to give us enough space to sort out our problems. If there is an insistence … on the part of the Rakhine Buddhists or on the part of the Muslims to insist on particular terms, knowing full well that these will create more animosity, this does not help to our finding a resolution to the problem at all,” Suu Kyi said, according to a transcript released by the State Department.
Myanmar’s new government was determined “to find a practical resolution” to strife between Rakhine’s Buddhist and Muslim communities and that “[w]e are not in any way undermining people’s desire to establish their own identity,” she said.
‘We were born in Burma’
Suu Kyi’s comments came two days after some 100 Rohingyas staged a demonstration at the Nayapara refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, a district near the Myanmar and Rakhine state border in southeastern Bangladesh, during which they appealed to her to help them return to their traditional homeland in Rakhine state and grant them citizenship, RFA reported.
For decades, Rohingyas who are not recognized as Myanmar citizens but are referred to as “Bengalis” by members of its Buddhist majority, have been fleeing across the border from religious strife and alleged persecution in Rakhine.
The demonstrators demanded that they be repatriated and recognized by their preferred identity, as ethnic Rohingyas.
“We were born in Burma, but left for Bangladesh because of persecution in Burma. We are not happy in the camps. So, we would like to request Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to do something for us,” Shah Alam, the headmaster of a school at the Nayapara camp, told RFA.
Alam also rejected claims made by people in Myanmar that Rohingyas were in fact from Bangladesh, saying his people had been living in Rakhine state for centuries.
“So we have the right to live in Burma as Rohingyas,” the schoolmaster added.
According to media reports, Suu Kyi earlier had asked the U.S. ambassador to Myanmar not to use the term “Rohingya.” Some Buddhist groups had protested the American use of the word.
Kerry touched on this point during Sunday’s news conference.
“The name issue is obviously very sensitive, and she’s [Suu Kyi] just spoken to sensitivity. It’s divisive, and I know that it arouses strong passions here. At the same time, we all understand, as a matter of fact, that there is a group here in Myanmar that calls itself Rohingya. We understand that. And we use that term ourselves sometimes,” Kerry said, noting that he and Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s foreign minister, had discussed the Rohingya issue earlier in the day.
According to Anup Kumar Chakma, who served as Bangladesh’s ambassador to Myanmar between 2009 and 2014, the repatriation of Rohingyas living in Bangladesh is possible under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, but as long as they show flexibility in how they want to be identified.
“Myanmar has strong reservations about the use of the term ‘Rohingya.’ A majority of the people in Myanmar see them as illegal settlers from Bengal or Chittagong. In case they drop the word ‘Rohingya,’ I think they can get citizenship,” Chakma told BenarNews.
Bangladesh to count Rohingyas
An estimated 300,000 Rohingyas are believed to be living on the Bangladeshi side of the border but, starting June 2, the government will launch its first ever census of the country’s unregistered Rohingya population, officials said.
Around 4,200 enumerators will undertake a count of unregistered Rohingya households in Cox’s Bazar and collect data for the census, said an official with the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS).
“The report will be finalized by November this year,” Project director Alamgir Hossain told BenarNews.