YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar and the United States appeared to agree to disagree Tuesday on what to call the Southeast Asian nation's beleaguered Muslim minority that Washington and most of the world know as Rohingya.
Many Buddhists inside Myanmar prefer to call them "Bengalis," arguing that the 1 million or so members of the minority are mostly illegal immigrants and not a native ethnic group. In fact, the families of many Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations.
U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel said the U.S. calls communities by the name they themselves prefer.
"The normal U.S. practice and the normal international practice is that communities anywhere have the right, or have the ability to decide what they are going to be called. And normally when that happens, we would call them what they asked to be called. It's not a political decision, it's just a normal practice."
Because Myanmar does not officially recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group, it denies most of them citizenship and basic rights. 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. More than 100,000 Rohingya were forced to flee their homes and now live in poor conditions in decrepit camps.
Marciel declined to say whether, as reported, the country's foreign minister and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi had personally asked him not to use the term. "I prefer not to publicly talk about private diplomatic conversations," he said.
Suu Kyi, who won international admiration and a Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent struggle for democracy during Myanmar's years of military rule, has in recent years disappointed many former fans by failing to speak on behalf of the Rohingya. Despite international expressions of concern, Myanmar's previous military-backed government, which handed over power this year to Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party, did nothing to ease the Rohingya's plight.
Myanmar foreign ministry official Aye Aye Soe acknowledged Tuesday that her office had asked Marciel not to use the term "Rohingya." She said Marciel has the right to call the minority whatever he likes, but calling them Rohingya could enflame communal tensions.
"Yes, it is true that we told Ambassador Scot Marciel when he came to (Myanmar's capital) Naypyitaw not to use the term 'Rohingya' because it is not supportive in solving the problem that is happening in Rakhine state," said Aye Aye Soe, deputy director general of the ministry's political department . "And it can even worsen the situation there."
"This is his right to say or call whatever he wants, but this is not leading to a solution of the problems," she said. "People are just fighting over this term instead of solving the problem. This can make things difficult for the two communities in Rakhine to gain trust again."
A nationalist movement spearheaded by Buddhist monks has gained political influence by stirring up prejudice against Rohingya and Muslims in general.
Last month Buddhist monks joined several hundred protesters outside the U.S. Embassy in Myanmar to demand it stop using the term "Rohingya." The embassy had used the word earlier in a statement of concern about their situation after dozens died when a boat they were on capsized.