Passport

A Fight Over Words Strains Burgeoning U.S.-Myanmar Ties

Myanmar's new leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, wants U.S. diplomats to sweep the country's persecution of Rohingya Muslims under the rug.

Rohingya migrants sit on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015.  A boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days.  AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT        (Photo credit should read )
Rohingya migrants sit on a boat drifting in Thai waters off the southern island of Koh Lipe in the Andaman sea on May 14, 2015. A boat crammed with scores of Rohingya migrants -- including many young children -- was found drifting in Thai waters on May 14, with passengers saying several people had died over the last few days. AFP PHOTO / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT (Photo credit should read )

The Obama administration has heralded Aung San Suu Kyi’s success in bringing democracy to Myanmar. But a dispute over how to describe the country’s persecuted Muslim population may lowball expectations for what she can achieve.

On Tuesday, U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar Scot Marciel said he would refer to the Rohingya, the country’s widely persecuted ethnic and religious minority, by their name rather than referring to them as Bengali, as Aung San Suu Kyi prefers.

“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,” Marciel said. He took up his post in Yangon only two weeks ago.

At the same press conference, Marciel said the United States is weighing its remaining sanctions against Myanmar, which he said had taken an “unintended” economic toll on the fledgling democracy.

Washington’s previous ambassador to Myanmar, Derek Mitchell, also publicly spoke out in defense of the Rohingya, observing that the intolerance toward them “seemed to be within the society writ large.”

Aung San Suu Kyi assumed a leading political role after her National League for Democracy swept Myanmar’s elections last November. The party circumvented a law that prevented her from becoming president by appointing her “state advisor.” Still, she must balance her reforms with the interests of the military elite, which is constitutionally guaranteed 25 percent of parliamentary seats and control of the three most powerful ministries — Defense, Home Affairs, and Border Affairs.

Much of the country’s Buddhist majority views Myanmar’s estimated 1.3 million Rohingya Muslims as having emigrated illegally from Bangladesh. The government has corralled the Rohingya in squalid camps and denied them basic rights such as marriage and education unless they register for citizenship as Bengali migrants.

“We won’t use the term Rohingya because Rohingya are not recognized as among the 135 official ethnic groups,” Kyaw Zay Ya, a Foreign Ministry official and Aung San Suu Kyi’s spokesman, told the New York Times last week. “Our position is that using the controversial term does not support the national reconciliation process and solving problems.”

The government has disenfranchised Myanmar’s entire Rohingya population under a law that denies full citizenship to descendants of immigrants who arrived after British colonial rule began in 1824. Rohingya community leaders say they descended from Muslims who settled in western Myanmar long before then. Following a military coup in 1962, and after a series of Muslim secessionist movements, the Rohingya lost their status as an indigenous ethnic group.

Since then, Myanmar’s leaders have systematically persecuted the Rohingya, seemingly in an attempt to push them out of the country. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled since the early 1990s.

After a wave of sectarian violence in early 2015, hundreds, if not thousands, of Rohingya refugees died or were sold into forced labor while fleeing the country by boat, according to a report by Amnesty International.

Ambassador Marciel’s insistence on using the term Rohingya could clarify U.S. policy on the politically loaded word. In 2014, an unnamed State Department official told the Associated Press that Washington wants to ensure neutrality by using neither Rohingya nor Bengali as terms for Myanmar’s Muslim population. And when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and State Department human rights envoy Tom Malinowski visited Myanmar that summer, neither mentioned the Rohingya by that name.

Yet Aung San Suu Kyi’s refusal to help the Rohingya — or even acknowledge their plight — could strain her rosy relationship with the Obama administration. In a personal telephone call in November, President Barack Obama congratulated her on a landslide victory at the polls, and in January, his deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, boasted about U.S. policy in a place where “a little bit of presidential attention can make a difference.”

It’s looking like Rhodes may have spoken too soon.

Photo credit: CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. @HenryJohnsoon

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola