Ethnic minority politicians in Burma, especially prominent Arakanese (Rakhine) MPs, have moved to criticize Barack Obama for his historical speech at Rangoon University on Monday.
During the first visit to Burma by a sitting US president, the 51-year-old addressed politicians, social activists, former political prisoners, students, university teachers and members of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party at the institution’s convocation hall.
Obama told assembled dignitaries that the Rohingya Muslim minority in western Burma should have basic human rights, drawing anger from Arakanese nationalists. “The Rohingya hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do,” said the US president.
Dr. Aye Maung, chairman of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, denied this was the case and said that Obama was ignorant of the true history of Burma and Arakan State.
“I do not like the word ‘Rohingya,’” said the Upper House MP. “The word ‘Rohingya’ is newly invented by illegal immigrants. They are trying to be an ethnic group of our country with a grave intention. Obama has to study about them.
“I heard that Obama was once a Muslim and changed to be a Christian. He is supposed to be a world leader so he should be very carefully about what words she uses and does not know exactly.”
There are around 800,000 Rohingya Muslims living in western Burma, according to the United Nations, but they are not deemed one of the country’s 135 ethnic groups as specified by the 1982 citizenship law enacted by xenophobic former dictator Gen Ne Win.
Many in Burma refuse to even recognize the word “Rohingya” and instead use the term “Bengali” to reinforce the belief that they are in fact illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, despite many of the community having lived in Burma for generations.
Zaw Aye Maung, the minister for Arakan affairs in the Rangoon Division government, praised Obama’s speech while expressing unease over his use of the word ‘Rohingya.’
“President Obama used the word of Rohingya because of his intention to get peace and stability between the two communities but he does not recognize ‘Rohingya’ as an ethnicity of the country,” he said. “His speech was great and had many things for our country to learn about democratization.”
The recent communal violence between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims which has engulfed western Burma since June has so far killed at least 180 people, destroyed thousands of homes and displaced more than 110,000 people, according to official figures.
Zo Zam, the chairman of the Chin National Party, said that he expected so much more from Obama’s speech but was left bored and disappointed. He concluded that the president’s visit was only about American interests and not helping Burma’s ethnic groups gain greater autonomy.
“Obama never mentioned the word ‘federalism.’ Why did he not mention this? US democracy is very successful because they use a federal system,” said Zo Zam. “Now we ethnics are asking for a federal system.
“Also, Obama said that there are over 100 ethnicities in Burma. Actually it is not true. The Burmese government also repeatedly says that the country has over 100 ethnicities in order to crack down on the unity between ethnic minorities.
“Obama does not know about Rakhine State exactly. In his public remarks, he praised the work of one political party. But now our country is using a multi-party system. Why does he praise one party? He gave us a general democracy lecture. Finally, I know why Obama came to Burma,” he added.
Khin Maung Swe, chairman of the National Democratic Force party, shared the views of Arakanese politicians and accused Obama of wanting to please Muslim nations during his visit to Burma.
“All countries’ leaders act for their own interests and the US is also like that,” he said. “His visit and his acknowledgement of Burma are good for our country’s democratization. But he uses a word [Rohingya] which is never recognized in this country. Will using that word please Muslim nations? Will using that word help America’s oil strategy?”