Aung San Suu Kyi on Sunday addressed controversy over the use of the word “Rohingya” to describe the persecuted and stateless Muslim minority, warning that use of the term risked inflaming communal tensions in Myanmar.
Suu Kyi said her new government was determined to address deep hatreds in western Rakhine State, where tens of thousands of Rohingya are confined to squalid displacement camps after waves of deadly unrest with local Buddhists in 2012.
Buddhist nationalists have staged protests across the country against using the term Rohingya.
They label the group “Bengalis”, casting Myanmar’s more than one million Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
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“The Rakhine Buddhists object to the term ‘Rohingya’ just as much as the Muslims object to the term ‘Bengali’,” Suu Kyi said during a press conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry in the capital Naypyidaw.
The words carry “all kinds of political and emotional implications which are unacceptable to the opposite parties,” she added.
Suu Kyi, who has faced criticism internationally for not speaking up for the Rohingya, pledged to work towards a situation where the communities “live peacefully and securely outside the camps”.
“That is why we say that we need the space to build up trust and security within the community”, Suu Kyi added.
The new government was trying to tiptoe through the deeply controversial subject to find a solution that is acceptable for all, she explained.
Myanmar’s Rohingya population are denied citizenship even though many can trace their roots in the country back generations.
Kerry praised his counterpart for explaining her approach to the incendiary issue.
“At the same time we all understand as a matter of fact that there is a group here in Myanmar that calls itself Rohingya,” he added.
The US says it backs the rights of all ethnic groups to identify as they wish.
In recent weeks Washington has come under pressure from hardline Buddhists after the US embassy used the term “Rohingya” to refer to the persecuted Muslim minority.