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In the latest sign of efforts to ease tensions over the use of the word “Rohingya” to describe a Muslim minority living in western Burma’s Arakan State, US Ambassador Scot Marciel met with former parliamentary speaker Shwe Mann on Wednesday to discuss the issue.
The meeting, which took place at Shwe Mann’s office in Naypyidaw, follows a press conference at the US embassy in Rangoon on Tuesday at which Marciel was asked to clarify his stance on the use of the term, which is widely rejected in Burma.
Shwe Mann currently holds no position in parliament, but is the chairperson of the Legal Affairs and Special Issues Assessment Commission, a legislative oversight panel that he originally formed in 2011.
According to his official Facebook page, the former general and senior member of the junta that ruled Burma until 2011 told Marciel that the United States plays a crucial role in Burma’s development and democratisation, and so the two countries need “better liaison and cooperation”.
Stressing the need for “trust and understanding from the citizens of Burma,” Shwe Mann told Marciel that a recent protest outside the US embassy was the result of a statement released by the embassy offering condolences to members of “the Rohingya community” following an accident at sea late last month that left at least 21 people dead.
According to Shwe Mann’s account of the meeting — which was not reported on the US embassy website — Marciel said the embassy didn’t intend any offense to Burmese citizens, but used the term Rohingya because there was no alternative.
Officially, the Rohingya are referred to as “Bengalis” in Burma, a designation generally rejected outside the country as it implies that the Rohingya — who have been in Arakan State for generations — are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.
Marciel reportedly said that he would exercise greater caution in future when discussing the matter.
At the press conference on 10 May, however, he reiterated the official US position that members of ethnic groups have the right to self-identify as they see fit.
“They get to choose what they want to be called,” he said, without actually referring to the Rohingya by name.