State newspapers print ‘Bengali’ after Rakhine MP complains

MP Khin Saw Wai (R) and Union Minister for Home Affairs Lt. General Kyaw Swe appear in parliament on August 24, 2017. Photo: MOI
MP Khin Saw Wai (R) and Union Minister for Home Affairs Lt. General Kyaw Swe appear in parliament on August 24, 2017. Photo: MOI

Myanmar’s state-run newspapers have begun printing the word “Bengali” after an MP from Rakhine State demanded that the word not be redacted from reports on parliamentary discussions.

Lower house MP Khin Saw Wai, who represents Rathedaung Township, denounced state-run, Myanmar-language newspapers Myanma Alin and The Mirror on August 19 after they published her comments from a parliament session the previous day without the word “Bengali” – a term used by many in Myanmar to imply that Rakhine State’s Rohingyas are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

“I tabled a proposal to the parliament on August 18 in which I used ‘Bengali terrorist group.’ However, The Mirror and Myanma Alin deleted the word ‘Bengali.’ I denounce the newspapers for their editing by deleting what I had said during the parliamentary session,” the MP told Eleven.

Her proposal called on the government to implement better security and administrative plans in northern Rakhine State following “a series of crimes and terrors committed by Bengali terrorist groups.”

The newspapers described the perpetrators of these alleged crimes as “terrorist groups” and “immigrants.” The Ministry of Information explained that the redaction of the word “Bengali” was based on its ethics policy and carried out in an effort to avoid aggravating tensions between the communities of Rakhine State.

Khin Saw Wai responded, saying the redaction of the word “Bengali” might encourage Rohingyas to fight for recognition as an indigenous community of Myanmar.

“President Htin Kyaw and the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services told there is no such tribe as Rohingya in our country. I asked in the first term of parliament whether we have the ‘Rohingya’ tribe, and the immigration minister said ‘No.’ They are the Bengalis, and I want the newspapers to print their real identity,” the MP said.

This morning, she got her wish. In a story about Khin Saw Wai’s proposal for tighter security in Rakhine, the Global New Light of Myanmar included the word “Bengali” three times. Curiously, however, nowhere is the word attributed to Khin Saw Wai.

(The Global New Light of Myanmar is the English-language version of the other two state-run papers. Its coverage of the August 18 discussion also left out the word “Bengali.”)

War of Words

The Thein Sein government, which was in office from 2011 to 2015, regularly referred to Rohingyas as “Bengalis.”

In May 2016, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi publicly discouraged the use of both “Bengali” and“Rohingya.” She explained: “The Rakhine Buddhists object to the term ‘Rohingya’ just as much as Muslims object to the term ‘Bengali,’ because they have all kinds of political and emotional implications, which are unacceptable to the opposite party.”

A foreign ministry spokesperson also said at the time: “Our position is that using the controversial term does not support the national reconciliation process and solving problems.”

Instead, the government recommended that Rohingyas be referred to as “the Muslim community in Rakhine State” and that Rakhine Buddhists be called “the Buddhist community in Rakhine State.”

That didn’t last long. Thousands of Buddhist nationalists staged protests around Rakhine State, demanding to be known officially as “Rakhine ethnics.” The Rakhine State government acquiesced on July 3, 2016.

The government’s commitment to using language that is agreeable to both communities seems to have gone out the window. This morning, Facebook posts by the offices of the State Counsellor Information Committee and the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services both referred to Rohingyas as “Bengalis.”

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