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Myanmar Slams UN Officials For Using Term 'Rohingya'


Rohingya Muslims pass time near their shelter at a refugee camp outside Sittwe, Myanmar.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has slammed a visiting U.N. official for using the term "Rohingya" to refer to a beleaguered ethnic minority group the government does not officially recognize.

During a visit last month in Myanmar, U.N. human rights investigator Yang Hee Lee said the mostly Muslim Rohingya suffer from discrimination. She also criticized proposed interfaith bills that critics say could escalate conflict between religious groups.

Presidential spokesman Ye Htut told VOA's Burmese service the government finds use of the term Rohingya "unacceptable." He added the remarks are counterproductive and incomplete.

"With regard to the four bills proposed in the parliament, the decisions will be made after the MPs have discussed, and with addition of the people’s discussions. Thus, we say that such remarks given in advanced are unacceptable. I also point out that [she] was not able to highlight the work we have done to solve land problems," said Ye Htut.

The majority Buddhist country, also known as Burma, does not recognize the existence of the Rohingya ethnicity. Government officials, and many locals, instead view Rohingya as illegal migrants from Bangladesh and refer to them as "Bengalis."

The mostly Muslim Rohingya are denied citizenship and other basic rights in Myanmar and have been the victims of violence by Buddhist extremists in recent years.

Sectarian unrest killed up to 280 people and displaced 140,000 others in June, 2012. Since then, tens of thousands of Rohingya have been forced to stay in filthy, overcrowded, prison-like camps in western Rakhine state.

Lee last month visited Rakhine, where she was met by protesters who were angry over what they perceive as U.N. bias in favor of the Rohingya.

The U.N. General Assembly late last year passed a resolution urging the group to be granted full citizenship, equal rights, freedom of movement, and allowed to self-identify as Rohingya.

The Myanmar government has rejected the demands for citizenship, but has expressed a willingness to consider citizenship for those who will identify as Bengali.

Burma's 1982 citizenship law says members of any officially-recognized minority must be able to prove their ancestors lived in Burma before the British invaded Rakhine in 1823.

The British occupation of Rakhine prompted a large migration of Muslims into the area from neighboring Chittagong, then part of British-ruled India and now located in modern-day Bangladesh.

Many of Burma's hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims say their ancestors have lived in Burma for generations. But the impoverished minority group lacks the documentation to prove it.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Burmese service.