YANGON - The new ambassador of the United States to Myanmar said on Tuesday he will keep using the term Rohingya for the persecuted Muslim minority, even after the government controlled by Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi asked him to refrain from it.
Members of the 1.1 million-strong group, most of whom live in apartheid-like conditions in a remote part of northwestern Myanmar, are seen by many Myanmar Buddhists as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The term is a divisive issue.
Scot Marciel took over as the head of the U.S. mission at a critical time after Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in historic elections, following decades of pro-democracy struggle.
"Our position globally and our international practice is to recognize that communities anywhere have the ability to choose what they should be called... and we respect that," said Marciel, in response to a question on whether he intended to continue using the term Rohingya.
He added that this has been Washington's policy before and that the administration intended to stick to it.
Feted by many in the West for her role as champion of Myanmar's democracy movement during long years of military rule, Suu Kyi has been criticized overseas, and by some in Myanmar, for saying little about the abuses faced by the Rohingya.
Speaking out for the group would carry a political cost at home. The group is widely disliked in Myanmar, including by some in Suu Kyi's party and its supporters. She risks losing support by taking up the cause of the beleaguered minority.
Some 125,000 Rohingya remain displaced and face severe travel restrictions in squalid camps since fighting erupted in Rakhine State between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012. Thousands have fled persecution and poverty.
The previous military-linked government of former junta general Thein Sein referred to the group as Bengalis, implying they were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
Last week, officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is run by Suu Kyi, told several media they had requested Marciel to refrain from using the term they dubbed "controversial".
They said the Rohingya were not among the officially recognized ethnic minorities and in their view using the term was not supportive of Myanmar's national reconciliation process.
Zaw Htay, the spokesman of the state counselor office, also run by Suu Kyi, has refused to comment on the issue, directing all questions to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Asked whether Suu Kyi asked him to stop using the term Rohingya, Marciel refused to comment on what he referred to as "private diplomatic conversations".