A member of parliament has fired back at claims that Rohingya Muslims do not exist in Burma, after a senior government minister allegedly accused the group of fabricating its history in a parliamentary discussion on Wednesday.
It follows media reports that the Deputy Immigration Minister, Kyaw Kyaw Win, on Wednesday formally denied the existence of a Rohingya race in Burma, referring to a stateless Muslim minority isolated near the Bangladeshi border.
But Shwe Maung, who is a native Rohingya, slammed the allegations, quoted in the English-language version of Burma's state media outlet the New Light of Myanmar, as historically and factually inaccurate.
"We should not simply deny there are no Rohingya, if we do that it would be irresponsible, we need a study," said the MP, who represents Buthidaung constituency in northern Arakan state.
Shwe Maung is one of only two Rohingya MPs in parliament, both of whom represent the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in Maungdaw district. In recent months, he has played an increasingly vocal role in defending the stateless minority, which is broadly viewed as "illegal Bengali immigrants" and denied citizenship by the government.
It follows two bouts of vicious sectarian clashes between Arakanese Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya in western Burma last year, which prompted senior politicians – many from the military and USDP – to call for the group to be exiled to a third country.
But Shwe Maung told DVB that he is leading a parliamentary initiative, along with two other MPs from Maungdaw district, to promote the rights of Rohingyas. He explained that they have called on the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Shwe Mann, to set up an investigative commission to establish whether or not Rohingyas exist in Burma.
"We [also] shared a separate report with our colleagues and MPs and I've received a lot of positive and constructive remarks," he said. "We focused on the facts and documents, especially printed by government media and the ministry of information. Based on that most of the MPs are impressed and agree that there are Rohingya [in Burma]."
Shwe Maung cited historical research carried out prior to the British colonisation of Burma in 1824, which formally recognised some 30,000 "Rohingya" Muslims living in Arakan state. Both Burma's first president and prime minister, Sao Shwe Thaik and U Nu respectively, reportedly recognised the Rohingya as one of the country's "indigenous races".
They were later stripped of their citizenship by former military dictator Ne Win.
"During my recent visit to Sittwe I have seen a lot of families with birth certificates with the ethnic name Rohingya, but still [some are] denying [them]," he said, dismissing allegations that "Bengalis" are migrating into Arakan state.
"People are not coming in, people are going out," he said. "In [our language] Burmese Rakhine Muslims are called Rohingya – they are the Muslim people who live in Arakan."
He also accused the English-version of the New Light of misrepresenting Wednesday's parliamentary discussion.
"[Kyaw Kyaw Win] did not mention there is no Rohingya in Myanmar, but it appeared in the [English-language] media," Shwe Muang.
In fact, the Burmese version of the New Light, quoted Kyaw Kyaw Win as saying "there have been cross-border relations since the ancient times", although he added that Arakanese Muslims were not recognised as natives in the 1973 census. But many government representatives, including the President's Office Director Zaw Htay, seized the opportunity to slate the Rohingya on social media.
Although Shwe Maung's increasingly vocal activism represents a significant shift in the USDP's notorious reputation for silencing dissent, some analysts question its implications for Burma's political transition.
"I think it says more about the USDP, which is a party that people joined because it gave them a position of influence rather than a party with a particular ideology," Mark Farmaner from Burma Campaign UK told DVB.
"I don't think it says much about parliament, which is constitutionally almost powerless. I think it can give people a voice they didn't have before; and some MPs are using that to represent their constituents whereas others are using it to promote their own self-interests."
Farmaner added that it was "unfortunate" that Aung San Suu Kyi's party – the National League for Democracy (NLD) – has still failed to come out more strongly on the Rohingya issue.
But Shwe Maung insists that he will continue to "carry the voices of his constituents" to parliament. He added that he is not necessarily pushing for Rohingyas to be recognised as "indigenous peoples" in Burma, but that their basic human rights must be respected.
"For the time being the most important thing is the people. People are living with a lack of food, they cannot move, they cannot access the market, they cannot access aid from the international community."
More than 125,000 people, mostly from the Rohingya minority, were uprooted in last year's violence and many are still denied humanitarian aid.