Myanmar bans ‘Rohingya’ use

The Jama Masjid, which is closed-off and guarded, in Sittwe, capital of Rakhine State. Source: Flickr

Myanmar’s de facto prime minister, Aung San Suu Kyi, has told the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Yanghee Lee that the government will avoid using the term “Rohingya” to describe the persecuted Muslim minority in western Rakhine State.

Myanmar has banned civil servants from using the term, instead insisting they are called the wordy phrase “people who believe in Islam in Rakhine State”.

“Rohingya or Bengali shall not be used” during Lee’s visit, the Ministry of Information said in a letter.

“Instead, ‘people who believe in Islam in Rakhine State’ shall be used,” it added.

The “secret” letter added ethnic Rakhine should be referred to “as ‘people who believe in Buddhism’ in Rakhine State”.

Lee is expected to visit Rakhine later this week.

Buddhist nationalists violently oppose the use of the term Rohingya to describe the community of roughly a million in the troubled western border state.

The controversial term “Bengali” is widely used in Myanmar, implying they are illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, although the Rohingya have lived in the country for generations.

Denied citizenship, many Rohingya were butchered in sectarian violence in 2012 while most still live in squalid refugee camps.

On Monday, the UN warned that violations against the Rohingya could constitute crimes against humanity.

The UN’s human rights office said it had uncovered “a pattern of gross violations against the Rohingya… [which] suggest a widespread or systematic attack … in turn giving rise to the possible commission of crimes against humanity if established in a court law”.

Suu Kyi has disappointed the international community by avoiding direct discussion of the issue and asking for “space” while she seeks to build trust in Rakhine. Analysts say she risks alienating the bulk of voters in the Buddhist majority community while others point to the global efforts made in support of Suu Kyi while she was held under house arrest by the junta.

Rohingya are prevented from travelling while many struggle to access basic health care or education.

The UN said the Rohingya were subjected to abuse from security officials, including summary executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, torture and forced labour.

It details how the community has been deprived of nationality, undergone systematic discrimination and severe restrictions on movements.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in the report: “The new government has inherited a situation where laws and policies are in place that are designed to deny fundamental rights to minorities, and where impunity for serious violations against such communities has encouraged further violence against them.”

Nay Pyi Taw should “halt ongoing violations and prevent further ones taking place against Myanmar’s ethnic and religious minorities”, Zeid added.