RANGOON — The Arakan State parliament voted unanimously on Tuesday in favor of a non-binding resolution formally condemning UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for his use of the word “Rohingya” during his most recent visit to Burma.
Arakanese politicians told The Irrawaddy that the motion was intended to publicly register the state government’s disapproval of the term.
Aung Myat Kyaw, an ethnic Arakenese lawmaker representing the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP), proposed the motion to the state parliament on Monday.
“According to our existing laws, there are no people in our country called Rohingya. Ban Ki-moon kept using this word, ‘Rohingya,’ which is why I proposed this urgent issue in parliament to discuss and condemn it,” Aung Myat Kyaw told The Irrawaddy.
“He is the head of the United Nations, he should be careful when he uses this word,” he added.
The motion follows unconfirmed reports that Arakan State Chief Minister Maung Maung Ohn told reporters on Saturday that the state would reject assistance from aid organizations that use the word Rohingya to refer to the stateless Muslim minority that self-identifies as such.
“I encouraged Myanmar [Burma] leaders to uphold human rights, take a strong stance against incitement, and ensure humanitarian access to Rohingya living in vulnerable conditions,” the secretary-general told reporters during the 25th Asean Summit in Naypyidaw on Nov. 12.
Ban said he stressed the urgency of the humanitarian situation in Arakan State during a closed-door meeting with senior Burmese government officials. He also reaffirmed the UN’s known position on referring to ethnic minorities in accordance with how they self-identify.
“The affected population—referred to as Bengalis by the government of Myanmar but known as Rohingya in the United Nations and in much of the international community—the United Nations uses that word based on the rights of minorities,” said Ban.
The following day, Burma’s Ministry of Information published a letter to the secretary-general signed by Maung Maung Ohn criticizing his use of the term, claiming it “has alienated the [Arakanese] population and further fueled their distrust of all the United Nations agencies and international organizations.”
Rohingya are a Muslim minority living primarily in western Burma, where the majority of the population is ethnic Arakanese and Buddhism is the dominant religion. The Rohingya population is estimated to be about 1 million, though they were categorically excluded from Burma’s 2014 census—the country’s first in more than 30 years—because they were not included among an official roster of national ethnicities.
Rohingya are denied citizenship by Burma’s controversial 1982 Citizenship Law, with the government and much of the general population viewing them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. Many Rohingya families have resided in Burma for several generations, but often they are unable to prove it.
The group bore the brunt of several rounds of inter-communal violence between Muslims and Arakanese Buddhists that began in June 2012. Riots in several of the state’s most densely populated areas left more than 100 people dead and about 140,000 displaced, many still living in isolated camps where they are routinely denied access to aid, income and education.
About 100,000 more have reportedly fled the country since the crisis began, seeking refuge in neighboring countries. A staggering number of those asylum-seekers never reach their destinations; some die at sea while others fall victim to human traffickers.
Those who remain face severe discrimination, while Muslims living in displacement camps suffer lack of basic resources like food, water, medicine and education.
In February, frontline health provider Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was expelled from the state shortly after making statements that it had treated patients it believed were the victims of an alleged massacre in the state’s north in January. A month later, mob violence targeting aid groups in the capital Sittwe forced all foreign aid workers to flee. Months of bureaucratic and political roadblocks prolonged an eventual, conditional and partial return of assistance that still has not returned to its former capacity.
The Burmese government recently drafted a “Rakhine Action Plan,” detailing plans for resettlement, aid provisions and reintegration for displaced persons. A leaked version of the plan was roundly criticized by the United Nations and many Western governments, primarily because it risked lasting segregation and denied citizenship rights to those who identified as Rohingya. A senior US advisor on Thursday said that the United States would like the Burmese government to draft an entirely new plan, “[one] that will allow the Rohingya to become citizens through a normal process without having to do that type of self-identification.”
International support for the minority has swelled as tolerance within Burma dwindles. A social media campaign urged US President Barack Obama to “just say their name” during his visit to Burma last week, where he also attended regional summits and met with Burma’s leaders.
Obama has likewise been criticized by Arakanese leaders for his use of the contentious terminology, but he was not identified in Tuesday’s resolution.
“Obama and Ban Ki-moon both used the word Rohingya,” said Htet Tun Aung, a parliamentarian representing Arakan State’s Pauktaw Township. “We feel they are interfering in domestic affairs, they are trying to play with our internal politics.”
The view that international actors are meddling in a domestic issue is pervasive among the state’s politicians, shared by every Arakanese politician that The Irrawaddy spoke to. Pe Than, a Lower House MP and member of the RNDP, echoed the sentiment, adding that outsiders who use the “irresponsible word” risk inflaming tensions.
Sources within the Arakanese community in Sittwe told The Irrawaddy that the public supports the views of the state legislature, and activists have planned a demonstration in the capital on Sunday.
Additional reporting by Saw Yan Naing.