Name of Muslim Group in Burma Goes Unspoken

Young Rohingya girls stay at a primary school several kilometers outside of Sittwe. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

Young Rohingya girls stay at a primary school several kilometers outside of Sittwe. (Photo: JPaing / The Irrawaddy)

WASHINGTON — Burma’s downtrodden Rohingya Muslims have been denied citizenship, targeted in deadly sectarian violence and corralled into dirty camps without aid. To heap on the indignity, Burma’s government is pressuring foreign officials not to speak the group’s name, and the tactic appears to be working.

UN officials say they avoid the term in public to avoid stirring tensions between the country’s Buddhists and Muslims. And after US Secretary of State John Kerry recently met with Burmese leaders, a senior State Department official told reporters the United States thinks the name issue should be “set aside.”

That disappoints Tun Khin, president of the activist group Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK. He said by not using it, governments are co-operating with a policy of repression.

“How will the rights of the Rohingya be protected by people who won’t even use the word ‘Rohingya’?” he said.

Burmese authorities view the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, not one of the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. Longstanding discrimination against this stateless minority, estimated to number 1.3 million, has intensified as Burma has opened up after decades of military rule. More than 140,000 Rohingya have been trapped in crowded camps since extremist mobs from the Buddhist majority began chasing them from their homes two years ago, killing up to 280 people.

Racism against the Rohingya is widespread, and some see in the communal violence the warning signs of genocide.

The United States has called on the government to protect them. When President Barack Obama visited Burma less than two years ago, he told students at Rangoon University: “There is no excuse for violence against innocent people. And the Rohingya hold themselves—hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do.”

Yet neither Kerry this month, nor top human rights envoy Tom Malinowski during a June visit, uttered the term at their news conferences when they talked with concern about the situation in Arakan State, where sectarian violence is perhaps worst. Buddhist mob attacks against Rohingya and other Muslims have spread from the western state to other parts of the country, sparking fears that nascent democratic reforms in the nation could be undermined by growing religious intolerance.

The State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly, said the United States’ position is that to force either community to accept a name that they consider offensive—including the term “Bengali” that the government uses to describe Rohingya—is to “invite conflict.” The department says its policy on using “Rohingya,” however, hasn’t changed.

Foreign aid workers have been caught up in the tensions. Buddhist hardliners have attacked homes and offices of aid workers it accuses of helping Muslims and not the smaller number of Buddhists also displaced by the violence. Doctors Without Borders was expelled by the government in February and is still waiting to be allowed back.

The humanitarian situation has worsened. The UN said the number of severe malnutrition cases more than doubled between March and June, and the world body’s top human rights envoy for Burma, Yanghee Lee, last month called the situation “deplorable.”

She said she’d been repeatedly told by the government not to use the name “Rohingya,” although she noted under international law that minorities have the right to self-identify on the basis of their national, ethnic, religious and linguistic characteristics.

Burma’s Information Minister Ye Htut said in an email to The Associated Press that the name had never been accepted by Burmese citizens. He said it was created by a separatist movement in the 1950s and then used by exile activists to pressure Burma’s former military government at the United Nations in the 1990s.

While there is a reference to “Rohingya” by a British writer published in 1799, use of the term by the Muslim community in Arakan State to identify themselves is fairly recent, according to Jacques Leider, an expert on the region’s history.

Rohingya leaders claim their people are descendants of Muslims who settled in Arakan State before British colonial rule, which began after a war in 1823. The British occupation opened the doors to much more migration of Muslims from Bengal. Current Burmese law denies full citizenship to those whose descendants arrived after 1823.

The name debate is reminiscent of whether to call the country by its old name, Burma, or Myanmar—the title adopted by the then-ruling military junta in 1989. Washington still officially uses “Burma,” although US officials also refer to “Myanmar”—a sign of the improved ties with the former pariah state.

But in this contest over semantics, the stakes are higher.

Rohingya were excluded from a UN-supported national census this spring if they identified themselves as Rohingya. They face stiff restrictions on travel, jobs, education and how many children they can have. They are also unwelcome in Bangladesh, where they have fled during crackdowns inside Burma since the 1970s.

Either because of government prodding or a desire to avoid confrontation, staff of foreign embassies and aid agencies in Burma rarely say “Rohingya” in public these days, and may simply say, “Muslims.” In June, the UN children’s agency even apologized for using the term “Rohingya” at a presentation in Arakan State, an incident which drew criticism from rights activists.

“Any humanitarian agency or donor who refuses to use the term is not just betraying fundamental tenants of human rights law, but displaying cowardice that has no place in any modern humanitarian project,” said David Mathieson, senior researcher on Burma for Human Rights Watch.

Associated Press writer Robin McDowell in Rangoon contributed to this report.

8 Responses to Name of Muslim Group in Burma Goes Unspoken

  1. The more they try to wipe of the name from the world, it popups more on the surface of the world. Thanks lot to the men of understanding and conscious.

  2. These articles are becoming more and more meaningless, recycling information from old articles and packaging as something new. I only see them as resume padding for these western “journalists” to get ahead!

  3. What about Chinese? Is “tayoke” also an unspoken word?

  4. I don’t think calling Bengali to Bengali was crime. Matthew Pennington should learn more about Rakhine and Burmese history if he wants to write about Burmese domestic problem. Burma does not have Rohingya ethnic in history. Even you can’t find Rohingya ethnic name in British Colony Government’s record. We are just simply calling Bengali peoples as Bengali. If US pity about calling as Bengali to Bengali peoples in Burma and then US can take them all.

    No one has calling protection for Buddhist Burmese ethnics in Sittagong Hill Tracts. Chakma, Marma and other Jumma peoples were attacking and killing by Muslim settlers from Bangladesh for their fertile farm land. Sittagong Hill Tracts does not belong to Bangladesh it’s belonging to Rakhine state, Burma. British Colony Government had given away Sittagong Hill Tracts to East Pakistan to create Islamist state in India. If Matthew wanted to write about Burma and then he must learn Burmese history first.
    Even Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said about Rohingya, in fact they are Bengali from Bangladesh to press. The world Governments knew there’s no Rohingya ethnic in Burma according to British Colony Government census record.
    Matthew Pennington can seek British Colony era Burma census record to British Government or related department in England.

  5. When 8888 students and other political prisoners were in prison , Burmese Junta opposed to free them with the excuse “ Internal matter”. Now more than 140,000 Rohingya people are living in concentration camps. When sympathizers wrote against government , some people wrote in support of Govt. as “internal matter “of Burma. Rohingya people like to be called them as Rohingya because they are from the place Rohung. Rakhine people should be called Rakhine not Maug though in lot of historical books, Rakhine were mentioned as Maugs. These Rohigya did not came from Bangladesh as Bangladesh was liberated after 1970. How could people write as if all Muslims came to Rakhine state recently. I think it is morally wrong to say Rohingya as Bengali as these people ancestors were not recent comers to Rakhine state from Bangladesh. People can check the ancient written scripters of Rakhine state whether those were in Rakhine language or not.

  6. To Sai Lin Kan,

    Are you Shan ethnic or Chin ethnic? It is good to be. Since you never and ever study real Arakanese History how you know the fact about Rohingya. I do not want to blame you so you need more studies. Arakan was influenced by of Mugol Emprie of Hindustan ( Now India ). Now you study Indian history, you will know better. Bangladesh was not exist during British Empire so also Pakistan.

    • ### Arakan was influenced by of Mugol Emprie of Hindustan ( Now India ). Now you study Indian history, you will know better. Bangladesh was not exist during British Empire so also Pakistan.###

      It was in your dream mate.
      Well we Shan (Tai) ethnic use Sao, Sai or Saw or Khun as an honorific for male. Chin ethnic use Salai as honorific for male.
      We all Burmese ethnics know Muslim Rohingya was not one of Burmese ethnics. In fact, they are Bengali from Bangladesh.

  7. Huffing and Puffing
    will not solve the problem…..
    My understanding
    Ruhr means Spiritual
    as per Quran….
    Spiritual People
    could be any Muslim Person……
    History never Lie
    When The Colonialist British
    invaded India ……
    These Spiritual People (Muslim) were
    Archers defended them selves and went up the Hills
    North Arakan
    Be it Pathan, Arab, Persian or Indian
    All Muslim Arakanese in Arakan……are respectively desendants
    What is the fuss about…..
    Spiritual People or Rohingya…

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