The term ‘Rohingya’ has become one of the most controversial words in Myanmar politics today. More than one million Muslim people living in Rakhine State in western Myanmar identify as Rohingya—although in recent weeks an estimated 421,000 have fled to Bangladesh.
But the government of Myanmar labels them Bengalis, with the implication that they have immigrated from neighboring Bangladesh, despite the Muslim community’s long history in the region. The government doesn’t recognize them as one of the country’s 135 official ethnic minorities—a list determined by the military government in the 1990s—and restricts their access to basic rights including freedom of movement, healthcare, and education, as most do not have Myanmar citizenship.
The Muslims in Rakhine have insisted that they should be called Rohingya, and have refused to take part in the government’s national verification process for citizenship as long as they are categorized as Bengalis.
As follows is a range of conflicting local and international comments on the self-identifying Rohingya people.
Wai Wai Nu, founder of the Women Peace Network—Arakan and a self-identifying Rohingya activist said at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway in July 2017:
“Rohingya are a one-million-strong ethnic and religious minority in Burma. […] The Rohingya are an indigenous population with our own language, traditions, and culture in Burma. But we are different from the rest of the population. We are Burmese but we are part of the Muslim population in the country, which is less than five percent. […] From the 1980s, [the military regime] started to degrade the status of the Rohingyas, by enacting a discriminatory citizenship law, and by introducing many discriminatory practices and policies. In 2014, they took away our permanent citizenship, which is ours by birth. The last election, we were finally disenfranchised and lost our political rights.”
Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing in his address to the nation at the 72nd anniversary of Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw in March 2017:
“It has already been announced that there is no race termed Rohingya in Myanmar. The Bengalis in Rakhine State are not Myanmar nationals but immigrants. It will be seen that the victims coming out of the terrorist attacks committed by some Bengalis which took place in October 2016 resulted in political interferences. Things that should be done under the existing laws must be carried out responsibly. The armed forces will be responsible for defending against all measures of insurgencies based on the religions and races. Only if we can establish domestic everlasting peace, will our nation develop.”
Genocide Watch president Gregory Stanton in pre-recorded talks for the Myanmar Muslims Genocide Awareness Convention 2016:
“The Rohingya are victims of a classification system in Myanmar that literally classifies them out of citizenship.”
In 1996, he created a model for the US State Department identifying eight—and later, ten—stages of genocide, the first of which is “classification” of “us versus them” along ethnic, national, racial or religious lines.
“If you stop using the name that the people have chosen, you are trying to classify them out of the system,” Stanton added, referring to the widespread use of the term “Bengali.”
Nai Hong Sar, UNFC chairman and New Mon State Party (NMSP) vice chairman in a conversation with The Irrawaddy last week:
“We do not recognize the term ‘Rohingya.’ We do not acknowledge the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army as its operations appeared to be violent.”
Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi asked about her avoidance of the term ‘Rohingya’ in an interview with Asian News International (ANI) on September 20:
“Yes, because there have been a lot of controversies with regard to the term used to describe the Muslims of the Rakhine. There are those who want to call them as Rohingyas or who want to refer the Muslims there as Rohingyas. And the Rakhines will not use any term except Bengalis, meaning to say that they are not ethnic Rakhines.
“And I think that instead of using emotive terms, this term has become emotive, and highly charged. It’s better to call them as Muslims which is a description that nobody can deny. We are talking about the Muslim community in the Rakhine State and other terms may be applied to that community but I do not see any point in using terms that simply inflame passions further.”
Former US President Barack Obama in 2015 speaking to young Asians invited to the White House:
“I think one of the most important things is to put an end to discrimination against people because of what they look like or what their faith is. And the Rohingya have been discriminated against. And that’s part of the reason they’re fleeing.”
U Tin Oo, former Myanmar Army commander-in-chief (1974-76), who was a young army officer in northern Rakhine in the 1950s. He led a campaign to drive out people allegedly coming from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and fought Mujahideen separatists; however, it has also been alleged by identifying Rohingya that under his command, Myanmar Army troops destroyed dozens of their villages in the region. He is a founder and patron of the National League for Democracy (NLD):
“Long before the 1956 election, we’d never heard the word Rohingya. Four Muslim lawmakers from Maungdaw and Buthidaung contested the election under the belt of the then ruling Anti-Fascists and People Freedom League (AFPFL). The then Prime Minister U Nu granted the Muslims in the area citizenship as Rohingya as requested. He allowed the publishing of Arabic newspapers and 15 minutes of Urdu Service on the then Burma Broadcasting Service and there were strong reactions and [people] were angry and upset.”
Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon at a joint press conference with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in 2016:
“Like all people everywhere, they need and deserve a future, hope and dignity. This is not just a question of the Rohingya community’s right to self-identity.”
Ko Ko Gyi, a student leader from the 1988 democracy uprising, during a press conference in the wake of conflict in Rakhine in 2012:
“Rohingya is not one of the ethnic groups of Myanmar at all. We see that the riot happening currently in Buthidaung and Maungdaw of Arakan [Rakhine] State is because of the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh called ‘Rohingya’ and mischievous provocation of some members of the international community.
“Therefore, such interfering efforts by some powerful nations on this [Rohingya] issue, without fully understanding the ethnic groups and other situations of Burma, will be viewed as offending the sovereignty of our nation. Genetically, culturally and linguistically Rohingya is not absolutely related to any ethnicity in Myanmar. In terms of citizenship, I would state separately. As we share the borders with other countries, we have some Chinese and Indian descendants. They have been living in our country for generations and citizenship has been granted to them. We do not discriminate based on any race for granting the citizenship even if he is a Bengali. They should be protected in the same way as citizens of Myanmar. But, if we were forcefully pressured to accept Rohingya as one of the ethnic groups [of Myanmar], we wouldn’t tolerate that.
Mya Aye, a Muslim student leader from the 1988 democracy uprising, during a press conference in the wake of conflict in Rakhine in 2012:
“Even before I got out of prison, the Rohingya issue had become a hot issue. It has become not only a hot issue in the international political community, but also a crowd-pleasing issue that can generate funds. Most of the Rohingya belong to the Islamic faith. Well, almost all of them. In order to become one of the ethnic groups, I think they tried to bond with Myanmar Muslims and have been pushing this issue to become a religious issue. That’s what Ko Ko Gyi implied by ‘provocation from abroad.’”
The Dalai Lama in September 2017:
“They should remember, Buddha, in such circumstances, Buddha [would have] definitely helped those poor Muslims. So, still I feel that [it’s] so very sad. So sad.”
Former President U Thein Sein in an interview with Voice of America in 2014:
“There are no Rohingya among the races [in Myanmar]. We only have Bengalis who were brought for farming [during British rule]. We have to provide effective education and they will determine what is right and wrong. When we made field trips there, we saw that the birthrate is very high and the population is rapidly growing.”
The Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s lack of condemnation concerning violence against the Rohingya, as was written on Sept. 7:
“Your emergence into public life allayed our concerns about violence being perpetrated against members of the Rohingya. But what some have called ‘ethnic cleansing’ and others ‘a slow genocide’ has persisted—and recently accelerated.
“It is incongruous for a symbol of righteousness to lead such a country. If the political price of your ascension to the highest office in Myanmar is your silence, the price is surely too steep.”
U Win Tin, a founding member of the NLD and former editor who spent 20 years in jail, told the Bangkok Post in 2012 that conflict in Rakhine State was: “created by foreigners, by Bengalis.”
“My position is that we must not violate the human rights of these people, the Rohingya, or whatever they are. Once they are inside our land maybe we have to contain them in one place, like a camp, but we must value their human rights.”
He added that the people of Myanmar “cannot regard them as citizens, because they are not our citizens at all, everyone knows here that.” He said the problem was that “they want to claim the land, they want to claim themselves as a race, they want to claim to be natives and this is not right.”
Min Ko Naing, a prominent Generation 88 leader who spent almost 20 years in prison, told a press briefing last week Rakhine State’s problems were not racial or religious but had to do with immigration laws and terrorism.
“They [self-identifying Rohingya] are not one of the 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar,” he said.
Lower House Lawmaker U Ba Shein of Arakan National Party (ANP)
“Rohingya is a fabricated name. The Bangladeshi government knows those people are from their country. If they call those people Bengalis, it is somewhat admitting that they are from their country. That’s why the Bangladeshi government uses the term ‘Rohingya.’ Muslim countries and international media play the issue to make Rohingya become an ethnicity of Myanmar. It’s not only the issue of Rakhine people but also sovereignty.”