Arakanese and Rohingya Criticize New Govt Term for Muslims

By Moe Myint 21 June 2016

RANGOON — Members of both Arakanese Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim communities have objected to referring to Rohingya as “the Muslim community in Arakan State,” as used by Burma’s representative at the 32nd regular session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.

On Friday, Burma’s representative Thet Thinzar Htun said using “Muslim community in Arakan State,” instead of the contentious term “Rohingya,” would help to bring “harmony” and “mutual trust” between the Buddhist and Muslim communities in Arakan State—who remain largely segregated since anti-Muslim violence in 2012 and 2013, which displaced around 140,000 people, the vast majority of them Muslim.

Thet Thinzar Htun’s words were in response to comments from a UN special rapporteur, Maina Kiai, criticizing religious-based discrimination against the Rohingya, where the term “Rohingya” was used. The continued use of the latter term was “only making things worse” and “adding fuel to the fire,” said Thet Thinar Htun.

The deployment of the new elongated label could represent an attempt by the National League for Democracy  (NLD) government to chart a neutral path between vocal Burmese nationalists, who reject the term “Rohingya” and insist they be called “Bengalis” (to suggest they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh), and criticism from foreign governments and human rights groups, who insist on the right of the Rohingya to identify as such.

The previous military-backed government under President Thein Sein was adamant on the “Bengali” designation. While the NLD government has maintained ambiguity, NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi has publicly cautioned against the use of “emotive terms” (such as Rohingya), which she claimed only stoked tensions.

Pe Than, a lawmaker in the Lower House of the Union Parliament for the Arakan National Party (ANP), which represents the interests of the Buddhist majority in Arakan State, told The Irrawaddy the current government should stick to the same usages (e.g. “Bengali”) as the previous government.

He said the current situation in the Arakan State was a consequence of the historical mistake of U Nu, the first prime minister of Burma, who exploited the term “Rohingya” to gain votes in general elections.

“Arakan State citizens are Buddhist. Why has [the government] called them Arakan State Muslims? What’s next? The term Myanmar Muslim?” he said, implying that this would be unacceptable.

He claimed that “Muslim community in Arakan State” would be objectionable not only to Arakanese Buddhists but also to the “Bengali” community, because it does not specify their “race.” He argued that the NLD government is trying to find a temporary solution because it has said it would address the problems in Arakan State as part of a “100-day plan.”

“They are trying to cut corners,” Pe Than said.

He said he personally accepted the Rohingya being designated simply as “Muslims”—the objection was to the coupling of “Muslim” with “Arakan,” the latter word being, under his reasoning, the exclusive preserve of Buddhists, despite its wide use as a geographic term.

He said that his party, the ANP, would be holding an urgent meeting to discuss the implications of “Muslim community in Arakan State,” before releasing a statement on this new usage from the government.

Yanghee Lee, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, reached Rangoon on Sunday. According to government media outlets, she will visit Kachin, Arakan and northern Shan States, as well as the capital Naypyidaw. She will be compiling a report to be delivered at the 71st UN General Assembly in New York in September.

A source from the Arakan State government said Yanghee Lee would reach the Arakan state capital Sittwe on Wednesday, where she will meet with the state government and also visit Sittwe’s prison.

Than Htun, a Sittwe resident and self-styled nationalist, told The Irrawaddy “[Lee] is just coming to meet with Bengalis [to form] a one-sided judgment,” expressing frustration with what he perceived as ingrained bias in favor of the Rohingya from the UN.

Zaw Zaw, a Rohingya resident of Aung Mingalar ward in urban Sittwe—a de facto camp for Muslims, who live segregated from the town’s Buddhist community and have tight restrictions imposed on their movements in and out—said he had heard some displaced Rohingya might demonstrate with hand-painted signboards during Yanghee Lee’s visit, to show their own dissatisfaction with the government’s new “Muslim community in Arakan State” usage.

Rumors have been spreading on social media that Rohingya based in camps were planning to protest during Yanghee Lee’s visit. Falsely attributed photographs circulating on Facebook purported to show Rohingya “rehearsing” with signboards and t-shirts reading, “I am Rohingya / Native Land Arakan (Burma).”

“Both Arakanese and Rohingya are unhappy with the [new] term,” Zaw Zaw said. “We do not accept any terminology other than Rohingya.”

However, he thought the government would use the new term only temporarily. If they persisted in using it, rather than referring to them as “Rohingya,” the government will “not succeed,” he said.

In recent weeks, the government has been handing out National Verification Cards (NVCs) to stateless Muslims in several townships of Arakan State. The NVCs are provisional documents, whose bearers will later be scrutinized for citizenship eligibility under Burma’s 1982 citizenship law, which discriminates heavily against the Rohingya as an “unrecognized” ethnic group.

Stateless Muslims in Kyaukphyu and Ramree townships have reportedly been cooperating with the scheme. However, some in Sittwe, Ponnagyun, Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships have refused to submit to it, because the religion and ethnicity of the bearer is not stated on the new NVCs. Many Rohingya—who comprise the large majority of stateless Muslims—are suspicious that the government will later add their own entries under religion and ethnicity, such as “Bengali Muslim,” an imposed identity that many Rohingya reject.

The Irrawaddy phoned both the head of Arakan State’s immigration department Win Lwin and state government spokesman Min Aung, to clarify the details of Yanghee Lee’s trip and the citizenship verification drive, but received no response.

Last month, the Committee for Arakan State Peace, Stability and Development was formed. State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi chairs the committee. Arakan State Chief Minister Nyi Pu, an NLD appointee, and Union Border and Security Affairs Minister Lt-Gen Ye Aung, a military appointee, were chosen as deputy chairs. ANP representation is conspicuously absent. The committee’s purview includes resettling displaced communities, social development and coordinating the activities of UN agencies and international organizations.