Myanmar’s government has been pressuring aid workers and foreign officials not to speak “Rohingya” name, activists and UN officials say.
‘How will the rights of the Rohingya be protected by people who won’t even use the word ‘Rohingya’?” Tun Khin, president of the activist group Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, told the Associated Press news agency.
Khin said by not using it, governments are cooperating with a policy of repression.
Myanmar’s oppressed Rohingya Muslims have been denied citizenship, targeted in deadly sectarian violence and corralled into dirty camps without aid.
Myanmar authorities view the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, not one of the 135 officially recognised ethnic groups.
Long-standing discrimination against this stateless minority, estimated to number 1.3 million, has intensified as Myanmar has opened up after decades of military rule.
More than 140,000 Rohingya have been trapped in crowded camps since violent mobs from the Buddhist majority began chasing them from their homes two years ago, killing up to 280 people.
Rohingya were excluded from a UN-supported national census in April if they identified themselves as Rohingya.
Myanmar’s Information Minister Ye Htut has said that the name had never been accepted by Myanmar citizens.
Htut told the AP news agency that it was created by a separatist movement in the 1950s and then used by exile activists to pressure Myanmar’s former military government at the United Nations in the 1990s.
The UN officials say they avoid the term in public to avoid stirring tensions between the country’s Buddhists and Muslims.
After Secretary of State John Kerry recently met Myanmar leaders, a senior State Department official told reporters that the US thinks the name issue should be ”set aside”.
Kerry during a visit this month did not utter the term at a news conferences when he talked with concern about the situation in Rakhine state.
The State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorised to speak publicly, said the US’ 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, has not changed.
Foreign aid workers have been caught up in the tensions. Doctors Without Borders was expelled by the government in February and is still waiting to be allowed back.
Increased government pressure
The UN said the number of severe malnutrition cases among the Rohingya more than doubled between March and June, and the world body’s top human rights envoy for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, last month called the situation “deplorable”.
She said she had 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.
In June the UN children’s agency even apologised for using the term “Rohingya” at a presentation in Rakhine, an incident which drew criticism from rights activists.
“Any humanitarian agency or donor who refuses to use the term is not just betraying fundamental tenets of human rights law, but displaying cowardice that has no place in any modern humanitarian project,” said David Mathieson, senior researcher on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch.