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The Rohingya crisis: Why the name matters

The crisis of Burma's Rohingya Muslim continues to escalate with little to no international action to improve the lives of a persecuted minority

Alia Soliman , Saturday 11 Jul 2015
Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants
A fishing boat carrying Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants is pulled to shore by Achenese fishermen off the coast of Julok (Reuters)

Despite intensive calls from the international community to end the Rohingya migrant crisis in Burma, the Muslim minority group still faces persecution from hardline Buddhists, who make up the majority of the population, in Burma.

Labelled the most persecuted people on earth, tens of thousands of Rohingya have fled religious violence in Burma and are risking their lives in overcrowded boats mainly headed for Malaysia and Indonesia.

Many believe that the efforts of the international community are insufficient to make a difference in the lives of the 1.3 million Rohingya who have been denied citizenship, who cannot travel, work or even marry without permission from Burmese officials.

The Burmese government denies the very existence of the group and does not acknowledge the group's name. The word "Rohingya" does not appear on invitations for meetings and the Rohingya were barred from the latest Burma census.

#Justsaytheirname: Its Rohingya

The persecuted Muslim minority in Burma has been dismissed as "Bengalis" by Buddhist hardliners and by the Burmese government who argue that they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

Calling them by their name "Rohingya" has become something of a challenge to Burmese officials who pressure foreign officials not to use the word. Anna Roberts, executive director of the Burma Campaign UK, believes that this is part of the government’s systematic policy of repression against the Rohingya.

The migrant crisis started escalating after smugglers neglected thousands of Rohingya at sea in May, leaving them in dire need for food and water and with no country willing to take them in.

The Rohingya were accepted only temporarily in Malaysia and Indonesia after mounting international pressure, The New York Times reported.

Following the migrants crisis, representatives from 17 nations met in Bangkok for talks on the crisis, where they reached a “plea to address the root causes of the issue.” In the meeting they agreed that granting the Rohingya citizenship is the ultimate goal.

But the very word "Rohingya" did not appear on invitations to the meeting after Burma threatened to boycott the talks if it did.

A representative from Op Rohingya, an anonymous organisation in communication with Rohingya, elaborated that if Burmese President Thein Sein were to say "Rohingya" he would be acknowledging their existence and their human rights.

A visit from Barack Obama to Burma in November encouraged activists to call on the US president to say the name of the minority group. At the time of the visit, the hashtag #justsaytheirname began trending on Twitter.

"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," said Obama during a meeting with a group of young Asians in June.

American actor Matt Dillon visited a camp for Rohingya in June to draw attention to the persecution of the minority group.

Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants
Rohingya and Bangleshi migrants wait onboard the boat before being transported to shore off the coast of Julok, in Aceh province, Indonesia (Reuters)

Is the international community doing enough?

Mounting pressure from international organisations and many countries drove the neighbouring governments of Indonesia and Malaysia to take in around 7,000 refugees. However, many activists believe more needs to be done to change the policy of the Burmese government.

Roberts said that what is needed from the international community is action, not just words of concern.

"The international community’s response so far has just been to call on the government of Burma to investigate the situation, knowing that this is not going to happen," she said. 

What is more disappointing than the passive statements of the UN is that following a visit to Arakan state in May, the UN secretary-general’s special envoy to Burma, Vijay Nambiar, not only failed to take action but said that the UN recognises and appreciates recent improvements in conditions in Burma, including efforts to improve the situation of the IDPs (internally displaced persons).

"The government has started to enable IDPs to return to their places of origin and is assisting with livelihood enhancement, health and education.” Nambiar said.

Roberts adds that the government has supported and encouraged violence against the Rohingya. Those inciting anti-Rohingya violence are still allowed to operate with impunity.

A representative from Op Rohingya said that the group is pleased with the level of international concern. However, this degree of concern always comes after it is too late to change anything, and it fails to adequately address the root causes of the issue, ultimately allowing for new crises to occur.

On 3 July, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that condemns systematic and gross violations of rights and abuses committed against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State in Burma.

The resolution urges "the Government of Burma to grant full citizenship rights, in keeping within transparent due process, to Rohingya Muslims in Burma, including by reviewing the 1982 Citizenship Law."

Burma's 1982 Citizenship Law, as mentioned by Human Rights Watch, distinguishes between three categories of citizenship: citizenship, associate citizenship, and naturalised citizenship.

Francis Wade, a freelance journalist who covers Burma, believes that even though it is positive that Indonesia and Malaysia offered temporary shelter to Rohingya, no change has been seen in their policy towards the Burmese government.

“The US and EU have various tools at their disposal to penalise the government, yet it seems reluctant to do,” Wade asserted.

The reasons are, according to Wade, that the US wants to maintain an alliance with the government lest it move further into China's orbit, and also because it doesn’t want to "derail the transition" by returning to sanctions.

Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants
A woman carrying a child boards a fishing boat before being transported to shore (Reuters)

The escalating migrant crisis

The migrant crisis is escalating as thousands of Rohingyas attempt to flee persecution in Burma and fall under the sway of human trafficers, face being trapped at sea, or are held in prison-like border camps.

Burma's navy rescued more than 900 migrants who were brought to Rakhine after pressure by international community.

Htike Htike, a member of the Rohingya, told Ahram Online that member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should provide shelter and ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention protecting refugees arriving by boat.

She added that the Burmese government should reform the 1982 Citizenship Law and grant the Rohingya citizenship.

The representative from Op Rohingya predicts that this time next year the Rohingya will be fleeing in thousands again, and from now until then several will be killed, and very likely no one will pay attention until the next mass grave is found, or until the next mass wave of flight in the face of persecution occurs.

Roberts concludes that the root causes of the refugee crisis must be addressed, adding that one of the tools Burma is using to drive the Rohingya out is poverty.

“International pressure at the highest level must be put on the government of Burma to allow free aid access. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon should personally take the lead in negotiating unrestricted humanitarian access in Rakhine State,” she said.

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