19 September 2014edge review

Rohingya IDPs carry vital supplies to a camp near Sittwe (EU ECHO/Flickr).

In avoiding the term “Rohingya,” the UN endorses Myanmar’s bloody repression

Last Friday, Assistant United Nations Secretary-General Haoliang Xu concluded his first official visit to Myanmar, during which he paid a two-day visit to Rakhine, the restive state that has witnessed widespread sectarian clashes between its minority Muslim population and the Arakanese Buddhist majority. Although it is clear the UN wants to see the crisis in Myanmar’s westernmost state resolved, there are worries the UN’s engagement will effectively endorse the government’s persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority.

The Rohingya, numbering some 800,000, were rendered stateless under Myanmar’s draconian 1982 citizenship law, despite the fact that many claim ancestry in the country dating back many generations. They are, without a doubt, the country’s most vilified minority. The government and media almost universally refuse to refer to them as Rohingya, preferring instead to refer to them as “Bengalis” with no claim to residence or citizenship in Myanmar.

As far as Xu is concerned, the problem of the Rohingya’s stateless status is the UN’s top priority in Rakhine right now. “The key issue for us is citizenship. At the end of the day… how can we not let the question of terminology undermine what is really most essential, which is for people to get their rights?” he said in an interview with The Edge Review just before his departure from Myanmar.

Despite outrage among many Burmese at the spectre of illegal immigration, the vast majority of Rohingya were born in Myanmar. The 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness requires states to extend citizenship to individuals “born in its territory who would otherwise be stateless” – a condition that applies to most Rohingya.

The criteria under which the Rohingya would be eligible for citizenship, under the 1982 law, are not in line with international norms. The government launched a “citizenship verification” programme in Rakhine’s Myebon township in March, but the barriers to acquiring citizenship are absurdly high. On Tuesday, the programme was temporarily suspended after displaced Kaman Muslims, a distinct ethnic group from the Rohingya, expressed anger at having to partake in the verification process, because they are guaranteed citizenship rights under Myanmar’s constitution.

Rohingya are only eligible for “full” citizenship if they can prove their ancestors resided in Rakhine before the advent of British colonialism in 1823. If they are able to produce papers showing that their ancestors immigrated to Rakhine during the colonial period, they are theoretically eligible for partial citizenship, in one of two categories – “associate” or “naturalized.” But because most lack the requisite documents, these avenues to citizenship are likely to prove a dead end.

Xu says that “terminology” is a barrier to a frank and honest debate on citizenship, and that is worrying, because it signals a tacit acceptance of the government’s unwillingness to recognise the Rohingya’s right refer to themselves by whatever terminology they please. While he clamed that in closed-door negotiations between UN officials and the government, “we discuss[ed] this question very openly and frankly,” he warned that “emotions run very high, and the terminology stokes very high emotions.” In public appearances, he largely avoided use of the term “Rohingya.”

This is not the first time the UN has danced around the term. In early June, UNICEF was cowed into apologising for using the word “Rohyinga” at a press conference; in July, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, offered rare criticism, because she claimed the government had chastised her for using it. In a speech, she maintained that “the rights of minorities to self-identify on the basis of their national, ethnic, religious and linguistic characteristics” were “a central principle of international human rights law.”

The expulsion of aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) from Rakhine in July served as a turning point for humanitarian aid groups in Myanmar. It came after months of accusations that its aid delivery was biased in favour of Muslims, despite its dedication to the principle of neutrality in its humanitarian activities. One month later, the state capital, Sittwe, was rocked by rioting that targeted the offices and residences of UN agencies and international non-governmental organisations.

The expulsion of Médecins Sans Frontières sent a message: the use of terminology unacceptable to the government had real consequences.

But this sets an alarming precedent, claims David Mathieson, senior researcher on Myanmar for Human Rights Watch. “It is morally disturbing that the UN has adopted this unofficial approach in capitulating to racists and refusing to use the word ‘Rohingya,’ and it is a stark surrender of the UN’s own principles by doing so,” he said. “It also augers ill for the possibility of eligible Rohingya being granted citizenship.”

MSF signed a new memorandum of understanding with the government last week, but a concrete timeline for it to restart its operations in Rakhine state has not yet been announced. The agency’s re-invitation and the citizenship verification programme are both part of a secretive “Action Plan” for Rakhine spearheaded by the government, the contents of which Xu admitted the UN had not even seen. The plan is believed to serve as a comprehensive doctrine on development, humanitarian assistance, citizenship, and resettlement.

If the international community hopes that it can expect better behaviour from the Myanmar government by avoiding the use of the word “Rohingya,” it is deluded, Mathieson claims.

“One definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome: that encapsulates the international community’s trust that the Burmese government will eventually do the right thing by the Rohingya,” he said. “They won’t, unless the UN and the West actually demonstrate that their principles can actually be translated into reality instead of mendacity, and exert real pressure on Naypyidaw.”

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