Washington — Myanmar's downtrodden Rohingya Muslims have been denied citizenship, targeted in deadly sectarian violence and corralled into dirty camps without aid. To heap on the indignity, Myanmar's government is pressuring foreign officials not to speak the group's name, and the tactic appears to be working.
U.N. officials say they avoid the term in public to avoid stirring tensions between the country's Buddhists and Muslims. And after Secretary of State John Kerry recently met with Myanmar leaders, a senior State Department official told reporters the U.S. thinks the name issue should be "set aside."
That disappoints Tun Khin, president of the activist group Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK. He said by not using it, governments are co-operating with a policy of repression.
"How will the rights of the Rohingya be protected by people who won't even use the word 'Rohingya'?" he said.
Myanmar authorities view the Rohingya (pronounced ROH'-hin-gah) as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, not one of the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. Longstanding 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 extremist mobs from the Buddhist majority began chasing them from their homes two years ago, killing up to 280 people.
Racism against the Rohingya is widespread, and some see in the communal violence the warning signs of genocide.
The United States has called on the government to protect them. When President Barack Obama visited Myanmar less than two years ago, he told students at Yangon University: "There is no excuse for violence against innocent people. And the Rohingya hold themselves — hold within themselves the same dignity as you do, and I do."
Yet neither Kerry this month, nor top human rights envoy Tom Malinowski during a June visit, uttered the term at their news conferences when they talked with concern about the situation in Rakhine state, where sectarian violence is perhaps worst. Buddhist mob attacks against Rohingya and other Muslims have spread from the western state to other parts of the country, sparking fears that nascent democratic reforms in the nation could be undermined by growing religious intolerance.
The State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to speak publicly, said the U.S. 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, hasn't changed.
Foreign aid workers have been caught up in the tensions. Buddhist hardliners have attacked homes and offices of aid workers it accuses of helping Muslims and not the smaller number of Buddhists also displaced by the violence. Doctors Without Borders was expelled by the government in February and is still waiting to be allowed back.
The humanitarian situation has worsened. The U.N. said the number of severe malnutrition cases 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'd been repeatedly told by the government not to use the name "Rohingya," although she noted under international law that minorities have to the right to self-identify on the basis of their national, ethnic, religious and linguistic characteristics.
Myanmar Information Minister Ye Htut said in an email to The Associated Press that the name had never been accepted by Myanmar citizens. He said 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.
While there is a reference to "Rohingya" by a British writer published in 1799, use of the term by the Muslim community in Rakhine to identify themselves is fairly recent, according to Jacques Leider, an expert on the region's history.
Rohingya leaders claim their people are descendants of Muslims who settled in Rakhine before British colonial rule, which began after a war in 1823. The British occupation opened the doors to much more migration of Muslims from Bengal. Current Myanmar law denies full citizenship to those whose descendants arrived after 1823.
The name debate is reminiscent of whether to call the country by its old name, Burma, or Myanmar — the title adopted by the then-ruling military junta in 1989. Washington still officially uses "Burma," although U.S. officials also refer to "Myanmar" — a sign of the improved ties with the former pariah state.
But in this contest over semantics, the stakes are higher.
Rohingya were excluded from a U.N.-supported national census this spring if they identified themselves as Rohingya. They face stiff restrictions on travel, jobs, education and how many children they can have. They are also unwelcome in Bangladesh, where they have fled during crackdowns inside Myanmar since the 1970s.
Either because of government prodding or a desire to avoid confrontation, staff of foreign embassies and aid agencies in Myanmar rarely say "Rohingya" in public these days, and may simply say "Muslims." In June, the U.N. children's agency even apologized 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 tenants 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.