The Myanmar government has ordered state-run media not to refer to the persecuted Muslim minority group that lives in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state by the divisive term “Rohingya” during a visit by a United Nations human rights official.
The Ministry of Information’s letter dated June 16 instructed official news outlets to describe the 1.1 million Rohingya who live in Rakhine as the “Muslim community in Rakhine state” during a visit by Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s special envoy on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, who is visiting the country from June 20 to July 1.
“We submitted the phrase ‘Muslim community in Rakhine’ to the United Nations, and we will continue using it in the Burmese language in Myanmar,” said Myo Myint Aung, deputy permanent secretary at the ministry of information.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto national leader, told Lee on Monday during a meeting in the capital Naypyidaw that the government will avoid using the term “Rohingya,” Reuters reported.
Lee is visiting Yangon, Naypyidaw, Sittwe, Myitkyina and Lashio to compile a report to submit to the U.N. General Assembly in September.
The country’s majority Buddhists refuse to use the term Rohingya to refer to members of the group, whom they consider to be “Bengalis,” illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh, though many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
The government does not consider the Rohingya to be full citizens of Myanmar and denies them basic rights, freedom of movement, and access to social services and education.
More than 120,000 Rohingya, who were displaced during communal violence with ethnic Buddhists in 2012, currently live in displaced persons camps in Rakhine state, while thousands of others have risked their lives at sea in an effort to flee persecution.
ANP to use ‘Bengalis’
The Arakan National Party (ANP)—a political party that represents the interests of the Rakhine people in Rakhine state—has issued a statement saying it rejects the mandated usage of the phrase of “Muslim community in Rakhine” and will continue using “Bengalis” for Muslims in Rakhine State, even though the government’s order also forbids the use of this term.
The ANP’s statement also said that new government issued the order because it wants to portray Rakhine state as the Muslim minority group’s home.
“We released this statement because the government asked media to use the phrase ‘Muslim community in Rakhine state,’ while Muslims are being given the national verification cards,” said ANC vice chairwoman Aye Nu Sein, in a reference to cards that let holders apply for full Myanmar citizenship after they pass a verification process.
“We feel that the government is giving favorable treatment to Muslims so they can easily become citizens,” she said. “All Rakhine people are unhappy about this.”
U.N. says end discrimination
The U.N. on Monday issued a report on the situation of minorities in Myanmar, warning that continued human rights violations against the Rohingya could amount to crimes against humanity.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, urged the government to take steps to end “systemic discrimination” and ongoing human rights violations against minority communities in the country, and particularly against the Rohingya in Rakhine state, according to a U.N. press release.
The report, which was requested by the U.N. Human Rights Council in July 2015, found that the Rohingya “are suffering from arbitrary deprivation of nationality, severe restrictions on freedom of movement, threats to life and security, denial of rights to health and education, forced labor, sexual violence, and limitations to their political rights, among other violations.”
Zeid also called on the new government of Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy National League for Democracy (NLD) party to undertake comprehensive legal and policy measures to address the pattern of violations against minorities in Myanmar.
She told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in May that the government is working towards a solution that would allow the Rohingya to live peacefully and securely outside the camps.
A week later, Aung San Suu Kyi, whose formal titles are state counselor and foreign minister, was appointed chair of a government committee to work on peace and development in impoverished and war-torn Rakhine state, including the resettlement of internally displaced persons, social development, and the coordination of the activities of U. N. agencies and international nongovernmental organizations.
U.N. envoy’s trips
U.N. envoy Yanghee Lee has made three other trips to Myanmar since she was appointed special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar in 2014.
During a visit to Myanmar last September, Lee asked Rakhine state authorities not to ignore the plight of the Rohingya, despite protests by majority Rakhine Buddhists angry over what they consider to be U.N. bias in favor of the group.
She also visited refugee camps housing Rohingya who had fled deadly communal violence and met with lawmakers and community leaders in Myebon township of Rakhine state’s capital Sittwe.
During another visit in January 2015, Lee’s call for the government to uphold the rights of the Rohingya prompted a protest by 300 ultra-nationalist Buddhist monks and nuns in the commercial city Yangon.
They denounced Lee as she wrapped up a 10-day trip to the country to access its human rights situation, with influential, hard-line monk Wirathu calling her a “whore.”
Authorities issue green cards
In a related development, the government has been issuing new national verification cards, or “green cards,” to Rohingya as part of a citizenship verification pilot program in three predominantly Muslim townships in the state.
But some Muslim villagers in the state capital Sittwe have refused to accept the cards, which do not state their race or religion, arguing they are afraid of losing the right to become citizens.
“We told immigration officers that we can’t accept these cards if we can’t go to school, travel and work by showing them,” said villager Mamut Thuro.
The villagers also said the government had violated the law by giving some young people green cards because their parents have national identification cards that make them full citizens of Myanmar.
Only 50 Muslims in Sittwe have received the green cards, villagers said. The administrator of Thatkepyin village, about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from Sittwe, and his family also accepted their cards.
Authorities are issuing Muslim residents older than 10 the cards while they conduct checks to see if they are eligible to become citizens.
Those who possess green cards can apply for full Myanmar citizenship, but must first undergo a citizenship verification process.
Reported by Wai Mar Tun and Min Thein Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.