The battle over the word ‘Rohingya’

People protest against the United States outside the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, Burma, for its use of the term "Rohingya" to describe the stateless Muslim community. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

By Adam Taylor
The Washington Post
April 29, 2016

Hundreds of people gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, Burma, on Thursday with a simple demand: The United States must stop using the word "Rohingya."

"It is already clear that there is no such ethnicity as Rohingya in our country," a protester named Win Zaw Zaw Latt told Anadolu Agency before the demonstration. "We demand the U.S. as well as Western countries and the E.U. to stop using the term Rohingya."

To most of the world, the Rohingya are a Bengali-speaking Muslim minority in Buddhist-majority Burma, also known as Myanmar. More than 1 million Rohingya are thought to live in Burma, the majority of them in Rakhine state, along the western border with Bangladesh and India. Despite the size and long-standing presence of this community, the government does not consider its members Burmese citizens.

This position as stateless people makes the Rohingya vulnerable. Over recent years, vast numbers of Rohingyas have been displaced after successive rounds of ethnically motivated mob violence and now live in squalid camps. Many have attempted to flee Burma in dangerous, sometimes deadly, boat journeys.

The situation has earned critical attention from international groups. In 2014, United Nations special rapporteur Tomás Ojea Quintana suggested that Burma's policy of "discrimination and persecution" of the Rohingya community could amount to crimes against humanity. Last year, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum said we may be seeing "early warning signs of genocide" against the Rohingya in Rakhine.

It's a problem inflamed by a growing Buddhist nationalism within Burma. Foreigners note that even liberal forces within the country avoid using the term "Rohingya"; Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a long-standing pro-democracy voice, has been criticized for not speaking out for the minority.

This is a case in which the semantics are important. The term Rohingya implies a unique minority. However, the protesters outside the embassy on Thursday were demanding that they be referred to as Bengali, an ethnic group native to the region of West Bengal in India and to Bangladesh. The use of that term would support the belief, held by many in Burma, that the Rohingya are illegal immigrants who fled Bangladesh during or after that country's war for independence in 1971 and should not be recognized as an official ethnic group under Burma's 1982 citizenship law.

This law, devised under the military government that formerly led Burma, lists 135 ethnic groups that were permanently settled within the boundaries of the country before 1823, the year before the First Anglo-Burmese War, which would result in parts of Burma being incorporated into the British Empire (the entire nation would later become part of British India and remain under British rule until 1948). Though that military government has since fallen, Burma's current civilian government continues to use the list devised in 1982.

Many scholars argue that this classification of ethnic groups is an oversimplification, however, pointing out not only that many of the Rohingya have been living in Burma for generations but that there also are historical traces of this Muslim community in what is now Burma before 1823, too — a key date marking the moment when the British Empire may have begun encouraging Muslim immigration to the region. One widely cited study from 1799 described a group of people called the "Rooinga" who have "long settled" in what is now Rakhine state, suggesting a long history for the Rohingya people.

It is certainly true that the term Rohingya was used relatively rarely until the 1990s, when the community and its international supporters fully adopted it. However, although some critics suggest that the ethnicity is only a recent invention, records show that Prime Minister U Nu, who led Burma for several years when it was a parliamentary democracy between 1948 and 1962, used the term "Rohingya" at a number of points.

The troubled history of the term is probably a reflection of the complicated history of ethnicity and identity in the region. Some Rohingya have actually used this to their advantage, with elaborate tales of an 8th-century shipwreck linking them to Arabs or Persians farther west.

Yet the lack of a clear identity has often been used by the government to try to force the Rohingya out of the country or even to deny that the minority exists. In recent years, as tens of thousands of Rohingya took off on boats to escape Burma, officials have indicated that they won't attend meetings on the refugee crisis if the word "Rohingya" is invoked. The Rohingya who do end up in Bangladesh are hardly given a warm welcome: Last year, the government proposed moving one refugee camp to a remote island that was prone to flooding.

But despite the backlash within Burma to the term Rohingya, the international community has shown no willingness to reconsider its use of the word. The United Nations has called for full citizenship to be given to the Rohingyas, and President Obama has repeatedly used that term, including during a trip to country in 2014.

The word "Rohingya" seems to be here to stay.

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