UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is pictured as he arrives to take part in the 9th East Asia Summit Plenary Session in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw on Thursday (AFP Photo/Ye Aung Thu)
A day after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon publicly urged greater rights for Myanmar’s oppressed Rohingya minority, a high-level official lashed out Thursday, warning he could “inflame local sentiment” by using the term.
In an open letter posted to the Ministry of Information website, Rakhine State Chief Minister U Maung Maung Ohn writes that he wishes “to express my deep disappointment of your use of the term ‘Rohingya’” during a Wednesday press conference in Naypyidaw.
“The international community’s insistence on the use of the term ‘Rohingya’ has alienated the Rakhine population and further fueled their distrust of all the United Nations agencies and international organizations such as MSF that are providing much needed assistance inside Rakhine state,” U Maung Maung Ohn wrote.
On Wednesday, Ban called for Myanmar to improve its treatment of the Muslim minority, which is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis as violence has forced hundreds of thousands into dire conditions. Thousands more have fled by boat to Thailand and elsewhere, creating a regional trafficking issue.
As supporters battle for improved treatment, they have come to loggerheads with the government, which will not even allow the use of the term Rohingya. Instead, in public and in an ongoing citizenship verification, the Myanmar government insists on the name “Bengali” in order to imply that the estimated one million Rohingya are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
If they do agree to be listed as Bengali on the census, Rohingya receive only the second-class permissions granted to foreigners. With worsening divisions, some have gone so far as to warn of impending genocide.
In his speech, Ban defended the use of the term Rohingya and urged the government “to avoid measures that could entrench the current segregation between communities”.
David Mathieson, senior researcher on Myanmar for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the government’s refusal to address the situation in Rakhine state was stymieing development in the country at large.
“For Rakhine leaders to continue to deny the existence of the Rohingya and insist on apoplexy when the word is used is the one of the major impediments to resolving the Rakhine crisis,” he wrote in an email.
“To put blame on the UN simply for using the word Rohingya is disturbing nihilism, and will only frustrate plans to develop all of the region. It’s hard to see how U Maung Maung Ohn’s racism against the Rohingya actually assists the Rakhine people emerge from decades of military rule and being marginalized and maligned by the Burmese state.”
The term has been employed by the UN for decades, and has been widely utilized since the first mass humanitarian crisis in 1992 — when 250,000 fled Myanmar into Bangladesh amid mass torture and persecution.
“Rohingya is the term that stands for their identity so we shouldn’t just focus on its terminology and we have no right to tell other people not to use it,” said Aung Myo Min, executive director of Yangon-based Equality Myanmar, adding that the government’s refusal to accept it was nonsensical.
“It doesn’t mean that they will become citizens… of Myanmar by just saying the word.”
But Pe Than, a lower house MP from Myabon constituency in Rakhine state, said the two were invariably linked and that the term was explicitly being employed to try and claim citizenship rights.
“We vehemently oppose Ban-Ki-Moon’s usage and it may inflame tension between the two communities and it shows lack of taking responsibility by ignoring the local situation in Rakhine state.”
In Myanmar for a high-level ASEAN summit, US President Barack Obama is set to hold a sidelines meeting Thursday night with his counterpart Thein Sein at which the Rohingya issue will be raised.
"One of the main messages that I'll deliver on this visit is that the government of Myanmar has a responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of all people in the country, and that the fundamental human rights and freedoms of all people should be respected," Obama said in an interview with The Irrawaddy.
His deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, told reporters the president would speak out on behalf of the nation's Muslim Rohingya minority in "all of his engagements”.
Additional reporting by Abby Seiff and AFP.