In a further blow to Myanmar’s persecuted minority, the European Union (EU) has indicated it will avoid using the term “Rohingya”. Citing the need to give Myanmar “space” to deal with human rights abuses, the EU affirmed that it would respect the call by Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi to refrain from referring to the troubled Muslim minority as ‘Rohingya’.
Roland Kobia, the EU ambassador to Myanmar, explained the decision as, “We understand the the term ‘Rohingya’ is emotionally charged in Myanmar and have heard the call of the government to avoid creating tension by using polarizing terminology.” The decision by the EU follows a letter from the Burmese Information Ministry banning officials from using the controversial term, instead instructing them to refer to the troubled minority as “people who believe in Islam in Rakhine State.” This instruction has been seen as an attempt to avoid any potential controversy or disquiet on the issue whilst UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, is visiting the country. The EU’s statement also comes just days after the United Nations Human Rights Office warned that ongoing violations against the Rohingya could amount to crimes against humanity.
The EU’s decision not to use a single word has more implications than one might expect. Firstly, the statement exposes a rift in the international community’s approach to the problematic Rohingya issue. The US have already indicated they will continue to use the term, citing a respect for the right of communities to choose what they should be called. This stands in contrast with the EU’s approach of appeasing Myanmar’s new government on the issue. Led by Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy party, the new administration is asking for “space” to build trust and peace in the troubled northwest. However, Suu Kyi has disappointed rights groups so far by largely avoiding the issue, and while the new administration takes this “space”, conflict continues to simmer and in excess of one million stateless Rohingya people continue to suffer.
Furthermore, the decision by the EU to avoid the term demonstrates the power of a name. Buddhist nationalists have bitterly opposed the use of the term Rohingya to describe the Muslim minority, instead labelling them as “Bengalis”, referring to people from neighbouring Bangladesh. This name serves to cast Rohingya as illegal immigrants, denying them citizenship to a country they have lived in for generations. By the Burmese government, and by extension, the EU, refusing to acknowledge the term Rohingya, they are effectively endorsing this sentiment. Without a name or a home, the minority group is extremely vulnerable, with UN Human Rights raising concerns over an alarming increase in incitement to hatred and religious intolerance fanning the flames of the current conflict.
The EU stepping back and allowing the Burmese government to take control of the situation is one thing. However, it comes at the expense of coordinated international pressure to deal with the Rohingya issue and create a timely, peaceful resolution to the issue. Without this pressure, it remains to be seen if the Suu Kyi administration will take pertinent action. Some 125,000 Rohingya remain displaced and face severe travel restrictions in squalid camps since fighting erupted between the two camps in 2012. Many more are experiencing the worst of what humanity has to offer as asylum seekers, being subject to a complex web of abuse including summary executions, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, and forced labor.
Regardless of how they are labelled, these individuals are being denied their basic human rights, an issue the EU, nor any other country, should be keeping quiet on.