The most recent Rohingya exodus has been making headlines during the past few weeks. But just a week ago Daw Aung San Suu Kyi broke her silence. In her more than 30 minute speech addressing the Myanmar Parliament and diplomats on 19 September, the term Rohingya was not used. Rohingya continues to be “forbidden to name”. This explicit denial of the name not only works against the existence and human rights of Rohingya but also against any desire of the Myanmar government to work towards peace and harmony as well as to fulfil its international commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms.
As of 21 September 2017, UNHCR reported that more than 420,000 people – mostly Rohingya – have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh since the outbreak of the latest violence on 25 August 2017. In early 2017 UNHCR said in its report that “2016 was the fifth consecutive year of large scale movements of Rohingya refugees from Rakhine state in Myanmar to other countries by land or sea, bringing the estimated total since 2012 to 168,500”. Combining the two numbers, approximately 600,000 Rohingya have left the country in the span of five years. If we add those who have already fled to Bangladesh alone, the country already hosts around 600,000 – 700,000 Rohingya. Bangladesh is followed by Malaysia which, according to UNHCR, is believed to have received some 112,000 Rohingya who travelled by sea to the country between 2012-2015. More are predicted to take the sea route to Southeast Asia after the upcoming monsoon season.
The number reveals the seriousness of the situation within Myanmar. What seems to be also alarming is the massive and systematic violence and human rights violations. In February 2017, the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights released a flash report describing and detailing the “devastating cruelty against Rohingya children, women and men” caused by “clearance operations by military in Myanmar”. The report concluded that “the attacks against the Rohingya population in the area (killings, enforced disappearances, torture and inhuman treatment, rape and other forms of sexual violence, arbitrary detention, deportation and forced transfer as a result of violence and persecution) seem to have been widespread as well as systematic, indicating the very likely commission of crimes against humanity”. The UN News Centre quoted the UN Human Rights High Commissioner who pointed out on 11 September 2017, concerning the treatment of Rohingya in Myanmar, that “the situation seems a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, noting, however, that the current situation cannot be fully assessed since Myanmar has refused access to the UN fact finding mission led by Mr. Marzuli Darussman. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi continues to deny the allegation and access. In her interview with the BBC before the current crisis, she said, “It’s not ethnic cleansing. Muslims have been targeted but also Buddhists have been subjected to violence.”
In her address on 19 September to the Myanmar Parliament and diplomatic corps, Aung San Suu Kyi, despite condemning “human rights violations and all other acts that impair stability and harmony and undermine the rule of law” and stating that this “will be addressed in accordance with strict norms of justice”, said “there have been no clearance operations” since 5 September. However some news reports referred to her own office Facebook page which indicated that security personnel had conducted “clearance operations since the attacks on 30 police and army stations”. She also affirmed that “we are prepared to start the verification process at any time” in response to the calls for the repatriation of refugees who have fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh. This process, in fact, will bar Rohingya from returning to the country. In his most recent press conference, Myanmar’s national security council adviser was quoted as saying that “the government will only allow those who have ‘proof’ of citizenship or another form of residence evidence to return”. Rohingya, as we all know, is an ethnic group not recognized by Myanmar as its citizens. Their legal status has been denied. The State Counsellor herself has not referred to Rohingya by name in her address, just Muslims from Rakhine.
The term Rohingya has been denied by the Government of Myanmar and majority of the population. In his most recent visit to Thailand, Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, the Supreme Commander of the Myanmar Army, asked the Thai authorities to address Rohingya as Bengali, a request which was accommodated by the Thai government. To recall, in none of the special meetings hosted by the Thai government since May 2015 was the term “Rohingya” used. At that time Myanmar threatened not to participate in the meeting if the term “Rohingya” was mentioned. One may note that Aung San Suu Kyi had cautioned against the use of “emotive terms” that would make the situation more difficult. The “emotive terms” include the term “Rohingya”. She explained further that “We won’t use the term Rohingya because Rohingya are not recognized as among the 135 official ethnic groups”.
The continued denial of the term Rohingya, and their existence, suggests the continued working of the power of discourse of name and identity in Myanmar. The discourse has been shaping the thinking and paradigm of social and political stigma of Rohingya among a majority of the population, both within and outside Myanmar, for so long. Rohingya continues to be “forbidden to name”. This explicit denial of the name not only works against the existence and human rights of Rohingya and the continuing tragedy but also against any desire of the Myanmar government to work towards peace and harmony as well as to fulfil its international commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms, things that the State Counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been repeating.
Dr Sriprapha Petcharamesree is a senior lecturer at the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University, Bangkok. She has been researching and advocating for the protection and promotion of human rights, including the rights of Rohingya, for decades.