The latest step in Myanmar’s campaign to erase the Rohingya people from the planet involves literally erasing them from the lexicon:
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi has told the UN special rapporteur on human rights that the government will avoid using the term “Rohingya” to describe a persecuted Muslim minority in the country’s north-west.
The statement came as the top UN human rights official issued a report saying the Rohingya had been deprived of nationality and undergone systematic discrimination and severe restrictions on movements. They had also suffered executions and torture that together may amount to crimes against humanity, the report said.
Members of the group of about 1.1 million people, who identify themselves by the term Rohingya, are seen by many Myanmar Buddhists as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The term is a divisive issue.
The UN human rights investigator, Yanghee Lee, met Aung San Suu Kyi in the capital Naypyitaw on her first trip to Myanmar since the Nobel Peace Prize winner took power in April.
“At their meeting here this morning, our foreign minister Daw Aung San Suu Kyi explained our stance on this issue that the controversial terms should be avoided,” said Aung Lin, the permanent secretary at the ministry of foreign affairs.
This isn’t a brand-new policy; the US government publicly refused to stop using the term “Rohingya” in early May, in response to a request by the Burmese government. What’s new is that Myanmar is declaring this policy to the United Nations.
The plan, at least while Lee is there, is to refer to the Rohingya as “People Who Believe in Islam in Rakhine State,” which is Orwellian if inelegant, crafted so as to render the Rohingya both stateless and nation-less. The Rohingya are a people who have lived for generations in Rakhine and have roots, and human rights, around their ancestral homeland. “People Who Believe in Islam in Rakhine State” are just Muslims in Rakhine, and if you need to relocate them they can go be Muslims someplace else. The Rohingya are a distinct people, so when Buddhist mobs kill them with tacit government permission, or when the government institutes policies meant to shrink their numbers and ultimately eliminate them over the long-term, that’s genocidal. But there are over a billion “People Who Believe in Islam” around the world, so even if Aung San Suu Kyi personally killed every last Person Who Believes in Islam in Rakhine State, that still couldn’t be considered a genocide.
There was a time, back when Suu Kyi–a Nobel laureate and person who sometimes says things like that quotation above, perhaps without really understanding them–was on the outside looking in on Myanmar’s political system, when her total public indifference to the Rohingya was excused as a political necessity. She can’t speak out about the genocide until she’s led the country through its democratic transition, it was said. She’ll be able to take it on directly once she and her party have won legitimate elections. Well, that’s already happened, and yet here we are, with Suu Kyi herself now sanctioning these crimes against humanity. Suu Kyi announced at the end of May that she would lead a “peace and development committee” for Rakhine, but if step one of her plan for peace and development in Rakhine involves stripping the Rohingya of their identity and whatever protection it offers, that’s not a very promising start.