A brief history of the word “Rohingya” at the heart of a humanitarian crisis


The Rohingya are a largely Muslim ethnic minority in Myanmar at the center of a humanitarian catastrophe. But the Myanmar government won’t even use the word “Rohingya,” let alone admit they’re being persecuted. Instead, the government calls them Bengalis, foreigners, or worse, terrorists.

This difference between these two terms—Rohingya and Bengali—is crucial to understanding the crisis unfolding in Myanmar, where more than 500,000 Rohingya have recently fled following a government crackdown and which has been called a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing by the top United Nations human-rights official. Many of those ended up sheltering in makeshift camps in Bangladesh, telling tales of the killings, rape, and massacres.

Before the massacres, there were thought to be around 1.1 million Rohingya living in the country. The Rohingya have existed in Myanmar—a Buddhist majority country—for centuries. It was known as Burma under British colonial rule (from 1824-1948) and there was significant migration between today’s Myanmar, India, and Bangladesh. Once Burma won independence in 1945, the government passed the Union Citizenship Act (pdf), which detailed the ethnicities “indigenous” to Myanmar. The Rohingya were not considered to be one of the country’s 135 official ethnic groups.

That said, the Rohingya were able to carve a place for themselves in newly independent Burma; with some serving in parliament and other high offices. And their ethnicity was included in the 1961 census.

The situation quickly deteriorated for the Rohingya, however, following the 1962 military coup, when the government—driven by Bamar-supremacist ideology (paywall)—gave fewer official documentation to the Rohingya and refused to fully recognize new generations of the Rohingya population. In 1974, all citizens in Burma were required to get national registration cards, but the Rohingya were only allowed to obtain foreign registration cards.

By 1982, a new citizenship law was passed that prevented Rohingya from easily accessing full citizenship, rendering many of them stateless. In 1989, the country was renamed Myanmar.

It’s not just the Rohingya, outbreaks of violence have affected non-Rohingya Muslims across Myanmar. Certain extremist monks have intensified the Islamophobic rhetoric in the country, claiming Myanmar’s dominant Buddhist faith is under threat from Muslims (pointing to Afghanistan and Indonesia as examples). These monks were crucial in passing “race and religion” laws that targeted Muslims and attempted to stem their population growth.

In 2009, a UN spokeswoman described the Rohingya as “probably the most friendless people in the world” and it’s easy to see why. In 2015, the plight of the Rohingya was brought to the forefront when boats packed with Rohingya migrants were left stranded at sea. The Rohingya—collectively dubbed across international media as “boat people”—were stuck because they were turned away from a number of Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand. Unwanted in Myanmar, the Rohingya are also often rejected from the countries they hope to flee to.

Since the late 1970s, nearly one million Rohingya are estimated to have fled Myanmar. The 2014 census—which the UN helped conduct—banned the use of the term “Rohingya.”

Words matter

By referring to the Rohingya as “Bengalis,” the government is able to designate this persecuted minority as the “other.” This perception of Rohingya as outsiders and illegal immigrants provides a not so subtle justification for the systematic disenfranchisement of the group and the government’s efforts to root them out of their homes. It implies they belong in Bangladesh, with other Bengali Muslims.

It’s a tactic the world has seen before. In 1992, a couple of years before the Rwanda genocide, Léon Mugesera, a well-known Hutu ideologue, delivered a now infamous speech in which he rallied others to exterminate the Tutsis. During the speech, he called on Hutus to “wipe out this scum” and send the Tutsis to Ethiopia by way of the Nyabarongo River. At the heart of this genocidal discourse was the belief that the Tutsis were not native to Rwanda and originated from Ethiopia (known as the Hamitic hypothesis). Mugesera message had clearly resonated; at the end of the bloodshed, tens of thousands of dead Tutsis were thrown in Rwanda’s rivers.

Perhaps, most depressingly, is the reaction of the de facto leader of Myanmar and Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has remained largely silent on the humanitarian crisis. Suu Kyi response has shocked the world—with other Nobel laureates condemning her failure to act—but a look at the words Suu Kyi has long etched out her position.

In 2012, she said that she did not know if the Rohingya could be regarded as citizens. And just like the military, Suu Kyi has also long refused to use the term “Rohingya.”

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