The world was transfixed in horror by images of desperate Rohingya Muslims fleeing Burma on cramped boats and being pushed back to sea by Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. At the same time, the United Nations secretary-general’s special envoy to Burma, Vijay Nambiar, was visiting the epicenter of the problem in Burma’s Arakan (Rakhine) State, where the Rohingya have faced systematic persecution and what Human Rights Watch has called “ethnic cleansing” caused by crimes against humanity.
Travelling with the UN’s top official in Burma, Renata Dessallien, one would have expected Nambiar to express his alarm and make it clear that the UN expected changes in policies to bring this long-running crisis to an end.
Yet the statement issued by Dessallien’s office after the trip was shockingly tepid and misleading: “The UN recognizes and appreciates the recent improvements in the conditions in Rakhine, including efforts to improve the situation of the IDPs [internally displaced persons]. The Government has started to enable IDPs to return to their places of origin and is assisting with livelihood enhancement, health and education.”
A reader could be forgiven for thinking that benign national and local officials are successfully helping a population that has suffered unstated hard times. But nothing could be further from the truth. It’s possible that Nambiar and Desallien thought they covered their bases by recognizing that, “notwithstanding these welcome improvements, more work needs to be done.” But as with a widely criticized statement by European Union diplomats after a 2014 trip to Rakhine State, the UN statement focuses on marginal improvements when the Rohingya continue to be among the most persecuted people in the world. UN officials even had the audacity to praise a rescue operation by the Burmese navy while refusing to mention that it is the very same government’s policies that have forced so many people onto boats in the first place.
Arakan State’s Buddhist majority, assisted by religious leaders, government officials, and state security forces, has since 2012 engaged in widespread violence against the Rohingya, burning tens of thousands out of their homes. The authorities have then forced those fleeing for their lives into segregated camps. Burma’s 1982 Nationality Act effectively denies Rohingya citizenship. Just last week, Burma’s parliament passed a discriminatory “population control” law aimed at the Rohingya and the country’s larger Muslim community. Other discriminatory laws are likely to pass soon.
This oppression is why thousands are risking their lives and getting on often rickety boats. On the eve of a major international conference to discuss the boat crisis, the UN statement was silent on this.
It is unclear why the UN would want to engage in misleading statements, but this obfuscation was made even worse by the failure to even use the term “Rohingya,” as the group identifies itself. Some senior UN officials and diplomats have erased this word from their vocabulary because the official position of the Burmese government is that there are no “Rohingya.” Instead, the government insistently refers to them as “Bengalis,” a slur in Burma that is used to pretend that they are illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
The UN should not capitulate to the dictates of religious persecution. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has used the term, though even he has done it in a contorted manner by referring to “those who self-identify and are known by many as ‘Rohingyas.’” Ban should now insist that using the term Rohingya be the rule, not the exception, within the UN. This would be consistent with his ambitious agenda to put “human rights up front” and with his responsibility to stand up for the basic rights of a persecuted minority.
As representatives from 17 countries and various UN agencies met in Bangkok on Friday to seek solutions to the maritime exodus from Burma, no mention of the Rohingya appeared in the official statement of the meeting. The UN should finally take a stand and refuse to de-recognize an entire population’s identity.
And where was Nambiar during the Bangkok meeting? He was in Burma to help launch the results of Burma’s nationwide census – a census that excluded an estimated 1.1 million Rohingya who refused to register under the obligatory and offensive “Bengali” label. Nambiar appears to have used the term Rohingya just once in public while on his trip to Burma, and this perhaps only in response to criticism. It seems fair to ask: how can the UN press for “human rights up front” when in Burma it often chooses to lead from behind?