As Burma prepares to welcome US President Barack Obama to Naypyidaw in November, human rights groups and activists have been urging Obama to press Burma’s government to improve the country’s socio-political environment.
US-based activist organization United to End Genocide (UEG), for example, is making extensive efforts to lobby the president to address the plight of the Rohingyas during his visit to Burma.
As part of its lobbying efforts, UEG has launched a campaign called #justsaytheirname, which is designed to encourage President Obama to address the Rohingya issue and thereby reaffirm their right to self-determination and self-identification.
The NGOs campaign is inspired by UN Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee’s recent decision to use the word “Rohingya” in her report on Burma’s human rights situation—defying pressure from the Burmese government, which prefers to use the term “Bengalis.”
Ms. Lee presented her report on Burma’s human rights situation in a speech to the UN General Assembly on 28 October. During the speech, she said: “I am acutely aware of the sensitivity around the use of the term ‘Rohingya’ that is not recognised by the [Burmese] government.”
Lee also pointed out that being forced to identify as “Bengali” was a violation of their basic rights: “I am concerned about the Rohingyas being required to identify themselves as ‘Bengali’ and if they do not they are excluded from the citizenship verification process that is being rolled out in Arakan state,” she said.
EUG President Tom Andrews said, “As President Obama prepares to make his second trip to Burma in November, he should follow the Special Rapporteur’s lead, speak out against the systematic abuse of the Rohingya and just say their name when he does so.”
Mr. Andrews then added, “It is more than just a name. It is 1.3 million people being persecuted and a culture in danger of being erased in Burma.”
Among the many rights denied to Rohingyas in Burma is the right to self-identification and self-determination, both of which are fundamental human rights enshrined in international law.
Ever since March 2014, when the Burmese government back-tracked on an earlier policy and struck the term “Rohingya” out of census list—insisting that the group be referred to as “Bengali” instead—the political conundrum surrounding this issue has escalated.
Subsequently, Presidential Spokesperson Ye Htut said, “It will be acceptable if they write ‘Bengali’—we won’t accept them as ‘Rohingya’.”
Ms. Lee also pointed out that it was the responsibility of the Burmese government to preserve the Rohingya community’s rights. “I note that the right of minorities to self identify is related to the obligation of the state to ensure non-discrimination against individuals and groups,” she said.
UEG is also accusing foreign governments of succumbing to pressure from Naypyidaw on the Rohingya issue, noting that many countries have avoided using the term “Rohingya” in order to maintain favorable diplomatic ties with Thein Sein’s government.
UEG’s Tom Andrews said, “Incredibly, governments of the world are bending to pressure by the Thein Sein government of Burma to no longer use the term ‘Rohingya’ when referring to the Rohingya ethnic minority.”
“Even Secretary of State John Kerry obliged the government by not mentioning the Rohingya by their name when he last visited Burma,” he said.