OMG you guys, President Obama went to Burma and said “Rohingya” yesterday. And that’s just a day after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon also said it, calling on the Burmese government to ensure humanitarian access to the beleagured minority.
More than a million Rohingya live in Burma. About 140,000 of them currently reside in squalid camps, displaced by attacks on Muslim Rohingyas by the majority Buddhists in Rakhine State in 2012. They lack adequate food and shelter and, since the ejection of Doctors Without Borders in February, their access to medical care is limited.
They are also stateless, denied citizenship by the Burmese government, which claims that they “have never had ethnic nationals called ‘Rohingya'”. In its 2014 official census, the government refused to count individuals self-identifying as Rohingya. Instead, it insists that they are “Bengalis”, illegal immigrants from Bangladesh who should go home. (Population data for Rakhine State reveals no influx of Muslims from Bangladesh, or anywhere else.)
Recently, the regime has stepped up pressure on members of the international community not to employ the term “Rohingya”. In June, it demanded an apology after a UNICEF staffer used the word during a briefing. Many international actors have bowed to the government’s absurd demands, in order to continue working with a population desperately in need of help, or simply to avoid stirring up trouble.
But Obama and Ban’s strong statements suggest the tide may be turning. Yesterday, the Burmese ambassador to the UK conceded that the Rohingya are “people”. Maybe with a little more prodding, they’ll get around to admitting that they have rights.
*That’s a photo I took of festival observers at Yangon’s iconic Shwedagon Pagoda in 2012.