UN Chief causes upset with one word

UN Chief causes upset with one word
Rohingya fishermen at the Thae Chaung refugee camp outside Sittwe. The Rohingyas are widely regarded by local Buddhists as illegal Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh who are out to grab land and Islamise the state.

Tension is mounting in the Rakhine state capital of Sittwe, ahead of a protest on Sunday against the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon's use of the term Rohingya last week.

Neither the Myanmar government nor the Rakhine Buddhists recognise the term Rohingya, who are a heavily persecuted Muslim minority concentrated in the state - and widely regarded by local Buddhists as illegal Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh.

"Ban Ki Moon's use of the word has angered the whole country - and has absolutely infuriated the Rakhines," a Yangon-based analyst, who asked not to be named, said.

From the Rakhines' point of view, acknowledging the name Rohingya means "helping the enemy", he told The Straits Times.

The tension escalated after Mr Ban, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit last Thursday, told reporters he had expressed "concern about the Rohingya population who face discrimination and violence" to Myanmar's leaders.

That prompted an open letter from Rakhine chief minister Maung Maung Ohn to the Secretary-General last Friday, which was distributed in the regional summit and in which he criticised the UN chief's use of the term.

On Monday, Mr Maung Maung Ohn, a former Army major-general and a member of Myanmar's Buddhist Burman majority, summoned representatives of international aid organisations in the state and told them not to use the term.

According to sources, he told them the Rakhine government would support the work of the agencies but they should not involve themselves in "internal affairs" of the state. "We need to work together to prevent a repeat of last March," sources said Mr Maung Maung Ohn told the agencies in a reference to a wave of attacks in March last year by machete- and hammer-wielding Rakhine mobs on the offices of international aid agencies in the state.

Aid staff had to be evacuated to safety under armed escort.

"Rakhine state is a tinderbox and Mr Ban has poured petrol on it," said the analyst who asked not to be named. Local Rakhine Buddhists - still in the majority at about three million - see the one million-odd illegal "Bengali" immigrants as out to grab land and Islamise the state.

These existential fears are fed by a wave of right-wing Buddhist nationalism that has seen initial attacks on Rohingyas in 2012 morph into attacks on other Muslims elsewhere in Myanmar.

A campaign by some Western activist groups to force the Myanmar government to recognise the name - simply by using it, as United States President Barack Obama did on both his visits to Myanmar in 2012 and last week - may not be helping the cause, said Mr Richard Horsey, an independent analyst based in Yangon.

Insistence on using the term Rohingya is "counterproductive, simplistic, and backs the government into a corner", he said in an e-mail. In his letter to Mr Ban, Mr Maung Maung Ohn wrote: "The international community's insistence on the use of the term… has alienated the Rakhine population and further fuelled their distrust of all the UN agencies and international organisations."

It has fostered distrust and further led to a greater divide between the Rakhine and the Bengali populations as well as between the Myanmar people and the international community, he said.

nirmal@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Nov 19, 2014.
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