Rohingya and the Power of Naming

By Krizna Gomez*

 

In the past week, my Facebook thread has been replete with posts about a group of people who until now has failed to make it to general public awareness: Rohingya. Ordinary individuals, who before have never even heard of the name, are expressing outrage at the “maritime pingpong” of around 6,000 Rohingya and Bangladeshi migrants who have been adrift in the Andaman Sea—starving and drinking their own urine in unseaworthy boats or “floating coffins”.

The plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in Burma, is not new. They have suffered decades of repression from the Buddhist majority on the basis of their religion and ethnicity. In the past three years alone, an estimated 120,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Burma. It is only now, with the abandonment of scores of boats by their crews after a crackdown on trafficking gangs by Thailand, that the numbers have become hard to ignore, finally capturing the world’s attention.

In Burma, the word “Rohingya” does not officially exist. The 1982 Citizenship Law, which limits citizenship rights to ethnic groups that are listed in the law, excluded the Rohingya as an official ethnicity in Burma. This 1.4-million minority is instead pejoratively referred to as “illegal immigrants” or “Bengalis”, despite the fact that they have lived in Burma for centuries. The government has even said that it would not attend the emergency meeting being convened by Malaysia later this month if the word “Rohingya” is used. A representative of the president said, “If we recognize the name, then they will think they are citizens of Myanmar… Myanmar cannot take all the blame for these people who are now at sea. We need long term (solutions) and you can’t just explain it by saying Myanmar is the source of the problem. A long term solution is needed.” Even democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi has been derided internationally for her continued silence on the issue, and for even failing to call them by their name.

What is in a word? Aung San Suu Kyi eloquently put it herself: “Words allow us to express our feelings, to record our experiences, to concretize our ideas, to push outwards the frontiers of intellectual exploration. Words can move hearts, words can change perceptions, words can set nations and peoples in powerful motion. Words are an essential part of the expression of our humanness.”

For Burma, using the name “Rohingya” is tantamount to recognizing that they exist as a Burmese ethnic group and thus deserving of citizenship rights. It perhaps also somehow gives a sense of security for the Buddhist majority in denying that they are Burmese, with the former’s unsubstantiated existential fearthat the Rohingyas are taking over their country. Indeed, naming can provide a feeling of peace but in some other contexts, it can kill, too.

It is like what we do with the daily things in our lives—unless we name a problem, it simply does not exist. It is rendering someone invisible; paints the person as an “Other”—unworthy of our concern or guilt. Elie Wiesel, a world-renowned Jewish author who lived through the horrors of a concentration camp, has said that “to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all.” In the case of the Rohingya, there is not only silence that breeds apathy, but an active denial that strips the Rohingyas of their humanity.

This same destructive power of naming can also be seen in the case of the hundreds of African migrants escaping to Europe, many of them perishing in the Mediterranean sea. Katie Hopkins, a controversial British columnist, called the migrants “cockroaches”, and asked the government to use gunships to prevent the migrant boats from landing on European shores. The Society of Black Lawyers of England reported her statements to the police as inciting to racial hatred, saying that her words are reminiscent of how the Hutus referred to the Tutsis in the Rwandan genocide that left 500,000 to one million dead.

What has made it difficult for Myanmar’s neighboring countries to welcome those at sea is their fear of thousands more flocking into their lands. The Rohingya will keep on coming. They will keep boarding those boats, and risking possible death at sea than to resign to certain annihilation at home—not until the root cause of the problem is resolved. The Burmese government has to recognize them as Rohingya, and all the rights and protections that come with it. The long-term solution that Burma is talking about in fact lies with Burma and not with its neighbors.

As crass as it may sound, this is the unexpected “benefit” of the current crisis. Everyone is now learning about the Rohingya, calling them as such, and taking a stand. Burma has been showered with international praises, which have come in the form of lifting of sanctions and unprecedented economic opportunities, since opening up in 2012. Its government is not impervious to international pressure; it thrives in it. If Aung San Suu Kyi and policymakers from within would not call them by their name, everyone outside can—and hopefully the noise can set the Rohingya free.

 

Krizna Gomez is a researcher at The Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).