When Pope Francis visited Myanmar this week, he did not do what he has done in the past: use the word “Rohingya” when condemning the military’s campaign in Rakhine State.
The pope has been criticized for not using the word, which avoided conflict with Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the military, who refuse to use the word and view the Muslim minority as illegal immigrants.
The pope found himself in the same dilemma as many humanitarian groups: By merely recognizing the existence of the persecuted ethnic group, one risks alienating the Myanmar government at a time when their cooperation is critical.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recognized the semantic issue in a written statement recently: “The problem of “Rohingya” has a long history and includes complex factors such as history, ethnicity and religion.”
Wang is attempting to get Myanmar to accept and protect the Rohingya refugees that fled.
Before the mass exodus of 600,000 in August, roughly 145,000 Rohingya were isolated in refugee camps in northern Rakhine State. Humanitarian organizations avoided the word to retain access to Rohingya communities in need of aid. In these camps, the Rohingya were prevented from leaving, and only a handful of organizations were permitted into these blocked compounds.
Aid groups recognize the sensitivity of the issue and avoid the provocation that could result from one word, said Matthew Smith, co-founder of the advocacy group Fortify Rights. He discussed the issue with WikiTribune by email.
“The Rohingya are a conversation stopper with Myanmar authorities,” he wrote. “Over the years a number of aid groups, including UN agencies, privately used the term “Bengali” in reference to Rohingya while speaking with the authorities.
“We don’t condone that but we understand the difficult environment in which aid groups are working.”
Under the 1982 Citizenship Law, the Rohingya are not recognized as a native people of Myanmar, but illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, which is why the government commonly refers to them as Bengali. (Read More on Rohingya’s immigration status)