A war over words is central to the Rohingya crisis: Nahlah Ayed

Ending the statelessness that automatically comes with the title Rohingya has been cited repeatedly as the key to peace in Myanmar.

Buddhist-majority Myanmar sees the name Rohingya as a fabrication by Muslim foreigners

Newly set up tents cover a hillock in Taiy Khali, Bangladesh Friday at a refugee camp for Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar. More than 420,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in less than a month. (Dar Yasin/Associated Press)

When Aung San Suu Kyi asked a former UN secretary general last year to lead a national study into the troubles in her country's poorest and most restive state, she asked that the word Rohingya be avoided.

It says so, right in Kofi Annan's eventual report, under the heading Nomenclature.

"In line with the request of the State Counsellor, the commission uses neither the term Bengali nor Rohingya, who are referred to as Muslims or the Muslim community in Rakhine."

At first glance, it is no surprise. Much of the hate-driven violence in Myanmar's Rakhine state is embodied in the conflict over those two words.

But Rohingya is what many Muslims of Rakhine call themselves. And ending the statelessness that automatically comes with that title had already been cited repeatedly as the key to peace.

The problem is that the name Rohingya, for many in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, is akin to a fabrication — both the word and the people.
A Rohingya refugee child reacts as people queue for aid in a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on Friday. Myanmar, which the refugees are fleeing, does not recognize Rohingya as an ethnicity, and the people have no citizenship rights. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

Despite the presence of Rohingya for generations, Myanmar's policies towards them have long been driven by that belief: that they are foreign, illegal migrants of Bengali origin.

Rohingya is not recognized as an ethnicity, and the people have no citizenship rights. So they do not enjoy freedom of movement or education. They cannot vote. And they are indiscriminately targeted in operations against militants.

It was like that under military rule, and it remains so under Suu Kyi. Rohingya believe it's all part of a systematic effort to drive them out.

Under pressure internationally to accept a UN investigation into alleged abuses, and under pressure at home to reject one, Suu Kyi opted for a local solution: a majority-Burmese commission led by Annan. She could call the shots: no mandate to look into the abuses alleged against the military, and no using the words Bengali or Rohingya.

A UN investigation team created in March, meanwhile, has yet to be granted permission to enter the country.

There were concerns about the Annan commission from the start, says Mark Farmaner of Burma Campaign UK.

For one, "its mandate excluded investigating human rights violations," he said. "The international community also used the commission as a shield when pressured to take action over ongoing human rights violations."

Farmaner added the government itself used the commission as a "shield against criticism."

Still, a year after Annan started on the job — and many years after countless others had counselled as much — his commission, too, concluded addressing citizenship was at the heart of a solution.

"Myanmar harbours the largest community of stateless people in the world," said the report. "If this issue is not addressed it will continue to cause significant human suffering and insecurity."

It also warned that unless a solution is found, "further radicalization within both (Buddhist and Muslim) communities is a real risk."

Exactly one day later — by design, some believe — a militant Rohingya group attacked Myanmar forces, which again responded with overwhelming force with the help of Buddhist nationalists. So far, more than 420,000 Rohingya have been displaced to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Further, Amnesty International said Friday that satellite imagery shows the violence continues on a mass scale despite Suu Kyi's claim that military operations stopped on Sept. 5.
Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi shakes hands with Patrick Murphy, the U.S. State Department's deputy assistant secretary for Southeast Asia, in Naypyitaw on Sept. 19. Suu Kyi has asked for patience from the international community and suggested the refugees were partly responsible for the violence in Myanmar. (Associated Press)

None of this should come as a surprise, say human rights activists.

"Ever since the military offensive against the Rohingya in October 2016, the international community was very aware that further (Rohingya militant) attacks would happen, and that the military would respond in the way they have," says Farmaner.

Suu Kyi has repeatedly said Myanmar as a democracy would need time to deal with the crisis. She accepted Annan's recommendations.

None has yet been implemented.

So when this past week she said she wanted to "find out why" Muslims were leaving, she left many incredulous, certain she had cynically chosen to sacrifice her reputation on the world stage in the interest of preserving a precarious balance at home.
Rohingya refugees bury a man in a camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh on Friday. Back in Myanmar, Amnesty International said Friday, satellite imagery shows violence continues on a mass scale. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

But in the wake of the bitter disappointment in a Nobel laureate and renowned champion of human rights, pragmatism may now be setting in.

World leaders can't force Myanmar to accept a neutral UN fact-finding mission, given the tense and confused backdrop. But they could insist it allow international aid in Rakhine.

They could also begin to scale back on the international leap of faith in a democracy called Myanmar, a country where there are effectively two governments, one civilian, and one military.

The United Kingdom has just suspended its admittedly modest training program with Myanmar's armed forces, the real power holders in the country.

"We are very concerned about what's happening to the Rohingya people in Burma," Prime Minister Theresa May told the UN general assembly this week. "The military action against them must stop."

Beyond speaking out explicitly about the Rohingya — as so many hoped she would — Suu Kyi could be true to her word, and begin by accepting the recommendations of the commission she herself created.

Even its toughest critics say that would be a good start.
Rohingya Muslims who crossed from Myanmar into Bangladesh stretch out their arms to collect rice bags distributed by aid workers near Balukhali refugee camp on Friday. (Dar Yasin/Associated Press)


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.