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The 'R' word: Govt warns new UN rights rapporteur

By Tim McLaughlin
July 29, 2014

The government has cautioned a senior UN official over her use of the word “Rohingya”, warning that continued use of the term could hinder efforts to address humanitarian and rights issues in Rakhine State.

The President’s Office said in a July 29 statement that the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, needs to pay “serious consideration to [using] the term” if a “long-term solution” to problems in Rakhine are to be achieved.

“While the people of Myanmar are ready, and as it has been the case, to accept those who meet the criteria of the 1982 Citizenship Law as citizens, we do not accept the term ‘Rohingya’ which has never existed in the country’s history,” the statement said.

“The term has been maliciously used by a group of people with wider political agenda. The people of Myanmar will never recognise the term.”

The term Rohingya is widely used by the international community to identify a group of Muslims, thought to number more than 1 million, who reside predominantly in Rakhine State. The government rejects the term, saying that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, and refers to them instead as “Bengalis”.

Neither the Rohingya nor Bengali names are included in Myanmar’s 135 official ethnic groups, and most self-described Rohingya have been denied access to citizenship.

Ms Lee said on July 26 during a press conference at the end of her trip that she was told repeatedly not to use the term during her 10-day visit, but said that human rights laws respecting the freedom to self-identify drove her to do so.

“As a human rights independent expert, I am guided by international human rights law. In this regard, the rights of minorities to self-identify on the basis of their national, ethnic, religious and linguistic characteristics is related to the obligations of states to ensure non-discrimination against individuals and groups, which is a central principle of international human rights law,” she said.

“I also note that various human rights treaty bodies and intergovernmental bodies, including the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which I chaired for four years and of which I was a member for 10 years, the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly use the term ‘Rohingya’.”

Ms Lee made the comments during her first trip to Myanmar as special rapporteur since being appointed to the position in June. She took over from Argentinean lawyer Tomas Quintana, who had served the maximum mandate of six years and whose later visits had been met with hostility, particularly in Rakhine State. Many media members and government perceived his reports to be biased in favour of Myanmar’s Muslim community, particularly on the issue of Rakhine State and the Rohingya.

The government said that it was pleased by Ms Lee’s recognition of the Rakhine community, which it said Mr Quintana had “consistently ignored”.

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