‘Say the Word’: What the Rohingya Struggle is Really About

By Ramzy
Baroud, Ramzy
Baroud Net
, 6 December 2017. Pope Francis lost a historical opportunity to
truly set his legacy apart from previous Popes. Alas, for him, too, political
expediency trumped all else. In his visit to Burma (Myanmar) on November 27,
refrained from using the
word “Rohingya.”

But what’s in a name?
In our frenzied attempts at understanding
and articulating the plight of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Burma, we often,
perhaps inadvertently, ignore the heart of the matter: The struggle of the
Rohingya is, essentially a fight for identity.
Burma’s Buddhist majority and its representatives,
including the powerful military and the country’s de-facto leader, Aung San Suu
Kyi, understand this well. They use a strictly-guarded discourse in which the
Rohingya are never recognized as a unique group with pressing political
Thus, they refer to the Rohingya as “Bengali,” claiming that the
Muslim minority are immigrants from Bangladesh who entered the country
illegally. Nothing could be further from the truth.
But historical accuracy, at least for the
Buddhist majority, is beside the point. By stripping the Rohingya from any name
affiliation that makes them a unique collective, it becomes possible, then, to
deny them their rights, to dehumanize them and, eventually, ethnically cleanse
them as has been the case for years.
Since August, over 650,000 members of the
Rohingya community have been driven out of their homeland in Burma by a joint
and systematic operation involving the military, the police and various
Buddhist nationalist groups. They call it “Clearance Operations.”
Thousands of Rohingya have been killed in
this grave act of genocide, some in most abhorrent and inhumane ways
The United Nations Human Rights Council
Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has recently referred to the purges in Burma
as a “
textbook example
of ethnic cleansing. There can be no other interpretation of this horrendous
campaign of government-led violence.
But as thousands were pushed into the
jungles or the open sea, the silence was deafening.
Only recently, US Secretary of State, Rex
Tillerson, who visited Burma last November 
decided to label the
massive human rights violations against the Rohingya as “ethnic cleansing.”
Although his statement labeled the
government-centered genocide as “abuses by some among the Burmese military,” it
was still a clear departure from past failure to even address the issue
Still, it was a major disappointment that
the Pope abstained from mentioning the Rohingya by name while in Burma. He only
stated their name when he crossed the border to Dhaka. In Bangladesh, using the
word “Rohingya” seemed like a safe political strategy.
It is understood that refraining from
using the word “Rohingya” while in Burma was done as a “concession to the
country’s Catholics,” 
Washington Post. The logic goes: by challenging the popular narrative that cast
the Rohingya as foreigners, the Pope would have ignited the ire of the
Buddhists against the country’s Christian minority, itself persecuted, at least
in two Burmese states.
If the Rohingya are to be named, it means
that the core of the issue would have better chances of being directly
addressed. The moment they retain their collective identity is the moment that
the Rohingya become a political entity, subject to the rights and freedoms of
any minority, anywhere.
The Pope, as bold as he has been regarding
other issues, has the moral authority to challenge the permeating – yet
disconcerting – narrative in Burma that has dehumanized the Rohingya for
generations. In 1982, the embattled minority group was 
denied the status of
a minority group and was stripped form its citizenship, paving the way for
eventual ethnic cleansing.
Alas, in the end, the Pope joined the
regional and international powers that insist on understanding the Rohingya
crisis outside the realm of political solutions, pertaining to political rights
and identity.
Indeed, he is not alone. ASEAN leaders
meeting in Manila, Philippines mid-November 
made no mention of
the Rohingya by name. Worse, in their 26-page final document, they mentioned
the crisis in the Northern Rakhine State – the epicenter of the Rohingya
genocide – in passing:
“We … extend appreciation for the prompt
response in the delivery of relief items for Northern Vietnam flash floods and
landslides … as well as the affected communities in Northern Rakhine State.”
That is how the Southeast Asian leaders
respond to one of the worse political and humanitarian disasters in Southeast
Asia in recent decades. Pitiful.
Standing proudly in the final photo with
the rest of the leaders was Aung San Suu Kyi, who was promoted by western media
for many years as a “democracy icon.” The “
Lady of Burma” who
challenged the military junta and spent years under house arrest for her
defiance has, in recent years, found a convenient political formula that allows
her to share power with the military.
A political opportunist at best, Aung San
Suu Kyi, too, does not call the Rohingya by their name. Worse, her government
has played a major role in dehumanizing the Rohingya and, at times, blamed them
for their own suffering.
Last September, in a last-ditch effort at
salvaging her tattered reputation, she gave a 30-minute televised speech in
which she explained her position using a most confused logic.
The best she came up with was, “We are a
young and fragile country facing many problems … We cannot just concentrate on
the few.” The “few”, of course, being the Rohingya.
When the Pope arrived in Bangladesh, a man
by the name of Mohammed Ayub was awaiting him as part of a small delegation of
Rohingya refugees.
Mohammed’s 3-year-old son was killed by
the Burmese military. The father’s message to the Pope was not seeking
humanitarian relief for despairing refugees, or even justice for his own child,
but something else entirely.
“He should say the word as we are,
Rohingya,” Mohammed told the Catholic 
Crux Now.
“We have been Rohingya for generations, my father and my grandfather.”
In Dhaka, the Pope attempted to
reclaim that missed opportunity.

“The presence of God today is also called Rohingya,” he said.