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Opinion

RB
Ramzy Baroud
December 7, 2017

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Say the word

Say the word

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, he 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 aspirations.
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.”
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 altogether.
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”, reported the 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 from 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.

This has been excerpted from the article: ‘Say the Word’: What the Rohingya Struggle is Really About.’
Courtesy: Counterpunch.org

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