Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Origin of ‘most persecuted minority’ statement unclear

The Rohingya of Rakhine State have been the subject of increased media coverage over the past two years, due in large part to the relaxation of censorship and outbreaks of deadly communal violence.

A Muslim woman cleans dishes outside her tent in the Mizigawon IDP camp in Rakhine State. (Aung Htay Hlaing/The Myanmar Times)A Muslim woman cleans dishes outside her tent in the Mizigawon IDP camp in Rakhine State. (Aung Htay Hlaing/The Myanmar Times)

One phrase in particular that has been pervasive in media reports on the Rohingya, who are usually referred to as Bengalis in Myanmar, states that they are “described by the UN as among the most persecuted minority groups in the world”. While few would argue that conditions for Muslims in Rakhine State are extremely dire, it is unclear whether the UN has ever made this statement.

The point was raised in a recent statement by Network Myanmar, a non-profit group based in the United Kingdom.

The UN spokesman in Yangon, U Aye Win, said that he had been asked about the statement by colleagues and “to my knowledge, none of the papers that I came across has used this expression”. He said he had not looked into it because until now “no one has raised anything about the use of this expression”.

A review of the “Collected reports to the UN General Assembly by the Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Myanmar”, compiled by the Online Burma/Myanmar Library and last updated in February 2009, found that the comprehensive collection made no mention of the Rohingya as one of the world’s most persecuted minorities.

The phrase, nonetheless, has become a popular one among media outlets reporting on the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State.

On April 22 the British Broadcasting Corporation published a piece titled “Q&A: Communal violence in Burma” in which it said, “The United Nations describes the Rohingya as a religious and linguistic minority from western Burma. It says the Rohingya are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.”

An April 23 report on Al Jazeera, “Report documents ‘Rohingya persecution’,” similarly stated, “The UN has described the Rohingya as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.”

News agency Agence France-Presse has also used the UN description regularly in stories filed about the Rohingya in recent years.

Politicians have also evoked the UN “statement” when expressing concern over the situation in Rakhine State.

In June, a British member of the European Parliament and vice president of the European Parliament for Democracy and Human Rights, Edward McMillan-Scott, said that“the UN classes the Rohingya Muslims as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world”. In an opinion piece for The Huffington Post the same month, the British shadow minister for international development, Rushanara Ali, also used the line: “Stripped of their Burmese citizenship in 1982 and subjected to shockingly discriminatory laws and practices, the minority Muslim Rohingya community in Burma has been described by the United Nations as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world.”

How did the UN become attached to the statement? It is difficult to say and unclear when the term was first used. A 2006 BBC report from Mike Thompson titled “Burma’s forgotten Rohingya” said “they have been called one of the world’s most persecuted people”.

Called by whom? Somewhere along the way it seems that it became the UN, giving the statement an air of international authority. Though there is no doubt that the Rohingya are suffering extreme persecution, when and if the UN has ever said so remains in doubt.