Opinion: Pope Francis shouldn’t have said ‘Rohingya’

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What’s in a name? A debate over meaning and interpretation is swirling around the Rohingya refugee crisis. Even before he departed for Myanmar and Bangladesh, Pope Francis was barraged with recommendations on how he should refer to the ethno-religious group widely known as “Rohingya.” But this appellation carries considerable baggage with heavy emotions on each side.

Myanmar’s government has so far refused to grant citizenship to the Rohingya. It views the estimated 1.1 million people as illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar objects to the use of the term “Rohingya” in any UN resolution and says it makes the government’s efforts more difficult in addressing the issue.

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The first camp is the pro-Rohingya faction. Included under this designation is the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army. This militant Islamist group and its followers claim to “defend and protect” Rohingya. The group is connected with a deadly attack on security forces in Rakhine State on August 25. The overwhelming response from Myanmar’s military is what sparked the current refugee crisis.

Another – non-violent – group consists of well-connected and vociferous Rohingya activists, who are conducting a massive media and public relations campaign. In the name of speaking out against what they consider to be genocide, they have not been afraid to publicize what some would consider as “fake news.”

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A third group are the human rights moralists, who are convinced that the Rohingya problem could be solved if principles of universal human rights would just be observed and followed. But this group tends to ignore the historical complexity and depth of the conflict.

All three groups support the Rohingya cause, but each has different means of reaching their goals. Nevertheless, they all called on the pontiff to use the appellation “Rohingya.”

Their opponents in the anti-Rohingya faction vehemently oppose the utterance of the term “Rohingya” by the pope. This group includes racists in Myanmar who do not want to accept that the majority of Rohingya have lived in Rakhine state for generations. They fear the “Islamization” of Myanmar and the eradication of Buddhist culture. This group is joined by ultra-nationalists in Myanmar, which include many Buddhist monks.

The anti-Rohingya group incites resentment against Rohingya and some of them say the military action against Rohingya is too lenient. They even consider the terminology “Muslims of Rakhine State” as an imposition, as it requires saying “Muslims” and “Rakhine” in the same breath. In their perspective, the term “Bengalis” would be more appropriate.

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Standing between these two extremes is a third faction that one could call “realists” or “diplomats.” They walk a fine line, trying to dispel the stereotype of being Western Rohingya sympathizers while avoiding the resentment of Rohingya-haters in Myanmar.

People in this minority faction include former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and the embattled Nobel Prize laureate and civilian leader of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi. By using the very technical terminology “Muslims of Rakhine State,” these centrists are choosing a compromise that attempts to leave the door open for all factions in the conflict.

Unfortunately, Pope Francis used the term Rohingya during his visit to Bangladesh on Friday. With this, he is supporting one faction in the conflict and has lent the authority of the Catholic Church for use under their cause.

By compromising, and not using the term “Rohingya,” the pontiff could have taken a step toward alleviating factional tension. This chance has been squandered. However, the important thing to remember is that this controversy isn’t about designating a group of people as “Rohingya.” This is about giving people the chance to live a humane existence regardless of their ethnicity, religion, language, skin color – or name.