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Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi told the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights on Monday that the government will avoid using the term “Rohingya” to describe a persecuted Muslim minority in the country’s northwest, an official said on Monday.
Also on Monday, the top UN human rights official issued a report saying the Rohingya have been deprived of nationality and undergone systematic discrimination and severe restrictions on movements. They have also suffered executions and torture that together may amount to crimes against humanity, the report said.
Members of the 1.1 million group, who identify themselves by the term Rohingya, are seen by many Burmese Buddhists as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The term is a divisive issue.
The UN human rights investigator, Yanghee Lee, met Suu Kyi in the capital Naypyidaw on her first trip to Burma since the Nobel Peace Prize winner took power in April.
“At their meeting here this morning, our Foreign Minister Daw Aung San Suu Kyi explained our stance on this issue that the controversial terms should be avoided,” said Aung Lin, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Suu Kyi is banned from the presidency by the military-drafted constitution because her children have British citizenship. She holds the offices of the State Counsellor and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, but is the de facto leader of the administration.
Feted in the West for her role as champion of Burma’s democratic opposition during long years of military rule and house arrest, Suu Kyi has been criticized overseas, and by some in Burma, for saying little about the abuses faced by the Rohingya.
Possible crimes against humanity
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in the report the Rohingya are excluded from a number of professions and need special paperwork to access hospitals, which has resulted in delays and deaths of babies and their mothers during childbirth.
It was the first time Zeid said these and other long-standing violations could add up to crimes against humanity, an international crime. Crimes against humanity are serious, widespread and systematic violations.
Some 120,000 Rohingya remain displaced in squalid camps since fighting erupted in Arakan State between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012. Thousands have fled persecution and poverty.
“The new government has inherited a situation where laws and policies are in place that are designed to deny fundamental rights to minorities, and where impunity for serious violations against such communities has encouraged further violence against them,” Zeid said.
Reversing such discrimination must be a priority for the new government “to halt ongoing violations and prevent further ones taking place against Myanmar’s ethnic and religious minorities,” Zeid said.
Suu Kyi has formed a committee to “bring peace and development” to the state in May, but its plans are not clear.
On Friday, Burma’s representative to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Thet Thinzar Tun, criticized use of “certain nomenclature” by a UN representative as “adding fuel to fire” and “only making things worse”.
“For the sake of harmony and mutual trust between two communities, it is advisable for everyone to use the term ‘the Muslim community in Rakhine [Arakan] State’,” she said, according to the United Nations.
Suu Kyi said during a visit by US Secretary of State John Kerry last month that the country needed “space” to deal with the Rohingya issue and cautioned against the use of “emotive terms” that she said were making the situation more difficult.
The previous military-linked government of former junta General Thein Sein referred to the group as “Bengalis”, implying they were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, though many have lived in Burma for generations.
Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur, will meet several cabinet members and travel to areas where ethnic armed groups fight the military and sometimes between themselves, including Shan, Kachin and Arakan states.