YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's minority Rohingya Muslims are among the most persecuted people on earth, and advocates of their cause were hoping President Barack Obama would not only press the issue during his visit this week — they were hoping he would simply say their name.
On Friday, the last day of his trip, he finally did — uttering the word publicly for the first time on his three-day visit at a news conference with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
"Discrimination against the Rohingya or any other religious minority does not express the kind of country that Burma over the long term wants to be," Obama said, in response to a reporter's question about the status of reforms in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Myanmar's government views the estimated 1.3 million Rohingya — living in dire, segregated conditions in western Rakhine state — not as citizens, but as illegal migrants from Bangladesh encroaching on scarce land. For that reason, they say the Rohingya ethnicity does not exist.
In a bid to draw attention to the issue, the U.S. advocacy group United to End Genocide launched a social media campaign titled #JustSayTheirName, and thousands of people have signed an online petition and tweeted photos of themselves holding placards with the slogan on social media.
During a private meeting with President Thein Sein on Thursday which focused largely on the Rohingya's plight and a need for constitutional reforms ahead of 2015 elections, Obama used the word "Rohingya" multiple times and did so purposefully, according to a senior U.S. official who spoke only on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to comment by name.
But in his public opening statement, Obama did not specifically mention the Rohingya, referring only to the "terrible violence in Rakhine state."
During his last trip in 2012, Obama employed the word in a speech at the University of Yangon as he pressed Myanmar's leaders to end violence and consider granting them citizenship. Supporters applauded the move. Myanmar's government bristled.
The United Nations describes the Rohingya as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, and human rights groups say they comprise one of the world's largest stateless groups. Over the past two years, their plight has deteriorated markedly, with 140,000 trapped in crowded, unsanitary camps and more than 100,000 more fleeing as refugees in flimsy boats. Hundreds have been killed in mob attacks, and an unknown number have died at sea.
Although many Rohingya arrived in Myanmar generations ago, the government and most residents of Rakhine state insist they are ethnic Bengalis from Bangladesh — which also denies them citizenship. In Myanmar, neither 'Rohingya' nor 'Bengali' are counted as one of the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups.
Since the start of this year, Myanmar's government has stepped up pressure on foreign officials not to use the word "Rohingya."
Pitman reported from Bangkok.