1. Home
  2. Asia
  3. Myanmar

Why aid groups, and Rohingya themselves, should stop using the term ‘stateless’

‘It is very important that the international community knows… that they belong to the state and the state belongs to them.’

Rohingya refugees hold placards at the Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, to mark the fifth anniversary of their flight from neighbouring Myanmar to escape a 2017 military crackdown, on 25 August 2022. Rafiqur Rahman/REUTERS
Rohingya refugees hold placards at the Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, to mark the fifth anniversary of their flight from neighbouring Myanmar to escape a 2017 military crackdown, on 25 August 2022.

The use of the terms “stateless” or “statelessness” when referring to the Rohingya population is demotivating and inaccurate, says Aung Kyaw Moe, who serves as a human rights advisor to Myanmar’s National Unity Government –  the civilian government-in-exile formed in the wake of the February 2021 military coup. He’s calling for aid organisations to stop using the nomenclature and for all Rohingya to admonish its use.

“We belong to Myanmar and Myanmar belongs to us, and we existed prior to Myanmar in the region, and so calling us stateless is not the appropriate term,” Aung Kyaw Moe, who is originally from Rakine state and a Rohingya himself, told The New Humanitarian.

Read more: For Rohingya refugees, rising dangers and a long road to repatriation

More than 700,000 Rohingya escaped to Bangladesh in 2017, fleeing a brutal military-driven campaign of ethnic cleansing and years of intercommunal violence. In Cox’s Bazar, they joined hundreds of thousands who had already crossed the border. Today, approximately one million Rohingya live in Bangladesh’s cramped refugee camps and small villages, while another 400,000 have sought refuge in nearby Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, and India. 

Citizenship has been denied to those remaining in Myanmar, as per the 1982 citizenship law – which grants citizenship to 135 other national ethnic races, but excludes Rohingya. This has left many without access to basic rights, including freedom of movement, healthcare, education, and work. 

“But just because citizenship has been legally taken away from the Rohingya doesn't mean that they are stateless,” Aung Kyaw Moe said. 

Aid organisations such as the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), Médecins Sans Frontières, and Save the Children regularly use the term as they raise awareness of the situation and publicise their work in supporting the displaced population.

But Aung Kyaw Moe said the term discourages him as a primary victim of the situation. “My family has lost everything that we had in 2017 when the whole village was burned down… Hearing that [term], doesn't give courage to the victims.”

Speaking from an undisclosed location – since the military coup in February 2021, junta forces have killed over 2,000 people, including political prisoners and pro-democracy activists – Aung Kyaw Moe explained the repercussions incorrect language in the humanitarian space can have and how, aside from altering their terminology, aid agencies should be supporting the Rohingya all these years on.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The New Humanitarian: You’ve previously spoken out about your dislike of the use of the term “stateless” when referring to the Rohingya. Why don’t you think the term applies in this context?

Aung Kyaw Moe: I think the term “statelessness” is a sexy term for mandated organisations like UNHCR. Of course, they are one of the expert agencies that have expertise and resources to tackle complex refugee issues, but I think we need to have a sense of integrity in decreasing the sense of exclusion from society… It is very important that the international community knows, and Rohingya people themselves know, that they belong to the state and the state belongs to them, and that that's promoted at all levels.

The New Humanitarian: Are there many others you believe share your opinion on the use of the term?

Aung Kyaw Moe: I don't know how popular it is, but… I think all Rohingya should deny the term “statelessness”. Instead, if we're in the country, we are oppressed survivors of a genocide and of systematic destruction of our culture and language. We have survived these things and we are resilient. What happened to us is illegal, including the taking back and the denial of the citizenship card despite having all the other documentation that's required.

It's something that all Rohingya should be opposing; claiming that the state belongs to us. There are generations and generations of people that have evidence. Infrastructure and architecture exists in Rakhine state that shows the Rohingya existed 300, 400, and 500 years ago, so taking away citizenship or denying the issuance of citizenship papers is a crime. 

By saying “stateless”, we are neutralising. There is a process that you [need to do if you] want to be part of the state. We don't need to be verified. We are already verified. The amount of information that the government has related to each Rohingya individual is far more than what’s needed to get any citizenship anywhere else. In the United States and anywhere else in the world, you don't need that amount of information to be a citizen.

The New Humanitarian: What terminology do you feel organisations should be using instead?

Aung Kyaw Moe: Rohingya, those who are in Bangladesh, fall comprehensively under the definition of the refugee, so calling them refugees is the best term. Those who remain in Myanmar are Myanmar citizens… After the 1982 citizenship law, people who returned their registration cards received national security cards, but for the Rohingya, they were replaced with a temporary registration card, which also doesn't define you as stateless. We have [a] census, and stateless people do not have any census.

The New Humanitarian: How does this incorrect use of language impact members of the Rohingya community on an individual level? Does it impact the level of support that the Rohingya receives?

Aung Kyaw Moe: It doesn't have a direct impact, but it does have a lot of indirect impact. First and foremost… calling someone stateless [impacts their morale]. Instead, if you tell them, “you belong to a state and the state belongs to you, and your citizenship was taken away and you still belong to a state, you live there, or you escaped because you were going to be killed”, that gives you hope, motivation, and moral support to those who survived this horrible genocide.

The New Humanitarian: Are there other terms or language that you think needs to be changed when thinking about the Rohingya?

Aung Kyaw Moe: There are some agencies that use the term Muslim. Muslim is global term that represents a global community; those who believe Islam. It's a religious identity. Putting a religious identity on an ethnic group is absolute nonsense. We shouldn't be called Muslims. We are Rohingya. Like any other ethnic group in Myanmar, we should be called what we are rather than the imposed terminology by others against us.

The New Humanitarian: Over the past several months, conversations have been ramping up about the voluntary repatriation of members of the Rohingya community. Do you think that that's a viable option at this time? 

Aung Kyaw Moe: Any durable solutions that are proposed, like the treaty UNHCR proposed, are not applicable in the given context of Myanmar. First, dignified voluntary repatriation to Myanmar is not a viable option because the situation remains the same as the one… where more than 7,000 people jumped into the sea trying to survive the indiscriminate brutal attacks by the military at that time. Given what I have said, the situation doesn't allow for that to be an option that's realistic and feasible for multiple reasons. Of course, the larger political landscape in Myanmar has shifted.  

The New Humanitarian: With all that in mind, what do you think the solution is?

Aung Kyaw Moe: The Rohingya situation needs to be solved hand in hand with the democratisation process in Myanmar. If Burma does not become a democratic country and remains under this dictatorship with all these fights going on across the country and Rohingyas [go] back, it's as if they are going back to the gate [from which] they escaped. 

Edited by Abby Seiff.

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.