Rohingya children play by a relief tent at Bawdupah's Internally Displaced People camp on the outskirts of Sittwe. Photo: Soe Than Win/AFP/Getty Images
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The Rohingya crisis in Burma has become “a protracted, squalid, stateless status-quo”

The status of Burma’s Rohingya people has devolved to the point where even naming them has become controversial. We need to do more.

Last month Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Burma (also known as Myanmar), criticised the Burmese government’s attitude towards its own Rohingya people. In Burma’s Rakhine province, there are currently more than one million Rohingya – an Islamic ethnic group – living in apartheid-like conditions.

Don’t feel too guilty if you don’t know much about this humanitarian crisis; coverage in the mainstream western media has been gradually tailing off since 2012. What you should be made aware of, though, is the fact that the Rohingya were previously recognised as the most persecuted people in the world. Just let that sink in. It has actually been possible to identify one ethnic group as the world’s most persecuted people.

But on Wednesday, rather than address its deliberately poor handling of the crisis, Burma’s ministry of foreign affairs issued a statement saying it “unequivocally” rejected the term Rohingya and labelled it “terminology which has never been included among over 100 national races of Myanmar”. The ministry went on to accuse Lee of exceeding her jurisdiction, warning that insistence on using the term Rohingya would make the current crisis more difficult to address.

The Burmese government is complicit in the persecution of the Rohingya, a group it declared stateless through the passing of the country’s 1982 citizenship law. With that law, the Burmese government effectively declared the Rohingya to be illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh. Subsequently, Burmese officials have made it impossible for them to seek any help and now, following clashes with Burmese Buddhists in 2012, 140,000 Rohingya currently live in displacement camps.

“The displacement camp is no different to a concentration camp,” says Nurul Islam, chairman of the London based Arakan (Rakhine) Rohingya National Organisation (ARNO). Formed in 1998, ARNO campaigns for the self-determination of the Rohingya within the Burmese federation, as well as the repatriation of displaced peoples and “the establishment of a welfare society based on equality, liberty, democracy, human rights and freedom for all peoples”.

While the crisis has been on-going for the last five decades, Islam says that the Rohingya are now waiting for the rest of the world to increase pressure on the Burmese government. “[The Burmese government] are persecuting their own people,” he says. “It is now up to the international community to help us. People are dying; all the ingredients for genocide are in place – a slow genocide is taking place in Burma.”

David Mathieson, a senior research for the Human Rights Watch in Burma, explained that through rejection of the term Rohingya the Burmese government are perpetuating a culture of violence against its own people. “[This] is a betrayal of the principle of self identity, and has acted to justify decades of appalling violence and repression,” Mathieson says.

“This denial has been exacerbated by growing numbers of international donors, diplomats and dubious analysts and experts who kowtow to Rakhine extremists and government hardliners like callow collaborators.

So what needs to happen? Well, most importantly, western governments need to be more vocal in their condemnation of the crisis as it stands. Military aid, supplied by countries including the UK, should of course be halted. We need sanctions and, most importantly, our politicians must use the term Rohingya. Loudly.

Both Islam and Mathieson are vocal in their condemnation of nations that have not spoken out about the rejection of the term Rohingya, describing it as “tantamount to being a co-conspirator in ethnic cleansing”. As Mathieson says, the crisis has turned into “a protracted, squalid, stateless status-quo”; it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to do more to bring about a swift resolution.

Follow Oliver Griffin on Twitter @OliGGriffin

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Lord Geoffrey Howe dies, age 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.