The genocide of over 600,000 people is occurring under the noses of the public, and lack of widespread media coverage may be to blame.
By Alexa Fults
“Who here has ever heard of the Rohingya?”
A single hand ascended in response to Dr. Tam Parker’s question. The lonely hand belonged to me, a student of both Dr. Parker and Dr. Amy Patterson. It was in Dr. Patterson’s World Politics class that I first learned of the Rohingya, a heavily persecuted minority suffering at the hands of Myanmar’s military government. Despite being an avid reader of several major news sources, I would have likely stood alongside my peers in blissful ignorance to the slaughter of thousands without the exposure provided by these professors.
Unbeknownst to the majority of our student population and perhaps the majority of students across the world, a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing” is transpiring in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar according to a statement made by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. The crisis began gaining media attention with news of an attack on Myanmar’s security forces, which was orchestrated by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on August 25, 2017. The retaliatory measures taken by this Rohingya resistance group in response to the mistreatment of their people gave the military government the leverage needed to launch its premeditated campaign of systematic ethnic-cleansing against the Rohingya.
The crisis stemmed from underlying tensions between the country’s Muslim minority and its Buddhist majority. Despite evidence of their presence in the Rakhine State for centuries, the government of Myanmar refuses to acknowledge the Rohingya’s citizenship and recognizes them only as illegal immigrants from the neighboring Muslim country of Bangladesh.
The etymology of “Rohingya” means “natives of Arakan,” which was the name of the Rakhine State’s former kingdom. Regardless of this knowledge, the government wrongly claims the Rohingya people are ineligible for citizenship under the Citizenship Law of 1982, which was drafted by the military, and defines citizens as those who settled within Burmese borders by 1823.
This political and religious division has brought the brutal and methodical perpetration of what could arguably be considered genocide and has resulted in the well-documented displacement of over 600,000 Rohingya. According to The Independent, these atrocities occur through government-sanctioned “area clearance operations” designed to rid Myanmar of its Muslim minority. The Rohingya are subject to brutal acts of sexual violence, assault, and mass murder on part of the military government of Myanmar, which are clear violations of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Myanmar has both signed and ratified the 1948 treaty, binding the government to convention guidelines and rendering it culpable for disobedience.
State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Laureate and supposed pro-democracy activist, claims reports of such accounts are an inaccurate representation of her government, which has no intentions of genocide. Nevertheless, this display of satisficing does not compensate for the massive loss of life occurring directly under our noses while the news cycle reflects the media’s fixation on Malia Obama’s private life and the latest royal engagement. Though the crisis has been covered repeatedly by major news sources like The New York Times and The Washington Post, the news cycle still appears preoccupied with more “popular” stories.
Mandy Tu (C’21), an international student from Myanmar, explained how many Burmese feel this government-inflicted violence is justified because of a deep-seated racism carried by the Buddhist nation against its Muslim people. Tu could not recall a time when Muslims were not ostracized in Myanmar. Deeply saddened by the actions and inactions of her country’s government, Tu offered wise advice for her fellow Sewanee classmates. She urges us to educate ourselves, to be knowledgeable of what is happening in our world, and to stand against cruelty with kindness in our hearts to prevent crises like the Rohingya’s from occurring elsewhere.