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Five Reasons No One Cares About the Rohingya

Five Reasons No One Cares About the Rohingya

If you paid especially close attention to the news these past few weeks, you might have caught some fleeting mention of the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar.

Considering how little the American media, and to only a slightly lesser extent their international counterparts, have covered this latest outbreak of violence between Buddhist nationalists and minority Rohingya Muslims, you are squarely in the majority if you have no idea that dozens have been butchered and hundreds have attempted (unsuccessfully) to flee their homeland.

All while the world remains silent.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The days of mass expulsion and unchecked, government backed aggression was assumed to be a relic of a bygone era. With citizen journalism filling the few gaps overlooked by a 24-hour news cycle, how has the plight of the Rohingya Muslims been largely ignored?

1) Location, Location, Location

For better or worse, the Middle East is an area of the world that garners, even during “normal” times, plenty of coverage and commentary. When extraordinary events occur in the region, they innately draw the world's eyes and ears – and news cameras. 
The same can hardly be said for Southeast Asia. Even with China's ascendancy on the world stage, Americans simply don't care about Asia. In fact, the vast majority of Americans probably couldn't spot Myanmar on a map, given the trouble they have even pointing out nations they're at war with.

What's more, we can't even decide what to call the country. Among the few news reports that have acknowledged the crisis, “Burma” and “Myanmar” were used interchangeably. Given all the media items vying for our scarce time, this added bit of confusion likely undercut whatever traction the story might have otherwise had.

2) No Rohingya Mona Eltahawy

As the ongoing – though, hopefully, close to concluding – crisis in Syria evidences, social media cannot in itself solve all the world's ills. Facebook is not in the business of feeding the hungry and Twitter does not topple dictators. In an age of ever decreasing attention spans, however, these tools expand a story's global mindshare. The more people “like” and “retweet” news of a tragedy, the higher the chances that something will be done about it.

In the case of the Rohingya, there hasn't been anything near the critical mass that the Arab Spring garnered. Part of the reason, as mentioned, is a general dearth of interest in this part of the globe. Just as important, perhaps, is the lack of a Rohingya representative, a Western media darling that, like Mona Eltahawy did with Egypt, presents the crisis in terms that an American audience can understand and sympathize with. In essence, if your not seeing it in your Facebook newsfeed or Twitter stream, don't expect to see it on your nightly news.

3) No Land to Call Their Own

One's mobility, identity and, more importantly, access to rights is fundamentally linked to their national affiliation. As there is hardly a patch of land or water on the globe not claimed by some sovereign nation, the notion of a landless people seems like it should be an anachronism in the modern world. If only that was the case.

The issue of statelessness is all too familiar to Muslims who have for generations witnessed the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation. Yet, in some ways, the Rohingya do not even enjoy the modicum of civil rights afforded to the Palestinians. Since the approximately 800,000 Rohingya living in Myanmar are denied citizenship status by the military government, their land is routinely confiscated, their children are denied any education beyond what they internally receive within the community, adults are denied the opportunity to look for work outside their village, and they can't even marry without getting authorization to do so. As David Camroux, a top commentator on Islam in Asia, succinctly put it: “The Rohingya are the Roma of Asia, nobody respects their human rights.”

4) Getting in the way of “Democracy”

Oftentimes – though, certainly, not always – the West will rally to the aid of oppressed peoples if their oppressor fits the “bad guy” mold. The interventions in Rwanda, Bosnia and Somalia, for example, allowed Western powers to construct a narrative of “good” versus “evil.” When the roles are not so neat, when, for instance, the oppressor is a “necessary evil,” then NATO, the UN, et al. get far more gun shy – witness the past half century of Middle East policy. Just imagine the inertia, then, when the “bad guy” is being billed as the “good guy.”

Prior to this recent outbreak of violence, Myanmar was drawing positive headlines for its “democratic transition.” Over the past year, President Thein Sein has made strides towards greater openness and representation in his country, garnering praise from the international community and audiences with top dignitaries from America and Europe. Within this new democratic paradigm, however, it seems there's no room for the Rohingya.

Top officials and activists in Myanmar have either tacitly or explicitly – more often, the later – shown their disdain for the Rohingya. No less a figure than the president himself openly said the Rohingya are not welcome in his country. Following this declaration, exiled Burmese democracy activists in Japan voiced their support of the president's stance. Perhaps most appalling, however, is the cowardly silence of Myanmar's celebrated Nobel Peace laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, as her country continues its policy of ethnic cleansing.

5) Follow the Money

Shockingly, the world's economic superpowers don't appear to be supportive of Myanmar's “democratic transition” out of reverence for the ideals of freedom and liberty. They would likely be much less enthusiastic about the country's newfound openness if it wasn't for its vast, largely untapped natural resources. Multi-national and sovereign backed corporations are jockeying left and right for a piece of what could be the next big growth story in Asia (the Economist Intelligence Unit estimates an 85% chance for growth to rise 75-100% in the next eight years).

With such heady prospects, it is no surprise that Hilary Clinton's recent visit with Thein Sein, which came two days after the US eased sanctions on Myanmar, was centered on business and long-term investment opportunities rather than ongoing human rights abuses. To be fair, Clinton did bring up the plight of the Rohingya, calling them “internally displaced persons” in an affront to President Sein's call for the UN to resettle the Rohingya outside Myanmar's borders, but the issue was dropped just as quickly at it was raised. We can't have a few thousand ill-treated Asians get in the way of Corporate America's potential windfall, after all.

It has been a few weeks now since the violence in Myanmar reached its peak. Nonetheless, Amnesty International reports that Rohingya Muslims continue to be targeted by the majority Buddhist population in the region. The Rohingya's status is becoming much more precarious with each passing day. How to resolve this matter is debatable, but the first step is for the global community to acknowledge there is a problem. What we certainly cannot do is sit idly by and expect the Burmese government to handle this matter “internally.” If you think that such acquiescence would bring about anything short of genocide, you simply haven't been paying attention.

Sadly, you're not alone.

About Youssef Chouhoud

Youssef is from Brooklyn, New York by way of Alexandria, Egypt. Currently, he is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California studying Political Science and International Relations. A student of Islam, history, and politics, his recent extended stay in Cairo placed him squarely at the nexus of these disciplines. Follow him on Twitter (@TheAlexandrian) as he tries to make sense of all that's happening in Tahrir and beyond.

31 comments

  1. Salaam brother Youssef,

    JazakAllah khairun for this excellent article. Even as far back as 20 years ago, I would remember the Imams in Saudi making duaa in Ramadan for the Muslims of Arakan (the Myanmar state in which many of them live) and wonder “where is that and what’s going on there?”

    The sad thing is that little has changed in all this time…

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    • W/Salam Br. Wajid, In writing this piece, I realized how little (really, nothing) I knew about the Rohingya and the awful things they’ve endured. I was all the more horrified when I realized this was nothing new, that they’ve been systematically abused for decades. It’s a real blight on this ummah that we’ve neglected them for this long.

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  2. Another reason is there is no evidences such mass killed in the Arakan State, Burma. Most pictures that alleged killing are fake and cover up. Now UNHCR is on the ground and delivering aids to IDPs, both Rakhine and Rohingya. Did they say anything about it? The answer is No.. If the government covers up such accused killing of 30,000, there must be evidences and at least words in it. No. They have nothing to prove it.

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  3. BarakAllahu feek for this article – it’s outrageous that we can allow ourselves to be so ignorant and inactive.

    I strongly recommend that, to counter the lack of presence that the Rohingya issue has in the social media field, we all do our best to find resources related to it and share it with everyone we know, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.

    As well, contact your local news outlets (TV, radio, print), and urge them to do their job right, and report this news!

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    • I really wanted to add some action items at the end, it’s just unclear what would be best at this point. Your suggestions, however, seem like good options as what we need now is attention more than anything.

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      • Of course, there is also the obvious – which is to make du’a, especially in these nights of Ramadhan. Please request your imam to include the Muslims of Rohingya in his du’a of witr, along with the Muslims of Syria, Palestine, and other oppressed countries.
        AlHamdulillah, many of the imams here in Kuwait are doing just that.

        I would also suggest contacting an international Islamic charity to see if they are able to provide any sadaqah for humanitarian aid to the Rohingyan Muslims.

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        • That’s a very good point AnonyMouse…I was thinking of starting a weekly Rohingya update on my blog where I can talk about who these people are, the history and include any resources, actions, etc…would love for you guys to help with that? If interested maybe we can start an email chain between us and share these items so I can include these in the blog or if you guys want to share elsewhere too?

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  4. this is sickening! cant believe the buddhists are calling for killing of others just coz the rohingaya are moslems. just like huttu n tutsi, serbs n bosnians, nazis n jews. you guys come to my country n apply for asylum n all kinds of various excuses to stay on my land while u do these kinda killing on other humans speak volumes of your upbringing. scums!

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/burmas-monks-call-for-muslim-community-to-be-shunned-7973317.html

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  5. The hardest thing to accept is the truth, which is noone gives a damn. Plain and simple!

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  6. As salaamu laikum akhi,

    Very informative akhi, well done and much appreciated. It was mentioned that we (Muslims) are hindering the spread of this horrible event by spreading false information (e.g. photos) and I agree 100% this must stop. We are to enjoin good and forbid evil and using even a simple dot of falsehood is not what the Prophet (peace be upon him) taught us.

    That being said, we need to use the networks we are involved in and spread valid information starting with this article.

    Hit those share, like and retweet buttons, and repeat the process every day.

    May Allah protect them and all our brothers and sisters who are suffering, ameen

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  7. Zakat Foundation (zakat.org) cares and doing emergency relief campaign for Rohingya/Arakan Muslims.

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  8. Greetings!
    How blessed you and I are to live in the United States! As a native-born American in Chicago for over six decades, I have had the rewarding, satisfying pleasure of leading humanitarian efforts, participated in fundraising events and supporting missions and children in third-world countries but have, sadly, been witness to more atrocities around the world than I can count, let alone remember. Man’s inhumanity to man still astounds me. But I know that America is a nation of people with good hearts and most are willing to support rights of oppressed people and give financial support to people around the world.
    But I do not understand your approach to your readers in making your points. If you are attempting to convince your readers to wake up and give monetary and other support to an oppressed people, starting out by insulting your American readers’ intelligence seems like a poor approach. Are you intentionally trying to turn off your American audience? You stated, “Americans simply don’t care about Asia. In fact, the vast majority of Americans probably couldn’t spot Myanmar on a map.” What, on earth, does this awful comment have to do with the key points of your article? It is a turn-off to read further. As a retired college prof and mother of 2 sons, 30 and 33, I peg you as a spoiled, rich American college kid. This may come as a surprise to you, but folks my age are typically the ones with the money and influence to actually do something about world injustices and not just tweet and complain to get a grade.
    Have you ever heard of the book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”? Dale Carnegie wrote this book in 1936 and I strongly recommend that you read it.
    PS- my adopted, refugee brother (b.1935) was Croation Roma-

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    • Assalamualaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh

      Thank you. I never actually thought about it like that.

      This doesn’t justify it, but maybe to give you a bit of empathy for us college kids with our college kid attitude.

      I noticed myself recently getting strongly outraged at this news. In fact, when I got outraged, I became even more annoyed at things I wasn’t annoyed at as much. I.E, looking around at how people take things for granted, how I think we Muslims here are exaggerating our problems since compared to others, our difficulties are minute etc.

      It takes another step to realize that I was myself at this level of unawareness and I shouldn’t immediately condemn others for doing nothing but inform them(why they shouldn’t really complain about their problems and why they need to step out of their shells and spend out of their God given resources to help the oppressed and the needy.)

      Not sure if I’m making sense to you but I hope I did.

      Assalamaualaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh

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    • MyNight | ليلي

      Dear Mrs. Maybe he was wrong. But, seriously, if you’re really “folks of your age that typically are the ones with MONEY AND INFLUENCE to actually do something about world injustices and not just tweet and complain to get a grade” then why don’t you actually DO something to help the world injustices, because he is probably still in college and he probably still has a mother to take care. And if you say that he is a spoiled, rich American college kid and he’s doing this by tweeting and complaining to get a grade and that he, if he’s complaining should better go out and help, well youre wrong. Cause he is still a “college kid” probably under the care of his parents. He can’t go out to help because he need his Parents permission, and if his mother doesn’t let, and that his mother is old, he should stay here because serving the mother is obligatory and the best deed to expiate sin. So why can’t you do it, and got talk to the Big Guys if you are folks that have wealth and influences? Hope you understand.

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  9. JazakAllah khairun

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  10. The double standards of the Media. When one person from Israel dies it makes the top stories. But when thousands are been massacred no one talks

    http://www.islamanalyzed.com

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  11. all of u guys are kafeer. bcoz u dont care for another muslim brothers

    u guys only worry abot urself but not others

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  12. Salaam, this is such a nicely written article and thanks for the effort. I have been thinking a lot that this also has to do with the world we are in now post 9/11 where systematically via conditions that have been created around the world, us Muslims have become more passive and more immune to stories. I remember as a kid I saw more united and passionate reactions to any thing that happened in East Timor, Bosnia, Chechnya etc so don’t think its entirely because it’s not the Middle East (although I know ure not saying that either)…but we should be more aware of how psychologically we have been manipulated to a level that unless it is something that matches the Western eye, we as a whole are taking longer to react. It’s also sad that Bangladesh is not opening up its borders to let these people in. Since 9/11 we have been increasingly bashing the Pakistani govt at the time for allowing Afghans in and opening the doors to Talibanism in the country. All of this talk has made us more immune to believing that actually opening our borders is a bad thing and too “islamic” if u know what i mean. Wish we can hover above this and realize what’s happened to us over the last decade and change our ways of thinking and hence our sensitivities.

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  13. Salaam,
    Just spent Ramadhan in Saudi, and during we every witr salaah, du’aa was made by the imams for the muslims of Burma, and Myanmar was mentioned in the Jummah Khutba. Yet being there, I had no idea what was going on in Burma, and it was only when I returned home I looked up the situation on the net, and found out the nature of the situation.

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  14. a lot of Muslim thugs are here. Bunch of stupid idiots follower is Mohammad.

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    • Mr Hlwan Moe and Guest
      This is an intellectual discussion for people who care and want to address the issues the Muslim world is facing. This is not a place to insult people’s faiths and beliefs. Please take that somewhere else where you comments would be appreciated.

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