Even with social media boost, big challenges ahead for Rohingya advocates


A social media campaign to bring awareness to a heavily persecuted Muslim minority in Myanmar, also known as Burma, has borne some fruit: In his official visit to the country last week, President Obama took a cue from the hashtag #JustSayTheirName and did exactly that.

“Discrimination toward the Rohingya or any other religious minority does not express the kind of country, over the long term, that Burma wants to be,” Obama said at a Thursday news conference in Yangon, where he met with Myanmar opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Human rights activists, for the most part, welcomed Obama’s show of support for the Rohingya. “It was quite a positive, strong statement,” said Mabrur Ahmed, co-director and founder of Restless Beings, a UK-based international nonprofit that aims to give voice to marginalized people. But a social media campaign is not enough, he said; much still needs to be done before the Rohingya and other religious minorities can regain their place as citizens in Burmese society. 

Oppressed and extorted

The Rohingya have faced state-sanctioned discrimination since at least 1962, when dictator Ne Win introduced plans to revoke their rights and began dissolving their social and political organizations, according to the International Observatory on Statelessness. In 1974 the Rohingya were stripped of Burmese nationality, and by 1978, more than 200,000 Rohingya had fled to Banglasdesh. The Citizenship Law introduced in 1982 officially categorized the group as “non national” or “foreign residents.”

Today, the state views all 1.3 million Rohingya from the western state of Rakhine as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, leaving them out of the census, evicting them from their homes and confiscating their lands.

Earlier this year, in a new draft policy called the Rakhine Action Plan, the government proposed to assess the entire Rohingya population’s eligibility as citizens, resettle those who prove qualified and detain the rest. Human rights advocates have condemned the plan, calling it a gross denial of a people’s identity that amounts to ethnic cleansing.

“The plan demands that any Rohingya applying for citizenship must consent to be classified as a ‘Bengali' in accordance with Myanmar's official view of the group,” Emanuel Stoakes, a human rights researcher and journalist, wrote for GlobalPost. “It also states that those ‘without adequate documents’ will be placed in ‘temporary camps’ — a fate that may befall tens of thousands of families, if not more, who do not have government-produced paperwork despite their presence in the country for generations.”

The Rohingya have also been subject to violence from both the military and radical Buddhists. Sectarian riots that broke out in 2012 led to hundreds of casualties, most of them Muslim, and dozens of villages burned.

Since then, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been forced to move into crammed displacement camps that lack even basic health services. Tens of thousands more have fled the country, some even bribing officials to get on overcrowded boats that will take them to Thailand or Malaysia.

“Not only are the authorities making life so intolerable for Rohingya that they’re forced to flee, but they’re also profiting from the exodus,” Matthew Smith, executive director of Bangkok-based human rights group Fortify Rights, told The Guardian. “This is a regional crisis that’s worsening while Myanmar authorities are treating it like a perverse payday.”

Slow progress

Even as humanitarian groups fight for the Rohingya’s right to citizenship, a pressing health issue is arising in the displacement camps where hundreds of thousands of Muslims are living in deteriorating conditions. Al Jazeera reports that the Rohingya are not allowed to leave the camps without permission, and most of them are unemployed and rely on World Food Program rations.

Health care has been almost nonexistent in the displacement camps since February this year, when the government expelled the medical nonprofit Médicins San Frontiéres – the largest health services provider in Rakhine – (MSF) after volunteers with the charity said they had treated people that they believed were victims of sectarian violence. Weeks later, more than 700 aid workers also left the country after Buddhist gangs attacked their homes and offices, according to The Washington Post.

The result is a health crisis on top of the existing humanitarian one.

“We need [non-government organizations] back there,” said Ahmed, who through Restless Beings has worked to give voice to the Rohingya for almost a decade.

The final goal, however, is still recognition of the Rohingya as citizens, he said – and advocates can’t lose sight of that.

The viral campaign supporting the Rohingya’s cause and the resulting condemnation of the Myanmar government from the international community are proof of some progress. Though social media itself has few tangible effects on a humanitarian issue, Ahmed said, the awareness that a campaign such as #JustSayTheirName generates can result in political pressure in the right places – pressure that could eventually lead to real change.

“It doesn’t mean that tomorrow Obama will say, ‘I had a word with the Myanmar president and everyone’s going to live happily ever after,’” Ahmed said. “But just mentioning the word is a huge step forward.”

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