Since Aug. 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya have fled into neighboring Bangladesh amid gang rape, arson and mass killing. Author Azeem Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy, addressed this and the lack of international attention and resources directed to the Rohingya genocide Thursday at the Ford School of Public Policy to an auditorium of more than 100 attendees.

Ibrahim began his lecture with a quote from Hermann Goering, the Nazi Luftwaffe commander.

“(T)he people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders … All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked,” Ibrahim quoted. Ibrahim explained how the Rohingya, a political and ethnic minority in Myanmar, are easily marginalized. Popular discourse in the country claims that minorities are “not loyal citizens” but “illegal interlopers.”

When talking about the dangers faced by other minorities in Myanmar, Ibrahim said inaction in this situation could lead to ethnic cleansing of other minority groups as well.

“If you allow one genocide to happen, then you open doors to many others,” he said.  

According to Ibrahim, thousands of Rohingyas have tried to escape to Malaysia and Thailand by boat. He said many were promised a future on pineapple plantations, but were instead sold into the shrimp trade. He quoted one Rohingya man who, upon finding out he was sold illegally into the shrimp trade said, “I felt like I should die.” Widely recognized as the most persecuted people in the world, the Rohingyas receive almost no celebrity acknowledgment nor consistent attention from lobbying groups, Ibrahim noted. The U.S. State Department dubbed the crisis an ethnic cleansing this September and an independent United Nations investigation this summer called for military officials in Myanmar to be prosectured for human rights violations, yet no foreign entity has directly intervened in the state’s violent oppression.  

The European Union continued to extend an invitation to the head of Myanmar’s military, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to Europe, which Ibrahim attributed this to the eschewing of the use of terms like “refugees” and “genocide” as the former grants the Rohingya people certain rights, while the latter necessitates international action according to the United Nations Convention on Genocide.

Ibrahim also argued State Counsellor of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi, a former Nobel Peace Prize winner, has served as a shield for criticism against the military. Ibrahim said that when the international community warned Suu Kyi of the ethnic cleansing situation in Rakhine, she responded that ethnic cleansing is too strong an expression to use for what is happening.

Ibrahim said the Western world is surprised by Suu Kyi’s Buddhist ultranationalist side because Western narratives of Suu Kyi have overlooked her beliefs and focused on her identity as the daughter of the founder of Burma, a Nobel laureate and a graduate of Oxford University. The Western world, he offered, conveniently assumes that these people like to believe in democracy and will turn their backward countries into ones that resemble the developed world.

Ibrahim explained the central claim made against Rohingya people is that “Rohingya” is a “manufactured word” and that these people are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and should return to Bangladesh. This refusal to accept the term and the ethnicity has had implications on foreign relations.

“Even the Pope is warned not to use the word,” Ibrahim said.

He refuted these claims by showing documents with the usage of the term “Rohingya” dating back to 1811, and tracing the roots of the group’s persecution go back to World War II. During the Japanese occupation of then-British Burma, the Buddhist nationalist majority believed the Japanese could liberate the country, whereas the Rohingya stayed loyal to the British. Ibrahim said this bitterness escalated during General Ne Win’s rule when the Burmese Way to Socialism was introduced as the state ideology in 1962. As stated by Ibrahim, the differences in language, culture and skin color made Rohingya the “scapegoats of society” under Ne Win’s rule. In 1974, the Emergency Immigration Act designated all Rohingyas as foreigners.

The most modern eruption of violence between the Buddhists and the Rohingyas took place in spring 2012 when the death and rape of a young Buddhist woman blamed on the Rohingyas. In response, Buddhists attacked a bus of Muslims traveling in Rakhine and killed 10 people, leading to a protest.

LSA sophomore Fareah Fysudeen, the Social Justice and Activism Chair of the Muslim Students’ Association — which co-hosted the panel with the Michigan Refugee Assistance Program — said Ibrahim’s discussion taught the Muslim community about the situations in Rakhine.

“A lot of people within the MSA and within the Muslim community don’t know about this so it’s really enlightening to have a speaker here so well-informed to be speaking about it,” Fysudeen said.

Public Health junior Anurima Kumar said she agreed talks like Ibrahim’s are important to attend, but she wants more instruction on how to help improve the crisis.

“After going to all of these talks, I feel frustrated about without having an avenue of what we can do next,” Kumar said. “(But) I think all of us just being here is very important and being educated and bring this conversation to other people on campus.”

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