Violence against the Rohingya people erupted in 2012 after the 2011 political reforms in Myanmar; however, U.S. media attention spiked in May of 2015, as a spike in the mass migration of Rohingyan refugees resulted in an international humanitarian crisis. From surveying the reporting of three mainstream U.S. news sources (CNN, Fox, and MSNBC) throughout 2015 it is clear that the publication of storied covering this crisis peaked in May, when thousands of Rohingyan refugees, often referred to as “boat people,” were stranded at sea, turned away from surrounding nations, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, and found dead in shallow coastline graves dug by human traffickers. The U.S. media mainly focuses on the horrific conditions facing the Rohingya people in Myanmar, the perils they face in their attempts to escape, and the inaction of the surrounding countries that were required by international law to accept them.
On the one hand, these representations evoke empathy for the Rohingyan people. They are portrayed as widely persecuted, denied citizenship, surviving in unlivable conditions, and suffering a range of human rights violations. Articles and news clips describe Rohingyans being: denied work, confined to camps described as “rural ghettos,” lacking access to healthcare and education, and desperately seeking asylum, water, and food as they are stranded at sea for weeks at a time. Some examples of headlines include: “Lost at sea, unwanted: The plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya ‘boat people’” (CNN), “Myanmar’s Rohingya in open jails” (CNN), and “Myanmar: An Apartheid State?” (MSNBC). Photographs and film show desperate looking people packed into overcrowded boats and refugee camps. This language and imagery suggest extreme hardship and calls attention to the deplorable treatment of this minority group.
On the other hand, the representation of the crisis is somewhat reductive as it rarely addresses the drivers of violence behind this crisis. Few stories explicitly name racism or colonialism, and the word “genocide” is hesitantly applied to the situation because it not seen as a direct act of mass killing by the state. While much attention is paid to the lack of response and silence regarding this issue in Southeast Asia, little is said of what the U.S. could do to apply pressure to Myanmar and other governments that persecute the Rohingya people. Moreover, the language of “boat people” conflates this refugee crisis with that of the Vietnamese “boat people” who fled Vietnam between the mid 1970s through the mid 1990s. Overall, the mainstream U.S. media portrayals of this crisis focus on inciting sympathy for the Rohingyans but also err on sensationalizing their oppression through simplified portrayals of their persecution and lacking attention to potential solutions.