U.S. Journalist Involvement

Rohingya refugee boat found drifting in the Andaman Sea by New York Times reporter
Rohingya refugee boat found drifting in the Andaman Sea by New York Times reporter

By spring of 2015, major Western news outlets had become invested in the stories of Rohingya refugees and were sending journalists to Myanmar and Thailand to gather stories and information. In May of 2015, American and British journalists in Thailand were reporting on boats of Rohingya people fleeing from Myanmar that were being turned away from the coast of Thailand.

On May 14th , 2015, a refugee boat was spotted floating in the Andaman Sea between Myanmar and Thailand carrying several hundred people. Earlier calls from a single cell phone on board the boat had been recorded by Chris Lewa, an activist, who was collecting calls from refugees on board the boat who were desperate for food, water, and rescue. She communicated the calls she had received to a New York Times journalist who was in Thailand working on the Rohingya crisis. The reporter contacted the cellphone carrier of the refugee phone in an attempt to locate the boat through, however he was denied access to the records. The reporter, Thomas Fuller, then asked the Thai Navy for aid and was able to get the records necessary to locate the boat.

The Thai Navy, launched a boat to go meet the refugees and a Thai officer told the Times reporter that the press was not allowed. However, a New York Times news teams and a BBC news team were able to take a speedboat out to the refugee boat anchored about 10 minutes from shore. Asides from local fishing boats, the reporters had the only other boat there. They threw extra water bottles from their boat to the refugees on board and took photographs and videos of the boat from the water.

The reporters were able to do what the Thai navy was not, which was to locate the boat and go offer assistance. Both the BBC reporters and the New York Times reporters were shocked at the lack of aid and were unable to provide much themselves. On May 14 the Times reporter published his story. A day later he published another story describing his own involvement in helping to locate the boat. The BBC also published a video taken from the water.

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UN response

Over the course of recent years the United Nations has held various meetings and released multiple statements addressing the events surrounding the Rohingyan situation.

Below are the links for UN Documentation over the course of the Last 5 years.

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International Responses to the Rohingya Crisis

Myanmar

Myanmar officials has been fielding questions about the persecution of the Rohingya minority in his country for some time now. In 2009, the then-consul general in Hong Kong wrote a letter to newspapers and other diplomats “addressing concerns over the treatment of refugees from Burma’s Rohingya population” to dissuade them from criticizing the Myanmar government. The letter stated that the Rohingya “are ugly as ogres” and that their skin tone was too dark in contrast to the “fair and soft skin” of other local ethnic groups, concluding that as a result they “are neither Myanmar people nor Myanmar’s ethnic group.” A few years later in 2014, during an interview with the VOA Burmese Service Chief, he stated that this was all a “media fabrication” and the international response “overblown.” “It is just a media story that boat people are fleeing torture,” he said.

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President Thein Sein

As the international spotlight focused more on the Rohingya crisis in May of 2015, naturally the conversation centered even more closely around the responsibility of the Myanmar government. While President Thein Sein did not continue to make such comments, he refused to take responsibility their involvement in the crisis. “We will not accept the allegations by some that Myanmar is the source of the problem” he said. Further, the government refused to attend meetings that mentioned the word ‘Rohingya’ in the invitation. This is in line with this government’s refusal to use this term, using Bengali instead. In fact, they refer to the crisis and ‘the Bengali issue.’ Eventually, under the immense pressure from other nations and international organizations, Myanmar did agree to attend a meeting to be held in Bangkok about this crisis at the end of May, however they did not concede to allow the term ‘Rohingya,’ insisting instead on ‘irregular migrant.’ “They can’t pressure us. We won’t accept any pressure. We need the right approach to resolve the problem” said Mr. Htay of the president’s office.

Myanmar Suu Kyi Silence
Rohingya Refugees

Seventeen countries attended this meeting in Thailand and adhered to the rules set about appropriate language to refer to this group of people. While many other attendees stressed that Myanmar needed to take responsibility, Myanmar representatives and officials repeated that “finger pointing” was not productive. Htein Lin, the head of the Myanmar delegation when on to announce that ‘”every country has its own challenges and they often fall within a domestic jurisdiction. You cannot single out my country.” This was of course, a meeting dedicated to the Rohingya issue. After the meeting, U Zaw Htay, a deputy director general of the Myanmar president’s office announced that ““There is no change in the government’s policy toward the Bengalis.” Instead, local newspapers publicized that officials were able to successfully “refute accusations that the boat people were from Myanmar” at the meetings.

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Aung San Suu Kyi

Much of the backlash has also focused on the lack of response from Myanmar, particularly from Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and Leader of the Opposition. She is celebrated for her commitment to human rights and work towards creating a democracy in Myanmar. Yet, she remains silent on the massive crisis within her own country: the Rohingya crisis. She too, will not even call them by this name. She has done a considerable amount of work that focuses on women, but has nothing to say on the “systematic rape of the Rohingya women caught on the border between their two countries nor the proposed laws requiring a Buddhist woman to obtain permission before marrying a Muslim man.” Articles began to surface with titles like, “Myanmar elections: Aung San Suu Kyi must act to stop the Rohingya Muslim genocide”  and “Why is Aung San Suu Kyi silent on the plight of the Rohingya people?” in publications from countries worldwide. When pressed directly in interviews about the topic, she downplays the events and denies that there is any ethnic cleansing taking place, surely because her political power hinges on this silence.

In November of 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi and her party overwhelmingly won seats in the first freely elected government of Myanmar. It is important to note that because they are not given citizenship, Rohingya people were not permitted to vote in the election. The issues surrounding the crisis were noticeable absent during election time. While Aung San Suu Kyi herself cannot take Sein’s place because she is married to a man with foreign (British) citizenship, the new leader who will take power on April 1, 2016 will certainly face more questions about this ongoing crisis.

Dalai Lama

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Dalai Lama meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi

The Dalai Lama was questioned about the Rohingya Crisis during an interview with The Australian. He urged the Buddhists in Myanmar to “remember the face of the Buddha.” He particularly called on Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel peace prize laureate and Leader of the Opposition in Myanmar, to take acti on and “do something.” He told the newspaper, “I mentioned this problem and she told me she found some difficulties, that things were not simple but very complicated.” Nevertheless, he urges her to use her position of power to help the Rohingya people.

 

Nations with the Highest Populations of Rohingya

Bangladesh

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Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

Bangladesh is certainly closely tied to the Rohingya crisis because the politics surrounding these people in Myanmar insists that they are Bengali people. There are also hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people living in the country. The Bangladeshi government however, shows no sympathy for these refugees. The Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina described these people as “fortune-seekers” and “mentally sick” and expressed concern that they are “tainting the image of the country along with pushing their life into a danger.” In fact, she nearly equates the actions of people fleeing persecution with traffickers who are taking advantage of them and states that both ought to face punishment. She has historically been quoted as denying that the Rohingya people were the responsibility of Bangladesh, stating instead that Bangladesh was “already an overpopulated country.” In the wake of the 2015 crisis, the government announced that they would relocate the Rohingya people living in camps to a small island away from the tourist spot where they were at the time. The Economist writes, this is “consistent with Bangladesh’s long-standing policy of making itself as unappealing as possible as a destination for Rohingyas.”

Pakistan

The Pakistani government condemned Myanmar for their treatment of the Rohingya people and called for the UN and the Organisation of Islamic Countries to work together to resolve the situation. In fact, the senate passed a resolution that used the language of ‘genocide’ to describe the events. Following the recommendations of his ministerial committee, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif reached out to the UN Secretary General and the Security Council for support in this endeavor while his advisor on national security, Sartaj Aziz contacted the OIC in an effort to establish a fund that would provide basic necessities to the Rohingya people. The government of Pakistan further agreed to contribute $5 million in aid that, through the World Food Program, would be distributed to the Rohingya people.

Thailand

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Mass Rohingya Graves in Thailand

Thailand is one of the major places wh ere the Rohingya travel to when fleeing Myanmar. This journey is not often successful. In fact, near the beginning on May 2015, it was reported that authorities discovered numerous mass graves on the border between Thailand and Malaysia. While unlike Indonesia and Malaysia, Thailand did not agree to house the Rohingya people, it did concede that it would not turn people away and would contribute aid.

 

Malaysia

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Prime Minister Najib Razak

In May of 2015, when journalists spotted a stranded boat of Rohingya people and garnered international attention for the crisis, Malaysia was questioned about their own complicity in turning away hundreds of people. Deputy Home Minister Wan Junaidi responded, “What do you expect us to do? We have been very nice to the people who broke into our border. We have treated them humanely, but they cannot be flooding our shores like this. We have to send the right message that they are not welcome here.” However, days later, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that Malaysia would help to deliver humanitarian aid and search for stranded Rohingya people in the Andaman Sea. A statement posted on his Twitter called these actions “basic human compassion.” This is certainly a pressing issue for the nation as one of the primary locations where Rohingya people are trafficked. However, the government is adamant that while they are sympathetic to the needs of these people, they feel unfairly burdened with the responsibility because they are not the “source” of the problem. Prime Minister Najib Razak instead called for a response from larger bodies such as the ASEAN, the United Nations and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Indonesia

In May of 2015 Indonesia announced that it would turn away Rohingya boat that reached it’s shores. However shortly after, the nation agreed to accept 7,000 refugees between itself and Malaysia, likely as a result of international pressure. Indonesia seemed very concerned with resettlement, stressing at the ASEAN meeting that it does not want these refugees to remain there, nor does it want to become a popular transit point. This agreement to accept the Rohingya was under the conditions that it was only for one year and that the international community would contribute financially.

 

Others involved

Philippines

The Philippines has a history of accepting people into it’s borders from Jewish refugees during World War II to Vietnamese refugees during the Vietnam War and pledged to extend the same welcome to Rohingya people who land on their shores. Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr., Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Charles Jose each released statements to this effect, citing their commitment to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons.

Australia

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Rohingya Refugees

Perhaps one of the most famous responses to the Rohingya Refugee Crisis comes from Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott who said, “Nope, nope, nope.” He believed that if he accepted any Rohingya people into his country than he would be encouraging them to “get on the boats,” which according to him, would only worsen the problem. “I’m sorry. If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door” he said. While Australia signed the United Nations Refugee Convention, the nation specifically rejects people who come by sea under this assumption that it encourages smuggling. Abbott instead points the finger at Myanmar (which he calls Burma) and suggests that this nation is solely responsible.

Turkey

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey spoke with Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia and agreed to participate in efforts to help the Rohingya refugees. The Turkish Prime Minister also announced that navy ships were sent into the Andaman Sea to search for Rohingya people. Malaysian news sources responded positively to these developments and framed the Turkish involvement as “lightening the burden” on their own country.

Gambia

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President Yahya Jammeh

Amidst the press frenzy in May of 2015 surrounding this crisis, President Yahya Jammeh of the Gambia offered to take all Rohingya refugees. Despite being a faraway nation, the government felt it was their “sacred duty” to help their “fellow Muslims.” Interestingly, the government of Gambia does not extend the same hospitality to African migrants. The international community was dubious about this statement and many have suggested that by highlighting the nation’s commitment to Islam, Jammeh is looking to garner financial support from Muslim organizations. This is especially compelling in light of the fact that many countries are no longer giving money to the Gambia because of human rights violations perpetrated by the government.

Malala Yousafzai

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Malala Yousafzai

Malala, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and well-known activist, announced in a statement, “today and every day, I stand with the Rohingyas, and I encourage people everywhere to do so.” This is particularly important because not only does she call on world leaders to take action and ensure the safety of the Rohingya people, but she is also incredibly high profile in the west, and thus this statement garnered significant media attention from major news outlets such as TIME Magazine and the Huffington Post.

 

International/Domestic Relations Timeline

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2012

June

President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in Rakhine.

July

-President Thein Sein said to the UNHCR that their government will take on the responsibility for its own ethnic nationalities, but it is “not at all possible to recognize the illegal border-crossing Rohingyas who are not our ethnicity.” Sein then said  that the Rohingya pose a threat to national security and that they should be resettled in any third country that is “willing to take them”.

-Organization of Islamic Cooperation Secretary-General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu condemns repression and human rights violations against Rohingya Muslims.

August

-UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for Myanmar Vijay Nambiar and the UNHCR, call for an impartial investigation into the violence in Arakan/Rakhine state.

October

-Sectarian violence breaks out in nine townships in Rakhine state, causing 35,000 people most of which were Muslim to be displaced.

-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan reported that Myanmar government officials had rejected an offer by ASEAN to open response dialogues between ASEAN, the UN, and the government aimed at quelling the violence in Arakan/Rakhine state.

November

– UNHCR calls asks the Myanmar government to review the 1982 Citizenship Law.

– US President Barack Obama meets with President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi.

 

2013

January

-The World Bank announces that Myanmar’s owed debt to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank have been waived with the assistance of the Japanese government. -Myanmar gets approved for a $440 million credit from the World Bank. The Asian Development Bank grants a $512 million credit.

March

– Violence starts between Buddhists and Muslims in the town of Meikhtila located in the Mandalay region, and sweeps through several other regions, killing at least 40 and displacing another 12,000 people.

-After outbreak of violence president Thein Sein declared a state of emergency in Meikhtila.

April

-European Union lifts sanctions imposed on Myanmar with the exception of the arms embargo and the embargo on equipment.

May

– United States President Barack Obama extends current US imposed sanctions against Myanmar and lifts the 1996 visa ban.

– Government officials in the Maungdaw District of the Rakhine state impose a two-child limit on Rohingyan families.

– Myanmar parliament extends the state of emergency in Meikhtila for an additional 60 days.

– Japanese government backs the progress of Myanmar’s reforms and grants a loan of $504 million (first loan in 26 years) and pardons the remainder of the country’s owed debt,

-Anti-Muslim violence occurs in Lashio, Shan state. The violent Buddhist rioters destroy a mosque, an orphanage and various Muslim-owned businesses, displacing approximately 1,400 Muslim people.

June

-European Union creates a resolution condemning the human rights violations and the rampant violence enacted against the Rohingya Muslims and urges the Myanmar government to take active measures to protect them.

-A Buddhist leaders’ conference in Yangon proposes an interfaith marriage law that would restrict Buddhist women seeking to marry Muslim men. The law would make it necessary to obtain approval from government authorities and require the Muslim man to convert to Buddhism.

July

-President Thein Sein dissolves the border security force, NaSaKa, which has been historically accused of committing human rights violations against the Rohingya mostly in the form of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest and detention, and torture.

– President Thein Sein lifts the state of emergency in Meikhtila, stating that the situation there has been stabilized.

August

-Buddhist rioters burn down dozens of Muslim-owned homes and shops in Kanbalu.

October

– Violence at the end of September particularly targeted toward the Muslim population in Thandwe spreads to various other villages in the Rakhine state. Reports found that at least 480 people were displaced, while at least 5 people were killed and 110 homes were burned down.

– President Thein Sein claims that the government will use all means necessary without prejudicial bias based on race/ethnic/religious background to restore peace and stability in Rakhine state

November

-A boat with over 70 Rohingya fleeing persecution capsizes at sea off the coast of Sittwe. Only 8 survive the catastrophe.

 

2014

January

-In the Du Chee Yar Tan village of the Maungdaw Township in the Rakhine state eight Rohingya Muslims are attacked and killed by local residents.

– After a series of violent clashes between Buddhist and Rohingya groups in the Du Chee Yar Tan village, a police sergeant is killed by the Rohingyas. Buddhist residents and police respond by killing approximately 40 Rohingya men, women and children.

-The Chief Minister of Rakhine State, U Hla Maung Tin, decides to visit the Du Chee Yar Tan village to look into recent violence outbreaks. He ends up dismissing the “false news published and aired by foreign media that children and women were killed.”

April

-In the northern region At least 22 people are killed in fighting between government troops and ethnic Kachin rebels

May

– US extends sanctions for another year, stating that despite the recent  governmental reforms, human rights abuses and unjust military influence on politics and the economy persist.
October
– Parliamentary elections are set for October/November 2015.
-Government announces release of 3,000 prisoners. Officials state that most are petty criminals, but include ex-military intelligence officers.

2015

March

– A draft agreement on ceasefire is signed between the government and 16 rebel groups.

May

– Hundreds of Muslim Rohingyas migrants attempt to flee by sea via unstable boats, along with migrants from Bangladesh.

UN criticizes failure of southeast Asian states to rescue migrants lost at sea

August

– Intense floods affect large portions of low-lying parts of country, killing 103 people and displacing a million others.

November

– Opposition National League for Democracy – led by Aung San Suu Kyi – wins enough seats in parliamentary elections to form a government.

-Rohingya were not part of the election process due to citizenship status.

 

2016

March

-Suu Kyi is blocked from assuming office due to her marriage with a non-citizen

-Myanmar parliament will conduct a vote for the next president

April

-New president elect will assume office.

 

 

U.S. Governmental Responses

Summary of U.S. Governmental Assistance to Burma in the past 3 years

Since 2012, the United States has provided over $500 million to support Burma’s transition, advance the peace process, and improve the lives of millions, including by assisting communities affected by violence and combating hate speech and communal violence.

More than 1.1 million people have improved food security, and over 300,000 impoverished farming families have increased their agricultural productivity with better access to technology, markets and new investments.

New entrepreneurs are benefiting from the economic reform process, which has increased access to information and communications technology.

Over 20 public-private partnerships with leading U.S. corporations, information and communications technology companies, and foundations work to develop small and medium enterprises, improve healthcare, and bring new technologies to Burma.

In preparation for the historic elections in 2015, the United States trained more than 7,300 political party members and partnered with over 300 civil society organizations on voter education and observation, strengthening public participation in Burma’s overall reform process.

In Fiscal Year 2015, the United States provided more than $50 million to address humanitarian needs in Burma, including among internally displaced persons throughout the country and vulnerable Burmese refugees and asylum seekers in the region.

In response to the maritime migrant crisis in May and June 2015, the United States provided more than $6 million towards the emergency appeals from the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and helped provide temporary shelter, emergency relief items, and health, nutrition, and psychosocial assistance.

During the heavy seasonal rainfall in July and August 2015 and Tropical Cyclone Komen, the United States provided more than $5 million in humanitarian assistance to all affected communities, working with local officials and international relief partners to distribute essential supplies and services to the emergency shelters in the worst-affected areas and assist in early recovery efforts.

US Governmental Responses to Crisis Timeline

November 19 2012

Barack Obama meets with President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi, becoming the first sitting US president to visit Burma/Myanmar.

During this visit, the Burmese government made 11 specific commitments to strengthen human rights protections, including reforms related to religious freedom, political prisoners, conflict mitigation, ethnic reconciliation, nonproliferation, good governance, and human trafficking.

May 2 2013

-Under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, Barack Obama notified Congress to extend for one more year the national emergency with respect to Burma.

-The Secretary of State also terminated the Presidential Proclamation 6925 which was the 1996 visa ban. The U.S. Government took these measures to encourage and strengthen the reform process in Burma.

-In addition to these sanctions, the U. S. Government increased their support of programs by increasing budget that advanced democratic reforms, promoting national reconciliation, and facilitating broad-based economic growth in Burma.

May 7 2014

Passed House amended (H.Res.418):

-Recognizes the initial steps Burma has taken in transitioning from a military dictatorship to a quasi-civilian government, including the conditional release of some political prisoners, and calls for more progress to be made in critical areas of democracy, constitutional reform, and national reconciliation.

-Calls on the government of Burma to: (1) end persecution and discrimination of the Rohingya people, recognize the Rohingya as an indigenous ethnic group, and resolve their citizenship status; and (2) ensure respect for human rights for all ethnic and religious minority groups within Burma.

-Calls on the United States and the international community to put pressure on Burma to end the persecution and discrimination of the Rohingya population and to protect the fundamental rights of all ethnic and religious minority groups in Burma.

-Calls on the United States to prioritize the removal of state-sanctioned discriminatory policies in its engagement with Burma.

November 2014

-President Obama attended the ASEAM Summit in Naypyitaw, Burma and met with President Thein Sein and NLD Chair Aung San Suu Kyi. In each meeting Obama reiterated the U.S.’s commitment to stand with the Burman people as they seek reform to help the country realized its full potential as a peaceful democratic and prosperous country.

-Obama raised concerns about the need to address human rights and humanitarian issues, specifically addressing the Rahkine State, which pose serious challenges to Burma’s reform process.

-In response, the Burmese government acknowledged that there is still a lot of work to be done but reiterated their dedication to work with the U.S. to continue their process of democratic reform.

November 14 2014

NY TIMES Article referenced Obama’s meeting with San Suu Kyi

-Obama shows full support for Myanmar’s steps towards reform but also states that Myanmar is falling short on some key respects such as its refusal to amend a constitutional provision that makes Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi ineligible to run for president and its unwillingness to curb the violence against the Muslim Rohingya minority in the country’s west.

-Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi addressed her remarks of the U. S. being too optimistic about the progress of Myanmar’s transition and instead was thankful for U.S.’s support.

 

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President Obama and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar opposition leader, after a news conference in Yangon on Friday. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/15/world/asia/obama-aung-san-suu-kyi-myanmar.html?_r=0
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President Obama met with Burmese youth Friday at Yangon University. Myanmar’s leader, Thein Sein, has been pursuing political and economic reforms. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/15/world/asia/obama-aung-san-suu-kyi-myanmar.html?_r=0

May 20, 2015

Washington called on the nations of Southeast Asia to join their forces and help Burmese and Bangladeshi migrants who have been stranded at sea for weeks.

Then the U.S. State Department criticized Burma, officially called Myanmar, for failing to address the main cause of the crisis which stems mostly from the government’s refusal to recognize Muslim minority as lawful citizens.

June 2015

Obama in addressing what is required for Myanmar to succeed:

“One of the most important things is to put an end to discrimination against people because of what they look like or what their faith is. I think if I were a Rohingya, I would want to stay where I was born. But I’d want to make sure that my government was protecting me and that people were treating me fairly, and that’s why it’s so important, I think, as part of the democratic transition, to take very seriously this issue of how the Rohingya are treated.” -Barack Obama

Social Media Involvement

The sharing of photographs on various social media platforms has been a defining aspect of dialogue surrounding the various refugee crises of the 2010s, and the Rohingya crisis is no exception.  In 2015, activist group United to End Genocide launched a social media campaign in support of the Rohingya based around the hashtag #JustSayTheirName and intended to protest Myanmar’s refusal to recognize the Rohingya as an ethnic group.  Even President Obama lent his name to the Rohingya cause as manifested on social media: in November 2015, during a visit to Myanmar, the president repeatedly used the word “Rohingya,” and United to End Genocide confirmed with “senior white house officials” that the President had been influenced by the #JustSayTheirName campaign. However, there is also another side to the social media activism inspired by the Rohingya crisis; 2015 also saw a phenomenon in which pictures found on social media and attributed to the Rohingya crisis were discovered to be completely unrelated to the crisis or to the Rohingya people at all.  The BBC’s blog BBC Trending published a comprehensive roundup of these misattributed photos.  Their findings include: an image of “Buddhist monks standing among piles of body parts” said to be those of Rohingya people that was actually taken after a Chinese earthquake in 2010, a photograph of a badly injured man identified as a Rohingya victim of abuse who is actually a Tibetan activist who set himself on fire as part of a Chinese political protest in 2012, and an image of a man riding a motorcycle over the outstretched arms of supposedly Rohingya children—the man is actually a martial arts trainer in India, and the children are students participating in his stunt show.  Posted by people who intend to show their support for the Rohingyas on social media by expressing indignance at violence, these misattributed images show the flip side of social media’s impressive yet unwieldy reach as illustrated by Obama’s endorsement of the #JustSayTheirName campaign.

Representations of the Rohingya Refugee Crisis in the U.S. Media

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Source: CNN

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.