International Apathy Towards Rohingya Human Rights

By Katia Altern

UN Human Rights Chief Calls for Investigation

On December 5, 2017, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, called for an international criminal investigation of perpetrators of violence against the minority Rohingya Muslim population in northern Rakhine State.

OHCHR Statement

With the onset of the most recent blatant disregard for human rights in Burma, it has become apparent that Rohingya Muslims are some of the most persecuted people in the world. The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic-minority group that is currently facing an ethnic cleansing. They have lived in Burma for centuries but are not recognized as citizens due to racial discrimination. Despite making up a third of Burma’s population, the government insists that the Rohingya are Bangladeshi or Bengali. The Telegraph reports that since World War Two, they have faced “apartheid-like conditions [that] deny them free movement or state education while government forces intermittently drive out and slaughter them”. In the past decade, the government has banned Islamic holidays, created “Muslim-free zones”, progressively stripped the Rohingya of any civil and political rights, and denied them ID cards and therefore an identity.

Over the past year, the military has become more and more cruel: raping, murdering, burning down entire villages, and ripping Rohingya babies from their mothers’ arms and throwing them into rivers and fires. This brutal violence has been detonated by a long, bitter history of ethnic hatred. The hatred started in World War Two when the Rohingya fought alongside the British and the Buddhists in Burma fought for the occupying Japanese. Both sides brutally massacred each other, including civilians. After the Allies won, the Rohingya hoped to win independence or join Bangladesh, but the British wanted to appease Burma’s Buddhist majority. They decreed that the Rohingya areas would become part of newly independent Myanmar (then called Burma). This set the Rohingya up for decades of discrimination as Burma’s leaders began stripping their rights and blaming them for the country’s shortcomings. The Rohingya were declared illegal migrants who had stolen good land from the peaceful Buddhists. Propaganda incited the people of Burma to see the Rohingya as the “reincarnation of snakes and insects and should be exterminated, like vermin."

Learn about UUSC's work in Burma around advancing the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, particularly the Rohingya.

UUSC Burma Initiative

More than 300,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since August 25th, 2017. Now, Burma has blocked UN agencies from delivering food, water, and medicine to the 250,000 Rakhine residents in the overflowing relief camps. The Dalai Lama told journalists that those Buddhists who are persecuting Rohingya “should remember Buddha” and that “The Buddha would definitely give help to those poor Muslims”. The leaders of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation issued a statement condemning the “systematic brutal acts” against the Rohingya. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is doing their part by building national support in the United States for the bipartisan Burma Act that, if passed, will impose “tough, specific sanctions and restriction on the government of Burma and its military.” It is hoped that this legislation would contribute significantly toward putting an end to the barbarity against the Rohingya.

We like to think of genocides as atrocities of the past; we are unwilling to see that this kind of brutality still occurs with little public outcry. The fact that the vast majority of the world is not informed that this ethnic cleansing is happening right now is perhaps the biggest barrier in the way of aiding the Rohingya. International awareness is a necessary step in mitigating the abhorrent actions the Burma government has conducted; The United Nations can play a vital role in ensuring that the world doesn’t turn a blind eye. The United Nations has taken “20 years to apologize for its failure to recognize and prevent the Rwandan genocide;” the international community has the opportunity to avoid repeating the same mistakes in Burma.

The discrimination faced by the Rohingya is not unique, but rather follows historical patterns of outright racial discrimination that have been seen around the world. Rohingya are being threatened, tortured, and killed for the “crime” of simply having been born. They are an ethnic & religious minority with no economic control, and do not hold any political power. Every single individual is being targeted because they exist-- they are being portrayed as the root of all the problems in society and as standing in the way of creating a wonderful new empire. This same tactic of scapegoating has been seen in the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the Assyrian genocide, the Kurdish genocide, the Herero and Namaqua genocide, the Rwandan genocide, and many others. The elimination of a group’s rights on the basis of an ideology of a racial hierarchy derives from the middle ages, despite evidence that has developed proving race itself to be a social construct.

At the Root of International Apathy: Eurocentrism

Why is it that a large number of people have not heard of this genocide, despite it being eerily similar to other genocides to which the world over and over swears “Never again”? The reason there is very little public outcry about the extermination of an entire people in Burma can be tied to one issue: Eurocentrism. Back in 2014, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar at the time, Tomas Ojea Quintana, stated that these crimes against Rohingya are “crimes against humanity”, yet just like many tragedies before it, it is being eclipsed by other issues that affect white people in the Western world. This can be seen when comparing the attacks on Beirut and Baghdad with the attacks on Paris. On November 12th and 13th, 2015 these attacks were brutal, deeply upsetting, and almost identical; the only difference between them is the level of sympathy and support. The terrorist attacks killed almost the same amount of people in the same way, yet both Beirut and Baghdad received little attention from the world-- even the differences in the length, rhetoric, and first-hand accounts in the articles above reveal the different levels in sympathy. The way that people defended their lack of attention towards Beirut and Baghdad stated that Paris was “more of a tragedy because [Paris is] more sophisticated, [and] more ‘culturally significant’”. Both Beirut and Baghdad are cultural, economic, and communication hubs. Both Lebanon’s and Iraq’s education systems are exemplary and reach all levels of the population, even those in rural areas. There are rich heritage sites all throughout Lebanon that have declared as having “outstanding universal value” by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Similarly, Baghdad was home to flourishing literature, arts, and architecture that reveals the important culture and heritage of the Middle East. But yet, in the eyes of the West, these accomplishments are not nearly as significant as those of Paris.

It is true that attacks in the West gain much more attention due to the infrequency as compared to the recurring issues in the Middle East, but shouldn’t that mean we should pay more attention to the areas that are more heavily affected? Media content has “become almost solely representative of Western news” due to the idea that the Western countries are unable to relate to people on the global scale. Also, Western media decides what is important to the viewers’ ever decreasing attention span, so that often means “fear-mongering political slogans [that replace] anything that requires sustained thought” are focused on because it gets the most attention. This leaves out important issues, like the Rohingya genocide, from being discussed or even noticed.

About the Author

Katia Altern

Katia Altern is the Racial Justice Intern at the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office during summer 2017. She started at the UU-UNO in late June and will continue till December 2017. She is currently a sophomore studying Public Policy and Social Work at New York University. She is third...


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