By Keely Coxwell
“The Rohingya are a really small Muslim ethnic minority from Myanmar’s Rakhine state,” Jae Bates ‘18 said. Bates organized an interfaith vigil for the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. The vigil was held Sept. 26 in the Piano Lounge.
The conflict between the Rohingya and the majority-Buddhist Myanmar government has endured for decades but things escalated this past August.
“After the military took over the Burmese government (now Myanmar) in 1962 [the Rohingya] were deliberately excluded from the census,” Chanel Chawalit ‘18 said. “In 1978, the military implemented Operation Nagamin which was reportedly meant for rooting out extremist Islamic rebels, but was a front for rounding up and taking away documentation of Rohingya. This led to widespread violence and some 200,000 Rohingya leaving Burma.”
“The Myanmar government believes that the Rohingya people are just Bangladeshi illegal immigrants that live inside Myanmar,” Bates said. “They believe that to protect Buddhist religion you need to expel these people from the state.
“A lot of people have described what is happening as genocide because the government is being pretty systematically violent and there is a lot of killing happening” Bates said. “People have described it as an apartheid situation.”
The United Nations has rated the Rohingya as one of the most marginalized groups in the world, “in terms of rights to statehood, rights to citizenship, anything in terms of their human rights, they have very few,” Bates said.
According to National Geographic, in August a small group of Rohingya militants attacked the police.
“The state interpreted that as terrorism so … they sent in paramilitary troops, like military police, to subdue the people, killing them, and they set fire to a lot of villages. Which the state is denying, but there is very clear video evidence, and pictures of this happening,” Bates said. “This has forced hundreds and thousands of [Rohingya] to flee to Bangladesh.”
It has been significantly difficult to document what is happening in Myanmar and to the Rohingya people because the Myanmar government denies most of what has happened, saying that it has been defending the state against terrorism, according to a report by Al Jazeera.
According to Chawalit, no South East Asian country wants to accept Rohingya refugees because they are Muslim and viewed as a social, political and economic threat.
“Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia have all been involved in “ping-ponging” these refugees. Bangladesh does not want any more; more than once they have used soldiers to discourage more refugees from entering Bangladesh,” Chawalit said. “Furthermore, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has a policy of non-interference.”
Five people spoke at the vigil and 20 people were in attendance. Chawalit gave information on the background of the ethnic genocide of the Rohingya people and Bates addressed Buddhist religious violence and its connection to the Rohingya. Haneen Rasool ‘18 and Muslim Student Alliance (MSA) president Ella Frazer ‘18 each read a passage.
“I’m organizing the vigil because as a Buddhist student on campus it was just really on my mind constantly and I’m really good friends with some Muslim students here and it was also on their mind,” Bates said. “It was a conscious decision to only have Muslim and Buddhist people speak at the vigil.”
Bates saw that nothing was being done “so we just felt like it was our responsibility to do something,” Bates said.
Bates acknowledged that it is difficult to do something in this situation. The United States is very removed from this conflict and it is difficult to find organizations to donate to where to money will go to the right place.
“I think ‘doing something about it’ is just being aware … Reading more about it, researching, because it’s not just something that has been happening now,” Bates said.
“I went to the vigil out of curiosity,” Zara Bagasol ‘20 said. “I’m also a part of Asian Pacific Club and the Christian fellowship, where I heard of the vigil.”
“Southeast Asia is thought of as a place that is just really happy and peaceful, a place to travel in and backpack through. But when it comes down to people’s real lives and, like, ethnic conflicts people don’t really pay attention,” Bates said. “Also the Rohingya are a very, very small ethnic group in the world.”
“I unfortunately had not heard of the conflict before this,” Bagasol said.
“The most tangible thing I got from the vigil was that there are things going on in the world that we are blindsided by and are hidden behind our day to day struggles,” Bagasol said. “There are a lot of other people in the world struggling to even survive.”
“Being in a space where people who were Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, nonsecular all in the same space sharing information and giving respect for the same cause was enlightening because that doesn’t happen often,” Bagasol said.
According to Al Jazeera, on Sept. 28 a boat capsized leaving 19 dead and 50 more Rohingya refugees missing. This prompted Nikki Haley, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, to call for punishment of Myanmar’s military leaders.
You can donate to Islamic Relief USA to support the Rohingya at irusa.org.