Protect the Suffering Rohingya in Myanmar

A staff member stopped me on the way to the track a few days ago. I was eager to get some sprints in before rushing home for dinner, but my eagerness quickly evaporated as she spoke of a recent mission experience to Southeast Asia.

The employee had returned from helping a large community of displaced Rohingya (stateless Indo-Aryan people, largely of the Muslim faith). Tears welled up in her eyes as she described their helpless and hopeless faces, shadowed in anonymity and secrecy. Knowing about my involvement in education in Myanmar (Parami Institute), she wondered why our international campus was remaining so quiet about this horrific crisis.

Quite frankly, she was right: we cannot remain silent.

Ben Solomon’s recent account in the NYTimes of his visit to the Balukhali camp in southern Bangladesh reveals a gut-wrenching scene of desperation and squalor. With no toilets, little food and mere tarps for shelter, his “grim camps” seem a woefully unjust description of the extreme plight of half a million Rohingya fleeing across the border from the hate and violence of the military and ultra-nationalists in Myanmar (Burma).

Until now, international focus has been mostly bent upon the silence of the Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Myanmar. Past victim of the Tatmadaw (Burma’s military), Aung San Suu Kyi knows personally the costs of roiling in the displeasure of the nation’s generals. The military has ruled the country with an iron fist—more or less—for over fifty years, relaxing its grip slightly under Prime Minister and President Thein Sein to allow for political reforms and the release of the State Counsellor from house arrest.

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Years of pleading Aung San Suu Kyi’s cause has landed Western institutions and media in a precarious position. The United Nations, Norwegian Nobel Committee and US Congress all recognized and awarded the Lady’s courage in the past, practically deifying her to the rest of the world. Now, her reluctance (or seeming political incapacity) to protect hundreds of thousands of victims from fates far worse than her own has catapulted Western media into a reactionary campaign of shaming and pleading with her. But these statements have been little more than shallow penance, the expression of guilt for having apparently misread a humanitarian champion.

It is encouraging to see writers like Solomon pulling the focus away from the Counsellor to the conditions of the suffering. The murder, rape and forced exodus of a people absolutely needs to remain at the center of all our discussions and efforts. Let issues surrounding the Counsellor not eclipse this human tragedy. The pain and needs of thousands must drown out the insignificant pangs of media “buyer’s remorse.”

The government and people of Bangladesh are leading the way by offering place and aid to the Rohingya. Please join them as you are able by raising your voice and making contributions to feed and shelter those suffering in Myanmar and beyond.