Hidden Stories of the Rohingya

The future of the Rohingya people is uncertain. How can we know where their future might be headed? 

Text: Geoff Sloan
Illustration: Thea Monteverde Haakonsen

In a time of social media sharing and access to information at our fingertips, yet continuous world crises, how can we foresee the future for the Rohingya from Rakhine? In what the United Nations penned as “the world’s most persecuted people”, the Rohingya crisis has become the world’s fastest unfolding horror story of mass oppression and exile in our time. Rakhine, a state in Myanmar, has been home to this ethnic minority for centuries. Persecution increased throughout the 20th century, with the central government of  Myanmar promulgating laws neglecting to recognize the Rohingya as an ethnicity, therefore disenfranchising them and opening up the minority group to legal discrimination. As of late 2018, over half of Rakhine’s Rohingya population has fled or been killed due to government – mostly military – interventions including the burning of Rohingya villages. These atrocities will not end if villages continue to be scorched in secrecy. 

“How can you fathom 700,000 people fleeing from their homes without seeing a child’s face and hearing his or her story?” 

Sharing is a prerequisite for caring 

Journalism is the fourth estate in any healthy society. With the checks and balances system made up of people representing their own interests, journalists provide the final scrutiny of any society when crises hit. Take the mountain of reporting coming from Libya, Palestine, Venezuela, Yemen and elsewhere; there is a reporter with a vest and helmet present to ship the story back home. Both average citizens and the leaders and decision makers around the globe consume these stories of atrocities. Without those stories being shared, no action would be taken during these times of need. The system seems simple enough. You have a dilemma, send in the international correspondent, raise awareness and get the people in charge to make a change. The process does not always work on such humanitarian grounds, but how could it ever if those crucial stories are never shared? 

The silencing blows 

In lands experiencing hostility, sharing a person’s story is so vital. The facts, figures, maps, gross sums and gross atrocities can be shown in any news coverage. But how can you fathom 700,000 people fleeing from their homes without seeing a child’s face and hearing his or her story? How can you acquire these data and stories in a place like Myanmar? As the Rohingya people of the Rakhine experience genocide, it is not their agency we should focus on, but rather the way their stories have been silenced. Silencing a people is the first blow to their agency and a continued, overt act in ending their abilities to fight back.  

“Journalism has its role in society. It is to share the stories in need of being heard.” 

With the government of Myanmar in such control over the region, very little coverage has been conducted during the genocide of the Rohingya. Few, if any, journalists have gained visas to enter the affected Rakhine state and other impacted areas. If government clearance has been permitted, little has been done to allow journalistic freedoms and reporting practices. While a bleak picture may be shown of the Rohingya with the information we currently possess, can we paint the full picture without better access to reporting from Myanmar? What is more frightening than their future is the absence of access to information in which we can begin to anticipate their future and how best to improve it. 

The journalist’s mission disrupted 

This gap in information creates opportunities for the oppressor. Who is there to defend a family when their home is burnt before their eyes by military men? What is being done to tell the world about that family’s displacement? How can we know how many times this same expulsion has occurred? Journalism has its role in society. It is to share the stories in need of being heard. There are groups doing good work, such as Reporters Sans Frontièrs and Internews, working to amend these reporting gaps in the world with quality journalism – but a handful of NGOs will never be able to take on the might of a nation’s government.  

As a young journalist, what frightens me the most is the lack of containment. Myanmar is not, and will never be, the only place where state structures disallow the practice of journalism. Reporters shot with tear gas in Gaza, Mahmoud Hussein of Al Jazeera’s infamous imprisonment in Egypt, or even the attacks on journalists in the West are not singular events. Attacks on the fourth estate continue again and again; few things are as fragile in our society as independent and free journalism. I believe and hope that journalism has always, and always will be, a resilient profession. The journalist knows that these hotbeds for attack – Russia, China, and Turkey being usual suspects as well – are not reasons for ever putting an end to the honor of sharing the stories that need to be told. 

The predicament of the Rohingya 

What is the future of the Rohingya? Journalism will persist, but will it have the ability to put the Rohingya’s persecution on display for the world to see? Journalists have only scratched the surface and we will not know nor have the ability to affect the Rohingya’s fate without boots on the ground sending these stories outside South-East Asia. The status of these people is unnerving and our inability to learn more will continue to keep a worsening situation uncertain. 

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