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Letting the dispossessed have a voice

Media has an important role to play in conveying stories of atrocities and human rights violations to a wider global audience

Gulf News

The media is an odd entity. While it reports and comments on a daily basis on just about everything happening, it is also at times guilty of paying lip service to a persistent situation or even worse, relegating related news to inconspicuousness.

Take the case of the situation in Gaza. The Palestinians there have been living in the largest concentration camp in the world. They are literally hounded and surrounded by the Israeli occupiers, their homes and fields razed to the ground, their people beaten and imprisoned without cause, their lives snuffed out on a daily basis and yet the headlines in some media outlets give more attention to Kim Kardashian being accosted by a burglar in Paris. Despite the Israeli attempts to block out news on the ground reality in Occupied Territories, enough details on Israeli atrocities filter through to warrant daily headlines or news leads in the print media and on television.

But alas, that is not so.

Another set of dispossessed people are the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. They are victims of a state-sponsored genocide. About 1.1 million Rohingya people identify themselves as an ethnic minority that has long suffered persecution in the Buddhist-majority nation. The group’s origins in Myanmar can be traced back to the 15th century, according to the Council of Foreign Relations, but the Rohingya have yet to be granted citizenship and remain unable to vote.

As the rest of the world watches and disapproves ineffectively, this group of people is under threat of extermination by the state who want to rid their soil of this marginalised community. While we watch and sputter a few words of meaningless protests, daily the Rohingya fall and die and they will undoubtedly all perish and become a blot in our history.

In recent weeks, as in Gaza, the situation has worsened for the hapless Rohingya as the situation is deteriorating sharply in the Rakhine state where they mostly reside. Reports have filtered out of “serious human rights violations against innocent Rohingya civilians — including torture, rape and summary executions”. Indiscriminate destruction of homes, shops and places of worship has forced tens of thousands to flee their villages and the subsequent blockade in the region by the military has also left many in the area facing acute shortages of food, water and essential commodities.

Researchers from the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) at the Queen Mary University of London had concluded that the Myanmar state’s policies are ‘genocidal’. Their fact-finding field work, in spite of government restrictions to access the victims, exposed “evidence of mass killings, forced labour, torture, sexual violence, arbitrary detention, institutional discrimination and destruction of communities”. Calling the plight of the Rohingya as genocide in the making, the field workers related a consistent picture of a “trapped, terrified and desperate community”. As in current-day Gaza, the researchers said that entire communities were “experiencing the genocidal stage of systematic weakening: State-sponsored denial of access to health care, livelihood, food and civic life”. They warned that the “government’s objective was to render the population so physically and psychologically diminished that they would be unable to engage in a purposeful life”.

The ISCI also cautioned that reports were consistent with long-term state repression and violence in the region, resonant of the cruel and ruthless crackdowns of 1977 and 1991, which left hundreds of thousands of Rohingya homeless and defenceless against the marauding Buddhist majority. Many at the time fled to Bangladesh to avoid being reduced to cold statistics.

Alicia de la Cour Venning, a lawyer and an ISCI researcher, emphatically stated that “these events mark a disturbing but entirely predictable pattern in the genocidal process. Genocide begins by reducing the target group’s strength and undermining moral empathy for the victims. This stage is followed by more violent forms of persecution and eventually, particularly if perpetrators of violence are not held to account, mass killings”.

And what of Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner who was awarded the prestigious prize for her ‘non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights’ — and who is currently the country’s foreign minister and a state counsellor? She has done nothing of significance to help save the Rohingya from this cycle of genocide, preferring instead to brush off queries from foreign politicians and journalists on this subject.

The Malaysians accuse her of turning a “blind eye and a deaf ear towards the violence”. Her lack of compassion and consideration for a minority within the country is revealed in her classifying the Rohingya as “Bengalis” — implying that she is indeed in agreement with the previous regime’s brutal policies towards the community. It’s an irony that it was the same regime against whom she had struggled to establish democracy in Myanmar.

With Nobel Prize winners and politicians failing them, there is no one to propagate their suffering on a daily basis except the conscience and collective will of the media. Dispossessed people everywhere around the globe deserve their sufferings to be told on a daily basis. Perhaps with enough media attention, the powers that be will sit up and take rightful action.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. You can follow him on Twitter at

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