By Mina Shah
Despite the fact that Myanmar has high officials who have been internationally lauded for their efforts toward peace in the past (such as Aung San Suu Kyi, who received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991), human rights violations continue in the Rakhine region of the country. Over the past several weeks, government-sanctioned violence against Rohingya Muslims, a minority group in Myanmar, has risen to levels where many people are worried about the situation soon amounting to ethnic cleansing or even genocide.
The Rohingya are now trying to flee the country to save themselves from persecution, but Bangladesh (the place to where many Rohingya are trying to flee) is now beginning to turn them away, giving Rohingya Muslims fewer choices in places to which they can potentially escape, and making the safety of those fleeing for their lives even more precarious than it already was.
So, as the Stanford community, what is our moral imperative in this situation? Should we leverage our position to influence international policy makers? Do we have a moral imperative to do anything? Based on the shared nature of our humanity, there certainly is at least an imperative to care about what is happening to other people. But beyond caring and feeling sad for what is happening in Myanmar right now, what is there to do?
Of course, the first thing to do is to continue to stay up to date with regard to news related to the Rohingya and to make sure that we understand the context around the situation, both with regard to the specific geographic location and with other instances of ethnic cleansing. However, keeping ourselves informed as solitary individuals does not do anything to enact change. We must do things other than just being a passive consumer of information.
In addition to acting in concrete ways, it is important to not let the overwhelming nature of all the negative things going on in the world push us into a proverbial corner in terms of our engagement with unpleasant news. It does no one any good to simply shut out the world around us. This may mean, however, that in order to cope with the magnitude of negative things happening, we disengage from unhelpful sites and sources that don’t actually give news but are more in the mode of producing emotional news commentary. Those sources don’t do any productive work, nor do they allow us out of the echo-chamber-like spaces of bias in media that each of us experiences when internet algorithms tend to send us to certain kinds of websites over others.
Once we have educated ourselves without becoming overwhelmed by the bad in the world, we must decide what the best way might be to intervene. Actual physical intervention is a complicated to think about. On one hand, non-intervention can create a situation in which the violence goes way too far, like the human rights violations in Rwanda and Burundi and Nigeria where things went from bad to worse, partially because other nations were too slow to react in order to stop the problems.
Aside from intervening by putting troops on the ground, there are other ways for parties to demonstrate support and intervene without potentially escalating the violence of the situation. Accepting Rohingya Muslims as refugees or migrants – who clearly ought to be awarded refugee status – is one way to disrupt patterns of violence. It is also possible to put sanctions on the government of Myanmar until the government stops making ridiculous claims that the international community, by giving the situation any attention, is making it worse and starts changing the situation so that Rohingya Muslims stop being persecuted and feel safe at home.
Outside of government structures, there are economic decisions that we can make as part of a global economy that could put pressure on Myanmar. If we leverage our collective purchasing power and are outspoken about our purchasing decisions, this could make a difference. Myanmar’s two largest export industries are natural gas and minerals, so if enough of us decided to be conscious about where the things that we purchase (and are purchased in and around our communities), we could say that we do not want to use products coming from a country participating in facilitating genocide and simply stop purchasing those things from Myanmar.
Another important action we must all take is related to the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar but hits closer to home. Instead of allowing our nation’s future to look like Myanmar’s present, we must not allow our current political climate to transition our country into a space where any more violence is done to people based on their identities or beliefs. We must band together and, since we will have more proximity if and when this same kind of ethnic cleansing starts happening in the U.S., put our bodies on the line, between the aggressors and those aggressed upon. If we do nothing to prevent atrocities, we are no better than the people doing the physical violence.
Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.