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What’s Unsaid | Who can the Rohingya rely on?

‘Generations have convinced themselves that Rohingyas are foreigners’

The current military rulers of Myanmar came to power in a February 2021 coup. Since then, they have been accused of massive rights abuses towards civilians, especially the Rohingya.

“Over the last 40-plus years, the military-controlled state of Myanmar has singled out the Rohingya as a population unwanted,” guest Maung Zarni, an academic and human rights activist, told host Ali Latifi on the latest What’s Unsaid podcast.

To get a sense of what life is like for Rohingya in Myanmar, Latifi also heard from Pacifist Farooq, a Rohingya poet-activist. “Poetically, we can call it an open-air prison,” Farooq said. “The government doesn’t even think of us as human beings. They call us illegal immigrants.”

Farooq lived for 17 years in Rakhine State, where many Rohingya, a Muslim minority group, are from in western Myanmar. During that time, he needed permission from the military to travel between villages. “It’s an apartheid,” he said.

The ruling junta, however, isn’t the only group accused of perpetrating abuses against the Rohingya. When armed ethnic militias began uniting to challenge the junta last November, they were billed as sources of hope: brave heroes taking on the violent and abusive military. But the most prominent of those groups, the Arakan Army, is now accused of carrying out similar violence and discrimination against the Rohingya as the junta.

Even Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights defender Aung Sang Suu Kyi proved no friend of the Rohingya. In fact, the leader of Myanmar's semi-democratic government, who was ousted by the military in February 2021, defended the military during her time in office against allegations that it had committed genocide against the Rohingya.

“When you have a military-controlled state for 60 years that is hell-bent on promoting xenophobia and Islamophobia, we are stuck with generations that have convinced themselves that Rohingyas are foreigners [and] illegal migrants,” Zarni said.

Describing this as “a genocidal perspective”, he explained: “We are caught in this vicious cycle of racism, fear, hatred, and violence”.

Zarni is currently exiled from a home plagued by decades of civil war, allegations of genocide and ethnic cleansing, and limits on basic democratic rights. The coordinator of the Free Rohingya Coalition explained why the West’s tendency to look for Hollywood-style heroes in a conflict is so damaging. “What needs to happen is international actors taking a step back to say, ‘Look, this is no longer good versus evil,’” he said. 

In this episode, Zarni calls out Burmese communities, the military, ethnic minorities, Aung San Suu Kyi, and the political class in Myanmar. “We have proven incapable of maintaining peace and stability in our own country for the last 75 years,” he said. “There's nothing wrong with saying to the international community, ‘We need help.’”

What’s Unsaid is the new bi-weekly podcast exploring the open secrets and uncomfortable conversations that surround the world’s conflicts and disasters, hosted by The New Humanitarian’s Ali Latifi and Obi Anyadike.

Guest: Maung Zarni, academic, human rights activist, and coordinator for the Free Rohingya Coalition. 

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Have a question or feedback? Maybe you have ideas for What’s Unsaid topics – from your own conversations or ones you’ve overheard? Email or have your say on Twitter using the hashtag #WhatsUnsaid


The New Humanitarian, 2024



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