Imagine a packed monsoon-drenched refugee tent camp in eastern Bangladesh, where more than 700,000 souls were forced to flee a year and a half ago from military oppression in their impoverished villages in neighboring Burma. Focusing a spotlight on their plight is a key challenge for public diplomacy in 2019.
Aerial views of the Kutupalong camp show packed clusters of tents and other makeshift shelters stretching beyond the horizon as the rains began to fall. Witness this and the plight of even more Rohingya refugees at the distant edges of the camp and in nearby Cox’s Bazaar. Nearly a million Rohingyas now have fled their homes, many driven out by Burmese military units. As many of us exchange New Year greetings, what hopes lie ahead in this scenario of misery for these victims after several decades of murder, pillaging and forced exile?
U.S.-funded international broadcasting offers a spotlight on crises in even remote areas of the world. As 2018 closed, the Voice of America records more than 780 multimedia reports on refugees in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and the Western hemisphere. Many on-scene reports are available in 46 languages via new media channels in video, audio and text: Facebook Live, Twitter, television relays on others’ national networks and radio affiliates the world over.
Misery, in Full Color
Among the most compelling: a 45-minute VOA TV documentary entitled Displaced, an in-depth, a closeup look at that Kutupalong camp in eastern Bangladesh. The just-released documentary unveiled the week before Christmas was produced by VOA anchor Greta Van Susteren and a team of video photographers last September as monsoon rains descended on the miserable victims forced to flee Burma. It’s available at “Displaced: VOA Documentary: Isolated, Targeted.”
The 42-minute in-depth report featured interviews with Rohingya victims of what appears to be an endless tragedy, and of the relief workers who are struggling to feed a million encamped victims each and every day.
In the words of victims struggling to survive in Kutapalong:
- The Burmese soldiers “came to our village, destroyed our homes, set them on fire … a lot of people fled. I saw one victim shot while fleeing.”
- “In Myanmar (Burma), I fled, looked back and saw my whole house on fire. I was able to bring a five year old with me, but several others were lost and couldn’t escape the flames.”
- A Rohingya teenager: “They grabbed my neck… Rohingya girls have no value, and are disgraced for a lifetime (even by their own people), once they’ve been raped by Myanmar soldiers.”
And, as seen by a sampling of on scene relief workers seeking to help:
- ”These victims can’t have jobs, there’s no place they can go to seek justice, as temporary houses collapse on temporary monsoon-soaked hills set aside for their settlements.”
- ”It costs at least $20 million a month to feed victims (in Kutapalong), and then there are thousands more displaced Rohingyas in other Bangladesh camps like Cox’s Bazaar.”
- ”Samaritan’s Purse, Doctors Without Borders, the Peace Corps and other humanitarian organizations coordinate with each other to try to save lives … it recently took hours and hours to save one two and a half year old boy threatened with starvation.”
Back in Washington and other Western capital cities, the needs are being stressed in many non-governmental forums. During a recent panel at the Center for Strategic International Studies, U.S. Institute of Peace President Nancy Lindborg noted that at the peak exodus of Rohingyas from Burma to Bangladesh, more than 700,000 escapees arrived in the space of two weeks in August and September of 2017. (More than 200,000 others have escaped persecution in Myanmar since the 1990s and still harbor unlikely dreams of a return to their homeland).
As Nancy Lindborg put it: “Our relief fundraising goal this past year was $900 million, and 70 percent of that has been met. We need to look to more sustainable activities, focusing on youth, vocational training, job creation for the refugees and continue to engage the Bangladesh government, which has been on the whole very helpful so far.”
Eric Schwartz, the president of Refugees International, told the CSIS roundtable: “The international community deserves to put enormous pressure on the government of Myanmar (Burma). So far, there hasn’t been a single statement that I’m aware of about the crisis from the president of the United States.”
Deploying an Armada of Facts
In a Christmas Day editorial, the Washington Post said that “ethnic cleansing, phase two, confronts the Rohingya Muslims because the Myanmar government is determined to make their exile permanent.”
The editorial minced no words. “On December 18, Reuters published a special report including satellite photos, interviews and a Burmese government map showing how Myanmar authorities, despite promises that the Rohingya could return, are in fact making that increasingly unlikely.
“Many of (the Rohingya) villages were burned at the time of the assault (by government forces), then bulldozed. New homes are being built and occupied mainly by Buddhists, some from other parts of Rakhine state; the Buddhist majority in Myanmar has long persecuted the Rohingya minority…
“Reuters was shown a resettlement map drafted by the government that reveals many returning Rohingya-only settlements, isolating them from the rest of the population. It all adds up,” the Post editorial added, “to a new round of ethnic cleansing, creating permanent facts on the ground to erase the Rohingya presence, also conveniently paving over evidence of the original atrocity…
“The Reuters report,” the editorial concludes, “includes striking satellite photos showing what happened in the village of Inn Din, the scene of a massacre (by Myanmar forces) of 10 Muslim men during the 2017 offensive. The government’s resettlement map that no site for Rohingyas is planned in the village,” according to Reuters.
In November, plans to repatriate about 2,200 Rohingyas to Burma (roughly four tenths of one percent of those who were forced to flee to Bangladesh) were abandoned when the refugees refused to accept National Verification Cards or NVCs, residency documents short of citizenship. The NVCs, they said, depicts them as new arrivals undeserving of citizenship in lands where they were born and many have lived for generations.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the nominal leader of Myanmar and one time Nobel Laureate who won a landslide election in 2015 after defying its military, is a shadow of her former self. “Many around the world,” write Reuters correspondents Andrew RC Marshall and Poppy McPherson, “hoped she would bring greater freedom and stability to her country. Today, friends say she remains principled and devoted, but also flawed and alone.”
But surely, not as isolated and distressed as nearly a million of her country’s men, women and children languishing in poverty-ridden refugee camps just across the Naf River in Bangladesh. VOA is on the verge of establishing a Rohingya language service designed to meet the needs of an information-starved refugee population and Rohingya still in Burma by providing up-to-the-minute news and English language lessons, a passport to future job prospects for many. Emergency assistance and shining a spotlight on their plight remains among priority goals of global public diplomacy in the year ahead.
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More