How I Used Journalism To Address the Needs of the Rohingya Community.

I just finished the graduate degree at the CUNY School of Social Journalism, a program focused on developing media that addresses needs. But since not everyone has the same needs, you must identify a community first.

I chose Rohingya refugees as my community. They prefer to say Burma instead of Myanmar, as do most refugees.

After doing a bit of reporting in Burma, I decided to stick with the Southeast Asian country, which has a large diaspora in the U.S. There are dozens of ethnic groups (technically 135) native to Myanmar. When speaking with members of each of them, I realized that the Rohingya refugee crisis is an inescapable issue.

Background

The Rohingya are a Muslim minority from Burma, a country in Southeast Asia which is also known as Burma. The ethnic group has been denied citizenship since 1978.

The situation for the Rohingya has reached new lows in 2017. In August, the military led a brutal crackdown on Rohingya villages that pushed 607,000 to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. The military’s treatment of the Rohingya has escalated into “ethnic cleansing” according to the United Nations.

Roughly 4,500 Rohingya have been granted refugee status by the U.S. government. Another 300–500 have been accepted by Canada. And thousands of more throughout the European Union.

Rohingya refugee needs

Language barriers, literacy gaps and a scattered diaspora made this community a challenge. Generally, the needs of my community are fundamental and glaring. Employment, basic education (ESL), housing and social outlets are difficult to attain.

I focused on the needs of the Rohingya community that a journalist could help with…..

Need #1: My community has issues with identity. In general, immigrants in the U.S. can struggle with identity considering many Americans are unable to point out their own country on a map. As a result, the chances of an American knowing anything about Burma, let alone an ethnic minority in Burma, is low. This has left my community in a state of obscurity.

The challenge is generating interest from the average American, who by virtue of citizenship, has more influence over media, and to degree, public policy compared to an immigrant.

Need #2: My community struggles with bigotry. The Rohingya are denied citizenship in Myanmar, the government sees them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and will even refer to them as “Bengali.”

The government’s actions in Rakhine State are largely supported by other people of Burma. There are no opinion polls available. But as someone who has spoken with several ethnic groups in the diaspora and in Burma , I can say for certain that most Burmese people do not object to how the military treats the Rohingya.

“Everyone knows about the Rohingya, but what about the Shan, the Karen, the Rakhine? Only the Muslims are reported in the news.” — an ethnic Rakhine living in Oakland.

The above quote is a common, and relatively mild, example of the resentment the Rohingya face from other people of Burma.

If there’s not an explicit hatred of the Muslim minority, it’s a frustration of how much attention the Rohingya receive from the international community. While the persecution of the ethnic Karen, ethnic Kachin or even a Bamar activist, goes unheard.

What I did to address these needs

How I addressed Need #1: The Rohingya situation lacks comprehensive reporting that makes American audiences care — this could address the obscurity problem that Rohingya refugee’s face.

So, I used my platform to offer historical context on the Rohingya crisis geared for an American audience.

As a Reporter for WikiTribune, I authored two stories that can be edited by the community- ideally by Rohingya people themselves.

Rohingya crisis a replay of 40 years ago offers the experience of a Rohingya government official and a Rohingya man who fled to Bangladesh as a child.

The persecution of the Rohingya spans 40 years. Bangladesh has a horrid human rights record on this topic as well. These are facts that Rohingya refugees have experienced but are not represented in media coverage.

How I addressed Need #2: The Rohingya have no communication with other ethnic people of Burma- this could address the bigotry problem that Rohingya refugee’s face.

So I decided to create a platform where Rohingya refugees could speak with other ethnic minorities with the goal of building understanding, possibly even tolerance.

> Bridge Building through Dialogue Journalism

I started BURMA CONNECT, a journalistic project that attempts to build bridges within the diaspora of Burma. So the conversations are on something that every person of Burma can relate with — ethnic identity.

SpaceShip Media, and its introduction of dialogue journalism, is an inspiration behind this project.

These conversations, conducted on Zoom Conference call, are not debates. Instead, these are thoughtful discussions where people share what it’s like to be from Burma, and from a member of their respective ethnic group. The Rohingya refugee crisis surfaces on it’s own.

The primary goal of this project is to impart an understanding of the wide array of experiences and beliefs from Burma, few of which are covered by international media.

Then, these inter-dynamics and experiences will be reported out upon for the American public.

So far, participants are based in the US, Canada, Ireland and Malaysia. Though everyone with origins from Burma is welcome to participate.

These conversations (conference calls) have been illuminating. While the Rohingya crisis looms over the diaspora.

There is one rule to BURMA CONNECT conversations. 1) No racist language. Other than that, it’s a free-flow dialogue prompted by questions that I ask. I carefully select combinations of participants to ensure civil and healthy interactions. For example, one ethnic Rakhine woman who calls Rohingya people “Bengali,” an insinuation that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, was set up with a non-Rohingya person.

What I learned about my community

  • There is one demographic that is interested in ethnic solidarity amongst people of Burma: young people. They are more multicultural and globally-minded than their parents who grew up in the heat of Myanmar’s military dictatorship.
  • The diaspora of Burma is large and lacking a voice in discussions of Burma.
  • Bigotry towards the Rohingya is real, but most people from Burma have never met a Rohingya person before.

What I learned about ‘Dialogue Journalism’

  • Journalists as moderators is valuable role. But in my view, this role extends away from ‘debates.’ A debate can only function with experts or blowhards. And that leaves out the thoughtful citizen, someone who is willing to listen.
  • Media silos are an inescapable reality in the US as they are in Burma. But the idea that more neutral reporting is the answer, is the equivalent of saying more people in Burma need to read the AP wire or Reuters. They don’t. Nor do Americans, not in significant numbers that could sway a public opinion poll or a election anyways. If breaking echo chambers is the goal, I’m not sure journalistic stories are the answer.
  • What BURMA CONNECT showed me is that dialogue journalism is not the most efficient way to inform people, but it can act as a moderating influence. It’s about putting another voice into someone’s head. That voice might not be convincing, but it can develop an understanding. The job of journalists is to make these interactions constructive, and report out on the insights that surface.