Children at an unregistered Rohingya refugee camp in southeast Bangladesh. Photo by no_direction_home
Last Sunday, the internet was temporarily shaken up by a campaign designed to highlight the plight of the Rohingya people of Burma. On Twitter, the hashtag #RohingyaNOW was a worldwide trend for more than two hours, peaking at the top spot. Two in-person demonstrations were held (and live-streamed), one for several hours in front of the CNN building in LA. Plus, an article about the campaign made the front page of Reddit.
Most dismissed it all as a cute trick, a one-day initiative amplified by Anonymous, Occupy collectives, and human rights activists around the world wanting to raise awareness. Instead, it was a milestone in a campaign that has been running for many months, an idea we have had for years and an introduction to our next phase.
Since the second Rohingya massacre in October, the Burmese people have watched the world ignore or misrepresent what many experts are calling a genocide. President Thien Sein has been on a world tour, where he has been met with open arms, receiving a 21-gun salute in Australia and getting $5.9 billion of international debt canceled. Canada has opened its first-ever Burmese embassy, and multinational resource corporations are queuing for contracts. No one is in the mood to bring up genocide, even when a third massacre was openly planned for this month.
The difference social media can make in public awareness was highlighted last fall, as the violence in Gaza was covered in great detail, but violence in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burma almost not at all. The activists behind the latest campaign believe in grassroots journalism where everyone can speak their own story. If a population of 800,000 people are in refugee camps and villages that look like concentration camps and are completely cut off from communication, what then? They die silently? Not if the internet can help it.
On March 10, we started a crowd-sourced campaign to help boost grassroots journalism in Burma. We have used crowd-sourced funding to purchase airfare for two established independent journalists familiar with the Rohingya story. They flew there, and we are now working to get as many long-distance interviews with locals set up as possible. In the last week, the campaign for Rohingya has expanded against violence in the rest of Burma as well.
I spoke with journalist Assed Baig about why we felt it was necessary for him to go to Burma in person and what he has seen.
“As a 'westerner,' I have certain privilege and protection,” says Baig. “I am working with local journos. Using their expertise and crediting them without landing them in jail. We need to report in context, socially, historically, and take in the balance of power. We shouldn't wait for death to take place before we report, we should shine a light on shit that is going to go down. Call power to account. Be the voice of the voiceless. Sounds cheesy, but it is true.”
Baig says he is “of Kashmiri origin, working-class background, had to work damn hard to get where I am today. My mum still doesn't speak English!” And he has experienced media bias. It is important to give people their own voices. “They report themselves, and we listen. They are not 'poor brown people,' these are real people, with names, lives, feelings, and they have a right to be heard.”
Baig is referring to Meiktila refugees who fled to Mandalay to escape the violence. He was given pictures of the massacre in Meiktila by people who were there, from their own cameras. “There are pictures of charred remains. People driving and walking past. Their family members have fled so there is no one to bury them or even identify them.” Baig also spoke to a fourteen-year-old who saw people beaten to death and then burnt, as he and others hid in some houses and watched the slaughter.
A 17-year-old student told him about running for his life in Meiktila. He told him, “We saw the younger children falling over, the older kids had to help them. “I’m not sure where some of my other friends are.” Baig showed him the pictures he had from a local journalist. Some were teenagers. Two had massive gashes on the back of the neck, as if hit by a machete. They all had been lying out for three days before someone took the picture. The boy touched the screen and struggled to speak. “That’s my friend,” he said, “and this one, those are Osama and Karimullah.” The rest of the bodies were burned beyond recognition.
These are the stories we set out to tell, but Baig has found others. A convoy led by monks has set out from Yangon and is en route to Meiktila. On board are students and others, Muslims and Buddhists together, bringing food, water and good will to the displaced people still camped in the Meiktila stadium and elsewhere. Buddhists and student groups from Mandalay city launched a rescue operation saving hundreds of lives in Meiktila when the violence started. People who have lived peacefully side-by-side for years are helping each other and standing up against extremism and intolerance.
Rights organizations and witnesses have accused the military of complicity or participation in the last two massacres. Many sources in Burma have worried the violence is being incited to justify a return to military rule, a specter that reared its head this week with martial law surrounding Meiktila. Baig quotes a Muslim in Yangon who said, “The military want to assert their power, and want to prove they are the ones that can restore order. They are using us as to prove their point.”
Heather Marsh is an activist working within the #RohingyaNOW movement.
Follow Heather on Twitter: @GeorgieBC
Follow Assed Baig on Twitter: @AssedBaig
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